Sunday, May 28, 2023

A Catch In The Deep

A Catch In The Deep

The Faith over the pitch. The Pakistan team is riven over the players' souls.

A Catch In The Deep AP
Long before the Islamists discovered their frightening zeal, Pakistani cricketers were considered a paragon of modern Muslims: they played flamboyantly, partied hard and didn't flaunt their religion publicly. They were the playboys of their times—suave, educated and dashing; they had their one-night stands, clubbed and tippled; as great exponents of reverse swing as they were ardent admirers of fine legs. They had the lifestyle only stars have—in any country, of any sport, of any religious persuasion.

Those days of cricketing insouciance are now memory, as are so many other aspects of secular life in Pakistan. Every prize presentation ceremony has captain Inzamam-ul-Haq begin his soundbite with "Bismillah (In the name of Allah)"; players huddle to pray on the ground during pre-match preparations; 'Islamic beards' are sported as an advertisement of their faith; batsmen have been known to cramp up because they fast and play during Ramzan.

The responsibility for this fervent religiosity are a clutch of players—Inzy, Mushtaq Ahmed (bowling coach), Mohammed Yousuf, Saqlain Mushtaq, Shahid Afridi, Shoaib Malik and Yasser Hameed—who have become members of the Tableeghi Jamaat, or the 'party of preachers'. The TJ, an exact Arabic translation of which is the Proselytising Group, occupies itself participating in functions organised to propagate Islam and stressing on the virtues of an 'authentic Islamic lifestyle'. TJ has invaded the dressing room—they can be seen praying with players and reciting the Quran for the team's success. As TJ membership makes it incumbent upon a person to preach, Inzy reportedly went to Gujranwala, Punjab, on a three-day preaching tour, before flying off to South Africa for the recently concluded series.

Inzy's proclivity to mix religion with cricket has sparked accusations that he favours TJ players over those who are either non-religious or prefer to confine religion to their private lives. The non-Tableeghi group is led by vice-captain Younis Khan and includes Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammed Asif, Danish Kaneria, Imran Nazir, Abdul Razzaq etc. This divide often shadows differences between players. Though Inzy is said to detest Shoaib for his indiscipline, some in the team feel the real reason is the fast bowler's liberal views, the occasional pegs and his breathlessly busy night life.

A disgruntled team member who requested anonymity detailed to Outlook aspects of Inzy's religious passion. On tours abroad, one of the rooms is declared a 'prayer' room, where TJ players offer prayers and discuss religious issues. Accompanying the team is a former TV personality and TJ member, Naeem Butt, who stays in the team hotel. Butt arranges interactions between the cricketers and officer-bearers of the TJ chapter of the host country.

This palpable Islamisation prompted even President Pervez Musharraf to tell Pakistan Cricket Board chairman Dr Naseem Ashraf that players should go easy on religion and strike a balance between it and cricket. Ashraf subsequently warned the Tableeghi cricketers at a recent press conference, asking them to "stop exhibiting their religious beliefs in public". To Outlook, Ashraf confessed, "I have discussed the matter in detail with Inzamam, making it clear to him that religion is purely a private affair and there should not be any pressure on those who don't pray regularly. He assured me there is no pressure at all on any of the players to do anything they don't want to do."

So how has the flamboyant cricket team of the past become a Tableeghi Jamaat redoubt? The Islamisation of the team, in a way, has been in tandem with the transformation of society here. The process began under president Zia-ul Haq, under whose rule the TJ was even provided access to soldiers in the barracks. Simultaneously, the democratisation of cricket brought in players from semi-urban centres where religion can be a more prominent part of life. As ex-Test opener Mohsin Khan points out, "The current team's make-up is different from the earlier Pakistani sides, which drew from the educated and social elite in Lahore and Karachi. Currently, half the squad hails from outside of Pakistan's two major cities."

In the early days, Pakistani players may have been believers but didn't flaunt it. It was the otherwise hip Imran Khan who made it cool for cricketers to talk religion. His 'awakening' following retirement and his public, even strident, endorsement of Islam provided Islamists the cue to recruit cricketers to their cause. Among them was Maulana Tariq Jameel who, like Inzy, is a Multani, and a close associate of Maulana Abdul Wahab, the ameer of Pakistan's TJ chapter. He began to concertedly target the team once he had converted Saeed Anwar to the TJ cause. The stylish opener, a computer engineer by training, became a born-again Muslim in 2001, after the tragic death of his infant daughter Bismah. The traumatic experience prompted Anwar to find solace in religion—he joined the TJ. His primary task: working on present and former cricketers to join the TJ and spread the message of Islam.

About his TJ experience, Anwar told Outlook, "There's only one aim in my life...follow Allah Almighty's path and prepare for the Day of Judgement. I am a different Saeed Anwar today, the material world to me is meaningless now. I have turned to Allah for solace and am committed to spread the religion worldwide."

So now religion has become a badge the cricketers are willing to wear publicly, particularly Inzy, whose diffident personality acquired an assertive edge under Maulana Jameel's influence. Perhaps religion provided Inzy an anchor in the glamourous and corporate world that cricket has become—and which he as a Multani must have found alienating. With the captain under its sway, the TJ now had an open field, winning over players in numbers that divided the team into TJ and non-TJ groups.

Inzy himself denies any rift in the team. He told Outlook, "The team is selected purely on the basis of merit. There is no pressure on any player to join the five-times-a-day collective namaaz. Those who say otherwise have never offered prayers, nor have any links to Islam... which does not force anyone on the issue of religion." He furnishes proof of his contention. "Look at the players yourself. Only four players who toured South Africa—Mohammed Yousuf, Shahid Afridi, Shoaib Malik and myself—have beards. Our religious activities have never stopped a match." Inzy says the preaching sessions with Islamic scholars help instil unity in the team, and that his own piety enables him to overcome distractions on tours abroad.

Inzy has long sported a beard. But others wear it, critics allege, only as a show of allegiance to the captain, to boost their chances of getting into the squad. Saqlain and Mushtaq are counted among the prime examples. There's also the unique case of Mohammed Yousuf, who converted from Christianity and seemingly never shaved thereafter. Despite repeated denials, there aren't many takers for Yousuf's view—that he didn't convert to boost his chances of becoming captain in the future.

Yousuf says: "My conversion is because of a change of's not a calculated move. Danish Kaneria is Hindu and there is no problem. Before my conversion, I had played for Pakistan for 10 long years and there had been no problem. I didn't do this to be captain. Islam is the true religion because it says that life after death is the real life; the better you prepare for it, the better your present life will be".

His transformation was not only confined to his faith, but extended to a change in name, appearance, behaviour—and even performance on the field. The string of tall scores he made became a prompt line for those who say Allah favours those who turn to Him. Residing in a posh Lahore locality, and having recently bought a Mercedes, Yousuf told Outlook that he credits the "benediction from above" for the change in fortunes. He plans to repay his debts to Allah. How? "After I retire, I plan to serve God by devoting myself to preaching Islam to all those out there who have not been exposed to the real face of the religion."

Meanwhile, Mohsin Khan pooh-poohs the notion of religiosity helping players perform better. He points to the irony—Saeed Anwar, Mushtaq Ahmed and Saqlain Mushtaq lost their form once they took to sporting beards. "Shahid Afridi too is following in their footsteps," he points out. But English-speaking opening batsman Salman Butt pleads for the positive impact Islam has had on the team. As for performance, Butt explains, "A lot of people work hard, but only those get to their destination who are lucky and have the help of God. We believe if we pray five times a day and go in the way of God, we will get help. That is our firm belief. It puts all of us in very good spirits, and has made us disciplined—a definite change for the team."

Even coach Bob Woolmer recently admitted that religiosity has helped foster unity among players. He however added, "But there is the odd problem. You have to train the players with less intensity during the Ramzan, or do it at a time of the day when they have more strength. In some respects, this can be frustrating as a coach." The non-TJ group have a litany of other complaints though: the stifling atmosphere, charges of bias, mutual suspicion etc.

Former cricketer-turned-TJ man Agha Zahid says his organisation recruits sporting stars because "if they change their lifestyles, then others who idolise them would follow their example". For a society riven by religious passions that often, consciously or otherwise, shrinks the secular space, cricketer-preachers could unwittingly undermine Musharraf's enlightened moderation.

This shrinking of the secular space is perhaps already happening in the cricket team. As editor Najam Sethi says, "The issue is not about being religious. That is an individual choice. It is about flaunting it in a manner that seems to threaten some and pressure others to follow suit. The Pakistani team must be talked to about the image the world has of men with unkempt beards. The team must build a good image for itself, if for nothing else than for the sake of gaining a neutral crowd watching the game." For Allah's cricketers, these are minor matters.

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