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Why Cricket Is Integral To Redefining Pakistani Nationalism

It could help craft a progressive identity for a forward-looking Pakistani state.

22/06/2017 9:13 AM IST | Updated 23/06/2017 8:40 AM IST
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The Islam Gymkhana was established in 1890 amidst the growing popularity of cricket in British India. As the presidential matches between Europeans and Parsis kick-started first class cricket in India, the Muslims felt the need to stay connected with the British rulers so that other religious communities did not gain a political head-start.

The bilateral European-Parsi matches gradually evolved into a Triangular (1906), Quadrangular (1912) and eventually the Bombay Pentangular (1937) tournament, as the Hindu, Muslim and "the Rest" teams joined in.

The Bombay Pentangular

The evolution of the Bombay Pentangular mirrored the independence movement in pre-Partition India, with the Muslim team's performance overlapping with the separatist movement that eventually culminated in a separate homeland.

As Partition loomed, the growing criticism against the communal nature of the tournament meant that the tournament's then format along religious lines was overhauled in January 1946. By that time the Muslim team, that had won the penultimate Pentangular trophy in 1945, was simply being referred to as Pakistan.

Muslim cricket took off in the 1890s at a time when educationist Syed Ahmed Khan had urged reforms in the community, its outmoded interpretation of Islam and the self-defeating antagonism towards the British.

The contrasting approach to the Bombay Pentangular manifested by the Congress and Muslim League leaderships—with the former calling for an end to the communal event—exhibited their visions for India and Pakistan respectively.

The Muslim team's participation in the tournament began in the 1910s when they were growing as a political entity, and Hindu-Muslim unity was encouraged in the struggle for autonomy against the British. The two sides even shared a trophy in the 1913-14 season as joint winners of the then Bombay Triangular.

The Muslims would only win one more title in the next two decades, as the community became politically alienated from both the British and Hindus.

Freedom fight

Following the 1937 provincial elections—which the Congress swept—and a crushing defeat for the Muslim League, the latter transformed the rallying cry of their party from safeguarding the Muslim interests to "defending Islam", which was "in danger".

Between the elections in 1937 and 1945, which had contrasting fortunes for the Muslim League and their case for Pakistan, the Muslim cricket side—imbued by a new-found Islamic nationalism—won four of the seven Bombay Pentangular trophies.

The contrasting approach to the Bombay Pentangular manifested by the Congress and Muslim League leaderships—with the former calling for an end to the communal event—exhibited their visions for India and Pakistan respectively.

With a fully charged Islamist separatist movement culminating in a "Muslim homeland", the leaders of the movement wasted no time in codifying the state's Islamisation through the Objectives Resolution in 1949, which remains a part of Pakistan's Constitution till date.

"Cricket helps to understand the fissures of a deeply divided society... and provides valuable insights into the history of (the country) in particular about the histories of race... and religion in the country," writes renowned cricket historian Ramachandra Guha.

While Guha wrote these words in reference to the Indian cricket team, the same has been true for Pakistan. However, more than any ethnical or religious fissures, Pakistan, which got official Test status in 1952, first had to cope with the gaping class divide.

Class apart

Abdul Hafeez Kardar, Pakistan's first captain who led the side to their first win in only their second match, and also led to victory against every Test playing side, came from an upper-class economic background. He was accused of being classist in his treatment of the squad, most of whom came from humble backgrounds.

The elitism in Pakistan cricket also overlapped with ethnic discrimination. Before Bangladesh eventually separated from Pakistan in 1971, the Bengalis were largely sidelined from the national cricket team.

Pakistan cricket maintaining aristocratic leaders continued in the 1960s under the military dictatorship of Ayub Khan, with Javed Burki—from an upper-class and military background—becoming the captain. The appointment of Burki, who was even haughtier in his treatment of some of the star players, and the ensuing struggles of the cricket side, epitomised Pakistan's fight as a nation against the hegemony of military elite, and the tussle for democracy.

The elitism in Pakistan cricket also overlapped with ethnic discrimination. Before Bangladesh eventually separated from Pakistan in 1971, the Bengalis were largely sidelined from the national cricket team.

An account narrated by Garga Chatterjee, a Kolkata-based South Asian commentator, of a veteran Bengali fighter underscores the idea of cricket in the then East Pakistan and the discrimination against the Bengalis.

Reacting to the recently rising popularity of cricket in Bangladesh, the fighter said: "Amago polapain khyalbe cricket? Cricket khyallbe Hanif Mohammed!" (Translation: "Our boys will play cricket? Cricket is for the Hanif Mohammeds!")

It is obvious why, just like India and Pakistan, cricket has been a tool of nationalism in Bangladesh as well.

Dodging Zia's Islamisation

Despite the Pakistan cricket team being born as part of an Islamist nationalist project in the 1940s, the national side managed to dodge any overt influx of Islamisation for over half a century since attaining Test status. The full-blown Islamisation of Pakistan under dictator Zia-ul-Haq didn't penetrate cricket in the 80s or 90s either.

Pakistan cricket's Islamisation was facilitated by events both on and off the pitch.

This owed a lot to the personalities of captains like Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. The former, now the leader of Pakistan's second largest political party, hadn't exhibited a soft corner for jihadism during his playing days, when he was in fact considered "too western" in his image of a playboy.

Pakistan cricket's Islamisation was facilitated by events both on and off the pitch.

Post 9/11 Pakistan was a splintering society fractured along religious lines, amidst the rise of Islamism in the country.

After a first round exit in the 2003 Cricket World Cup both Waqar and Wasim, who had led the national side for most of the previous decade, were sacked as part of a rebuilding process.

AFP/Getty Images
Mohammed Yousuf

The Tableeghi influence

Although Inzamam-ul-Haq was initially among those dropped as well, he found form with the bat, eventually returning to the side and then taking over the captaincy as well. Despite never having been considered captaincy material, a combination of the influence of the Islamist Tableeghi Jamaat (TJ), and the lack of alternatives meant that he led till the 2007 World Cup.

It was between these years (2003-2007), sandwiched between two early World Cup exits for the national side, that the Islamisation of the national side was completed. This included the well-publicised conversion of Mohammed Yousuf (formerly Yousuf Youhana) from Christianity to Islam, which the then and current Pakistan Cricket Board Chairman Shaharyar Khan believes was an endeavour to gain proximity with Inzamam, and eventually facilitate Yousuf's transition to captaincy.

Yousuf, who once celebrated his centuries by making the cross as a devout Catholic... now resorted to the Islamic prostration, the sajda, to acknowledge a new deity post 2005.

However, renowned cricket writer Osman Samiuddin has argued that "having a Christian as captain of Pakistan, an Islamic country fighting a global war on terrorism and a domestic one on extremism, would in fact be an admirable international PR coup"—especially for then president and military dictator Pervez Musharraf, who was selling "enlightened moderation", both domestically and abroad.

So Yousuf, who once celebrated his centuries by making the cross as a devout Catholic—which never stopped hordes of local fans from swamping him during matches in Lahore to express their admiration—now resorted to the Islamic prostration, the sajda, to acknowledge a new deity post 2005.

Despite a record breaking run in 2006, and a brief stint as captain, Yousuf's career largely went downhill after 2007.

Post-Inzamam

Following 2007, three Pakistani players, with contrasting outlooks captained Pakistan for a sustained period.

The post-Inzamam new-look Pakistan team was led by Shoaib Malik, under whom the overtly Islamic exhibits of the team were cut down. But the Islamist seeds, sown in the previous years were seen sprouting, when after losing the World T20 final against India in 2007 Malik apologised "to Muslims around the world". As recently as last month, Malik needlessly brought up the religious identity of an Indian cricketer.

Following Malik, crowd favourite Shahid Afridi, another Tableeghi graduate, took over. Under Afridi, who has remained embroiled in controversy throughout his career, Pakistan briefly saw the return of religious exhibits, but he was neither an undisputed leader like Inzamam, nor at the helm long enough, to exacerbate the ideological imprint. Afridi's views, like the fact that Pakistan's female cricketers would be "more useful in the kitchen", however, exemplify the bigoted ideas in the Pakistani dressing room.

It was under the recently retired captain Misbah-ul-Haq... that Pakistan cricket embraced... a transformation in mindset. This included doing away with the heretofore almost compulsory post-match expression of gratitude to Allah...

It was under the recently retired captain Misbah-ul-Haq, who took over the team following the spot-fixing scandal, that Pakistan cricket purged itself of controversy and embraced stability through a transformation in mindset. This included doing away with the heretofore almost compulsory post-match expression of gratitude to Allah, sajdas at every personal milestone, and indeed the mandatory prayers in congregation.

This ideological metamorphosis overlapped with Pakistani government's counter-terror National Action Plan, which calls for a narrative against hate speech, and the ostensible abandonment of the state policy of discriminating between jihadist groups.

Cricket as counterterror operation

Cricket's role as a virtual counterterror operation in itself was exemplified by Pakistan recently hosting the final of its domestic league in Lahore, despite the wide-ranging security concerns that have seen the country without international cricket since 2009. It was almost as if the nation was willing to unequivocally unite against Islamist extremism if it meant more cricket at home.

On Sunday, 18 June 2017, Pakistan famously won the Champions Trophy beating archrivals India in the final to win the second most prestigious tournament in ODI cricket. The win has singlehandedly lifted the morale of the nation, with the celebrations continuing well into the week.

Reuters Staff / Reuters

The current squad might have Islamist remnants, including the likes of Ahmed Shehzad—who in 2014 was trying to convert Sri Lankan cricketer Tillakaratne Dilshan to Islam on the field—but it seems largely devoid of damaging Tableeghi influence.

[W]ith proper media training these cricketers, who are the toast of the country right now, can help establish the counter-narrative [to extremism] through the overwhelming following they garner.

Even though peer pressure, and the precedents set by the Inzamam era, have meant that the Islamist rhetoric and exhibits can be sporadically seen in the side, with proper media training these cricketers, who are the toast of the country right now, can help establish the counter-narrative through the overwhelming following they garner.

There is nothing wrong with expressing gratitude to the divine in the aftermath of major achievements, especially if the faith isn't derived from Muslim supremacy over others. But the captain Sarfraz Ahmed orchestrating chants of Allahu Akbar, upon his homecoming, or Man of the Tournament Hasan Ali's signature celebration representing a bomb blast are major faux pas in a country marred by jihadist terrorism. That these may not be representing an Islamist agenda doesn't undo the damage they might cause.

Nation building

The two men at the helm of the Pakistan Cricket Board—Shahryar Khan a former diplomat, and Najam Sethi a senior journalist—are liberal-minded individuals, perfectly aware of the influence this group of cricketers would have, especially after the Champions Trophy win and the growing popularity of the Pakistan Super League. They should exercise their influence in helping the cricket team conduct themselves as representatives of a tolerant and pluralist Pakistan that the leaders claiming to be striving to create.

In March this year, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, himself a cricket enthusiast, gave an historic speech that sought to reestablish Pakistani nationalism without mandating Islam as part of the identity. His revisionist approach to Muslim separatism (that had given birth to the communal Bombay Pentangular and in turn a Muslim state) is crucial in defining Pakistani nationalism which has been synonymous with Islamism since its inception.

With Inzamam now the chief selector, and Sethi potentially the next PCB chairman, two conflicting ideologies would be looking to use the world-beating athletes to drive home their narrative. But in a state marred by religious extremism, and struggling to embrace pluralist nationalism, it's obvious which of the two would result in a progressive identity for a forward-looking Pakistani state.

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