August 11, 2020
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For God's Sake, It's Cricket

Was it an overkill of piety that failed the Pak team at the Cup? Updates

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For God's Sake, It's Cricket
For God's Sake, It's Cricket
Weeks before Pakistan disastrously bowed out of the 2007 World Cup, and coach Bob Woolmer was found murdered in his hotel room, Outlook had featured a story in its March 12 issue detailing the stifling control the Tableeghi Jamaat (TJ), or the party of preachers, had over the cricket team. We identified these Islamists as the inspiration behind the players' intense religiosity, their penchant for flaunting their Islamic identity, as also the devastating cause of splitting them into two groups—TJ and non-TJ. Then some considered it insensitive to publish what could demoralise the team preparing for the most important tournament on the cricketing calendar. Even former Test opener Mohsin Khan, who in the story had been sharply critical of those who believed religion could be harnessed to improve performance on the field, thought Outlook should have refrained from bringing to the surface issues sensitive and divisive before the journey to the West Indies.

Now, as Pakistan mulls the reasons behind the pathetic performance of its teams, as the nation obsessed with cricket struggles to reconcile itself to the belying of its expectations, the volatile mix that religion forms with cricket, as Outlook had predicted, is generating as much heat as the country's scorching summer. Sparking the debate was Pakistan's cricket media manager P.J. Mir who told reporters in Lahore last month, "The other teams were also present in the West Indies but Pakistani players were more enthusiastic about converting non-Muslims than playing cricket. Foreign journalists wanted to know why the Pakistani players were saying the azaan (call to prayer) in the airplane. I could not disclose this fact before. But I have now informed the PEC (Performance Evaluation Committee) that most players had no focus on cricket and their fixation was on preaching, which affected their preparations."

Former skipper Inzamam-ul-Haq and his once-deputy Mohammed Yousuf were quick to rubbish Mir, who, though, insisted that the mixing of religion with cricket would not have been an issue with him had it been within reasonable limits. To those doubting his contentions, Mir said, "I have video footage which will prove me right. I will hand these over to the PCB (Pakistan Cricket Board)." Among the incidents he cited to illustrate the inordinate religiosity of players was that they prayed even in the aisle of planes.

Mir's candour was perceived as a belated bid to check religious extremism in Pakistan cricket and prevent the TJ (its exact Arabic translation is The Proselytising Group) from exploiting players to promote its agenda of propagating Islam and stressing on the virtues of an 'authentic Islamic lifestyle'. Ironically, Mir was shown the door by the board, presumably for speaking out of turn.

Yet, in a typically subcontinental style of finding middle-of-road solutions to problems, the cricket czars here named Shoaib Malik as captain, ignoring a more experienced Yousuf after the temperamental Younis Khan turned down the offer of leading the team. Sources say Yousuf was ignored not only because he is ageing but his stature and religious fervour, typical of born-again Muslims, convinced the establishment that he won't be amenable to control or implement their agenda of secularising cricket.

The religiosity of Malik, though a TJ member himself, was thought to be not so much about his convictions as about the influence of Inzy on the team. His influence is bound to disappear soon because—as the cricket czars are convinced—the burly batsman will retire on scoring the 19 runs he needs to overtake Javed Miandad as the country's highest run accumulator. At most, they reckon, Inzy would play a series or two. Malik is not only young enough to remain at the helm till the next World Cup, his diffident personality makes him an ideal candidate to be the "Shaukat Aziz of cricket". (It's said Shaukat Aziz was appointed PM because he was considered the most reliable person to unquestioningly implement President Pervez Musharraf's agenda in politics.)

The final verdict on the role religion played in Pakistan's deplorable performance will come when the PEC submits its report next week. However, Inzy thinks it's absurd to blame Islam for his team's premature ouster from the World Cup. As he told Outlook, "There are many technical reasons responsible for the failure of the team. Religion is supposed to make a person more honest and committed towards his or her duties. When we rejoice in our success, we should also have the courage to accept our defeat. It will be interesting to know how people like Mir explain India's defeat in the World Cup. I think he owes an apology to the entire nation as well as the players for his remarks."

The players' own perception about the team's performance is impossible to elicit because of a bar on them from speaking to the media. Their depositions to the PEC, though, provide a clue or two. Yousuf, for instance, emerged from the committee to say it was not religion but lack of teamwork that was the cause for their poor showing. Wicket-keeper Kamran Akmal denied to the committee that he had been, ever, forced to preach religion. He's also reported to have said, "We followed routine activities (offering of prayers) and there is no truth that we set aside our cricket responsibilities while laying special emphasis on religious activities."

Obviously, it's impossible to determine precisely the role of religion in the World Cup fiasco. But, as Outlook had reported in March, there are players who believe Inzy preferred the TJ group over those who are secular or confine their religion to domains outside cricket. They had also then claimed that on tours abroad, one of the hotel rooms would be declared a prayer room, where TJ players discussed religious issues; that Naeem Butt, a former TV personality and TJ member, would stay in the team's hotel and arrange interactive sessions between the cricketers and activists of the TJ chapter of the host country.

The team's public display of their religious identity—beards, prayers during practice sessions, invocation to Allah at award ceremonies—prompted Gen Musharraf, who is also patron-in-chief of the PCB, to advise board chairman Naseem Ashraf on the need to have the players strike a balance between religion and cricket. In a press conference earlier this year, Ashraf claimed he had told the players to "stop exhibiting their religious beliefs in public". Following the team's return from the West Indies, Ashraf publicly conceded that the "conspicuous Islamisation" of the cricket team was one of the prime reasons for its shocking performance.

Senior PCB officials say Inzy and his camp followers did not heed Woolmer when TJ preachers would be in the same hotel on tours abroad. They say the slain coach felt the players' loyalty was more to the preachers than to him, that Inzy, otherwise cool-headed and mild-mannered, would erupt at any criticism of TJ's activities. Imparting credibility to this perception was former PCB chief Shahryar Khan, who said in a recent interview, "Bob told me about six months before his death that he was very frustrated because the team was always at prayer—at lunchtime, tea and after play...Bob felt frustrated about that and asked me what he should do. I said 'Please Bob, you are an outsider and foreigner. So do not interfere with anything religiously inclined because it will be counter-productive'. Eventually, he learned to live with it." Or, as some now say, though without proof, he died because of it.

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