Last week, when the Pakistan cricket team suffered two ‘humiliating’ defeats in this year’s T20 Cricket World Cup, a large number of angry fans suggested that the state of the country’s cricket is a reflection of Pakistan’s current political and economic turmoil. This is not a new take as such. This notion has been doing the rounds ever since the current Pakistan team began to disintegrate from early 2023.

But as far as cricket is concerned, the most prominent examples in this respect have been about teams that actually raised their game in the face of turmoil in their countries. In 1985, one of the most successful cricket captains of the West Indies, Clive Lloyd, told his biographer that the reason the West Indies began to dominate the cricket world from 1976 onwards was the political turmoil that various Caribbean countries had plunged into in the 1970s. 

The turmoil triggered a powerful awareness in Caribbean people about their nationhood and race. This pushed the once cavalier side into becoming a more purposeful team. According to the former West Indian cricket commentator Tony Cozier, it was this that transformed West Indies cricket squads from being casual cricketers who played just to entertain white teams, to becoming world beaters.

The West Indies ruled the cricket world from 1976 till the early 1990s. Ironically, though, West Indies cricket began to slide when Caribbean countries actually started to enjoy political and economic stability. 

Another example is Sri Lanka. The island nation had been in the grip of a vicious civil war across the 1980s and 1990s. The war provided motivation to the players to do something special, as a way to ease the effects of the war on the Sri Lankan people. In 1996, the Sri Lankan team took the pundits by surprise by winning that year’s World Cup event. From being cricket’s whipping boys, Sri Lanka became world champions. 

The prevalent notion that the state of Pakistan cricket mirrors the nation’s political tumult is a naive assessment of the cricketing team’s lacklustre performances, and fails to acknowledge the fact that our cricketers simply do not know what they are playing for

So, saying that the Pakistan cricket team’s lacklustre performance is due to the problematic state of affairs in the country is a case of knee-jerk naïveté. There will be the usual technical analysis by experts to determine what has gone wrong with Pakistan cricket. But there are certain areas where most analysts will not go to, even though these areas, I believe, need to be explored to fully understand (and resolve) the problem in a more holistic manner. 

Fans, players and commenters keep repeating that ‘cricket is a religion in India and Pakistan.’ Sociologists would agree by understanding it as a ‘civic religion’: a sport that has been ‘sacralised’, and/or a secular entity that has been given a sacred dimension.

It’s the same with American football in the US, club football in England, and football in general in various South American countries.

According to the American sociologist Michael Stein, for some fans, “sport takes on the quality of a secular religion, which serves to offer an agency for catharsis, a transcendent experience giving followers an escape from the mundane, and a sense of belonging.”

When secularism began to make inroads in the West, or when religion began to be relegated to private spheres, the need to worship, and perform religious rituals did not go away. So, secular societies began to shape what began to be known as ‘civic religion’, in which secular notions such as nationalism, patriotism and certain modern state institutions were sacralised. Sports too provided various secular means to mirror the receding religious rituals. 

This has remained the case in Europe and South America. Fans interact with a sport such as football as they would with a religion. They revere football stars as they would saints. Corporate companies and consumer brands that, through their marketing campaigns are always looking to strike an ‘emotional connection’ with consumers, encourage this. They invest large sums of money to glorify the act of revering sporting stars. They piggyback on the inherent emotions of the rituals that sports fans enact. 

The same is the case with cricket in Pakistan and India. But it wasn’t always like this. Till the mid-1980s, field hockey was the most popular sport in both the countries. It was tightly tied to the then-nationalist zeitgeist in both the countries.

Indeed, that strand of nationalism also was sacralised. The players were expected to perform like soldiers in a battle. The fans, too, saw them as that. But since hockey was a state-sponsored/nationalised sport, it hardly ever enjoyed any corporate investment. This meant that a glamorised fan culture was never moulded for hockey.

Cricket began to overtake hockey in Pakistan and India from the mid-1980s onwards. The former dictator Gen Ziaul Haq launched something called ‘cricket diplomacy’ to smoothen ties with India. Then, the introduction of denationalisation and economic liberalisation in India and Pakistan saw large corporate interests invest more in cricket than in hockey.

It was a matter of timing. Cricket attracted more money when the performance of the hockey teams of both the countries experienced a dip in the mid- and late 1980s — even though they did bounce back a few years later. But, by then, it was too late. 

Cricket had begun to attract a lot more money and corporate interest. It became the new sacralised sport, but one whose rise in this regard paralleled and then interacted with the social and political rise of Islam in Pakistan, and of Hindu nationalism in India.

So, in this case, sport as a civic religion eventually began to adopt more outright religious symbolism, almost becoming an extension of Islam and Hindu nationalism. Growing corporate interest in cricket made the outcome even more surreal. TV commercials involving cricket stars started to glamorise Hindu nationalist symbology in India, and in Pakistan, no such commercial is complete without shots of fans praying to the Almighty, as if they were witnessing a Manichaean cosmic conflict between good and evil. 

Corporate money and deity-like status on the one hand, and religious and religious-nationalist exhibitionism on the other, have turned cricketers into playthings in the hands of corporate brands, politicians, religious outfits and social media trends. Cricketers have no clue what it is that they are really playing for. This is specifically true for the Pakistan squad.

Maybe with the recent setback to Modi’s Hindu nationalism in India, Indian cricketers may escape a similar fate. Yet, paradoxically, can one also posit that, with Pakistan cricket in the doldrums, and Hindu nationalism somewhat receding, Indian cricket may now struggle to look elsewhere for ‘political’ motivation? Perhaps.

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 16th, 2024

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