Smokers` Corner: Preaching games

January 17, 2010


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Much has been lamented about the Pakistan cricket team's pathetic surrender against Australia in the second Test at Sydney. Much more will be said about the lack of experience, talent and a prominent backbone in the Pakistan team.

Very little however is being said about the psychology that triggers long periods of haplessness and sheer lethargy in a team culture such as Pakistan's. Gone are the days of flowing flamboyance the Pakistan cricket team became famous for, and the somewhat audacious displays of snatching victory from the figurative jaws of defeat cultivated by captains such as Mushtaq Muhammad, Javed Miandad, Wasim Akram and especially, Imran Khan.

So how did the unpredictability tag that the Pakistani cricket team holds mutate from being something exciting and gregarious into exhibitions of pitiable surrenders and sudden, disastrous falls into the pits of mediocrity? Teams under Imran, Miandad and Akram were eccentric and flamboyant; and the reason why these teams were different than what we've had in the last ten years or so was their (albeit erratic but electrifying) mindset.

At least one of the things that also helped these captains cultivate a more dynamic demeanour was a positive unfamiliarity with the concept of enforced religiosity, the sort that started to trickle into the psyche of the team at the start of the new millennium. The ethos and culture of the team that developed from this psyche has often been criticised by various ex-cricketers and team managements for neutralising the team's fighting instincts.

The fallout of this culminated in the team's disastrous show at the 2007 World Cup, when the team's media manager, PJ Mir, accused the team's captain Inzimamul Haq of being more interested in preaching than in playing cricket. So when did the Pakistan cricket team become a propaganda and preaching platform for the Tableeghi Jamaat? Writers like the late Khalid Hassan and Amir Mir point to the year 1999, when Wasim Akram quit as captain and was replaced by Waqar Yunus.

They lay the onus on Pakistan batsman Saeed Ahmed and stylish opener, Saeed Anwar, both of whom had become leading recruiters for the Tableeghi Jamaat. Ahmed had been, like most Pakistani cricketers, volatile and aggressive on the field and equally colourful off it. It won't be farfetched to suggest that captains like Imran, Mushtaq, Miandad and Akram wilfully kept the notions of morality and the social state of the team separated. They weren't bothered by who was drinking or who was frequenting nightclubs and bars, as long as the players were performing to their potential on the field.

However, according to a former Pakistani player, it was Saeed Anwar who convinced Waqar that the team would remain volatile unless team members became 'good Muslims' and 'started offering prayers.' Waqar saw this as an opportunity to rein in the notorious volatility of the team and both Saeed Ahmed and Anwar were allowed access to the dressing-room to preach the Tableeghi Jamaat's highly ritualistic and exhibitionistic strain of faith. Mushtaq Ahmed and Saqlain Mushtaq were two early recruits of the Jamaat, but ironically, both, along with Saeed Anwar himself, suddenly lost their form and exited from the team. However, even though the team's 2002 World Cup jamboree in South Africa was a disaster, Mushtaq and Anwar hung around as preachers and were successful in bagging flamboyant batsman, Inzimamul Haq.

It was Haq's instatement as the new captain in 2003 that opened the floodgates for the Jamaat. One could now see the team being given regular lectures by leading Jamaat members, including Junaid Jamshed who is on record as claiming that he also wanted to convert the coach, the late Bob Woolmer. Players like Shoaib Akhtar accused Inzimamul Haq for siding with those players who sympathised with the Jamaat and took part in the collective religious rituals enforced by the captain.

These players included Shoaib Malik, Salman Butt, Kamran Akmal, Yasser Hamid, Rana Naveedul Hassan (who at one point is said to have grown a beard to 'impress' Inzimam), and most of all, Yousuf Yohanna, who converted to Islam and became Muhammad Yousuf. Today he is one of the leading members of the Jamaat and was recently reported to have even tried to convert New Zealand cricket captain Danial Vetori. Though the bulk of the team joined the Jamaat, thus transforming the team culture from extrovert and flamboyant to fatalistic and (subsequently) somewhat uncompetitive, a divide soon developed when a handful of players refused to follow Inzimam's Raiwind regime. These were Shoaib Akhtar, Muhammad Asif, Abdul Razzaq and Yunus Khan.

Also included in this group was Shahid Afridi, but he too fell to the dictates of the Jamaat in 2005. Today, along with Yousuf, Afridi is now a leading Jamaat enthusiast. In a 2007 interview he proudly claimed that 'the Pakistan team has changed and no player (apart from a few), visits nightclubs and bars'. However, soon after the interview, Pakistan lost to a lowly Irish team at the 2007 World Cup!

Inzimam's exit and the delayed actions taken by the board to root out the Jamaat's weight from the team did clear the air a bit, but as is apparent, the culture of fatalistic unfolding in times of non-religious on-field pressures that the Jamaat's influence seems to have injected, remains.