Cricket in Pakistan: Nation, Identity and Politics
By Ali Khan
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0190708849
284pp.

Cricket in Pakistan: Nation, Identity and Politics by Ali Khan promises to be a modern classic in cricket literature. Unlike most books on the game, it covers ground far beyond the talent and strategy of batsmen, bowlers and fielders in a match and deals with the sport as a part of the country’s larger social, political and cultural framework.

Drawing upon illuminating reflections from cultural anthropology, the author sees “cricket in society and society in cricket.” In his view, the West Indians are colourful and flamboyant — traits that reflect their social behaviour; Australians are frank and truculent; the British are cautious and disciplined; Indians have moved from being defensive and shy to becoming self-assured and even aggressive, whereas Pakistanis are brash and mercurial, which reflects their polychronic culture and volatility.

The book draws an enlightening sketch of the deep relationship between sportspersons and their social and cultural backgrounds.

The author refers to French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s functionalist approach to sport as identity construction through the participation of players and watchers of a game. In this context, millions of people — as also highlighted by Brett Hutchins, Australian professor of media and a research scholar in sports — share a partisan interest in a world of competitive behaviour on the playground. Indeed, Khan notes that even national rulers in Pakistan, as elsewhere, have depended on cricket as a source of identity construction.

A gripping cultural anthropology of the development of cricket in the country places the game in the larger context of politics and society

In tracing how the media has brought cricket to the larger masses, the author is of the view that cricket is a collective cultural expression of society. In fact, he claims that the sport is politics itself.

Khan’s book covers several major thematic dimensions: colonial legacy, class dynamics, religious influence and patterns of leadership and organisation, and reveals gripping accounts of racial prejudice, colonial hangover and cultural differences that underlay international cricket beyond national boundaries.

In his kaleidoscopic perspective on the multi-dimensional phenomenon of cricket, the author discusses the implicit British racism in and around the playground and even in media coverage. He notes that, with its rising popularity, cricket had become a ground for testing nerves between the outgoing colonial framework of mind and authority on the one hand, and the emergent context of nationalist feelings and pride on the other.

The colonial legacy of cricket started to lose ground in the wake of measures such as replacing the word “Imperial” with “International” for the Imperial Cricket Conference (ICC) in 1965; the president of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) — owners of the famed Lord’s Ground — no longer automatically becoming chairman of the ICC after 1999; and a gradual relaxation of entrenched paternalism towards the postcolonial countries such as Pakistan.

In the 1980s, English players visiting Pakistan were warned about disease, poverty, extreme heat, unruly crowds and unsanitary conditions in the host country. Pakistani umpires were dubbed corrupt and dishonest. Elitism defined behaviours across race. Post-9/11, Pakistan sank deeper in the global morass of stereotypes as a violent country.

In Khan’s reckoning, the changing class dynamics also explain the players’ untutored handling of the bat and the ball.

Pakistan lift the 2017 Champions Trophy after a nail-biting final match against India at the Oval 
in London | Dawn file photo
Pakistan lift the 2017 Champions Trophy after a nail-biting final match against India at the Oval in London | Dawn file photo

The book covers the social history of cricket in Pakistan, from the beginning of the game in pre-Partition days through to the early post-Independence period, to the 21st century. What transpired over this period was the phenomenon of change from the aristocratic model of cricket in British India, to its new middle-class cosmopolitanism, to its vernacularising tendency by way of recruitment of players from small towns and the lower-middle class.

In Pakistan, from Gen Ziaul Haq’s era onwards, relatively educated players made way for their lesser schooled colleagues. Out in the field, Pakistan’s cricket team typically suffered from a lack of effective leadership, with a few exceptions such as Abdul Hafeez Kardar and Imran Khan.

The author opines that the mercurial character of the Pakistan team is rooted in the lack of intensive training and discipline. That makes a player’s performance on the ground unpredictable. He further traces the new pattern of recruiting players out of the wilderness, so to speak, and shows how this points to a lack of sensitivity about education, fitness and the mental health of players and the need to coach them to transform their intuitive approach to sports into rule-based behaviour.

The new players most typically came from dusty, uncharted playgrounds, bringing with them their “untamed talent” that depended on instinct rather than “forethought and planning.” This translated into a lack of capability in communicating with opposing teams, which isolated the Pakistan team from the international cricket community. Changing demographics led to inconsistency in performance on the ground.

Khan draws a scintillating picture of the way religiosity seeped into the team through the Tableeghi Jamaat (TJ) around the turn of the 21st century. According to the new idiom, the winning Pakistan team enjoyed the blessings of God, while any losses were incurred because of the presence of ‘bad Muslims’ in the squad.

The idea was that the use of religion would provide unity in the ranks of the team. Conversely, defeat in the game bred fatalism. The generation of players which grew up under Gen Zia’s influence was divinely motivated on the playground. However, Gen Pervez Musharraf felt that the overt religious influence adversely affected the team’s performance and censured it.

Khan’s analysis of leadership and organisation covers both macro-level management of cricket and micro-level decision-making by the captain on the field. He provides a radical critique of patronage, corruption and centralisation of authority in the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB).

This brilliantly exposes the way the supreme authority of the star game of Pakistan operated through personal and group dynamics at the cost of professionalism, often resulting in quick changes in team leadership. The author discusses the PCB being crammed with “800 [people] though only 100 were doing the work”, the under-19 team having over-age players, and 2,200 out of 2,800 cricket clubs being “ghost clubs.”

The author’s examination of match-fixing among Pakistani cricketers superbly posits the shady deals and a protracted process of accountability as a mirror of corruption in the society. He brings in rich perspectives based on the indigenisation of an alien sport, its commercialisation through Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer’s revolution in the 1970s — along with one-day matches and media entertainment — the changing demographics of the team and the intimidating world of the underworld dons.

The author analyses the impact of the changing local and global environment in the early 1990s on sports, especially cricket, in Pakistan. These changes include post-Zia democratisation under Benazir Bhutto, USSR’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the European Union’s formation and India’s economic liberalisation. The Barmy Army — as supporters of the British cricket team are known — now travelled to Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Australia.

In this context, the author traces the decline of good-neighbourly relations between Pakistan and India, reflected through the loss of camaraderie between their cricket teams. He gives an insightful analysis of the isolation of Pakistan in South Asia that led to a decade without international cricket after the 2009 militant attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore. At the other end, he mentions “cricket as diplomacy”, whereby then President Zia participated in a Pakistan-India match in Delhi to defuse tensions between the two countries.

Between its covers, Cricket in Pakistan presents a rich history of matches, venues, captains and teams. It demonstrates a research methodology of the highest order, based on fieldwork including interviews of players, managers and commentators, archival material at home and abroad, and access to information within the black box of the PCB.

The reviewer is professor of political science at Lums.

He tweets @Waseem13134666

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 31st, 2022

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