Changing Colours



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In cricketing parlance, normally the colour green is associated with pitch tops. But in Pakistan, it is taking on a totally different meaning and tone. Not only is its Westland awash with radical green, the colour of Islamism is permeating deep into the social fabric of the nation, cricket included.

The country, that has been in an existential crisis since its inception and yet to come to terms with its ideology and purpose, is leaning more and more towards rabid religiosity to find answers.

Gone are the days of swaggering cricketers like Asif Iqbal, the young Imran Khan or even Wasim Akram. One can now spot flowing beards on the cricketing field, an unmistakable indicator of the players’ religious beliefs. A talented Christian, Yousuf Yohanna, had to convert to Islam in modern day Pakistan to be considered for the skipper’s post, however much he may deny that to be the purpose.

The Islamisation of Pakistan has been a slow, but steady process. In 1947, Pakistan was not called an Islamic Republic. Today, it is. The tail-end of Zulfiqar Bhutto’s rule and the beginning of the Zia-ul-Haq’s regime is when the country took a decisive turn towards religion. Political compulsions meant appeasement of religious clerics and pronouncement of dictums that were anti-progressive. Bars were banned, women TV presenters had to cover their heads, women at large were encouraged to take the veil, alcohol was banned and Friday declared the weekly holiday. The light green tone of Pakistan’s character was beginning to take a deeper tinge.

The cricketing demigods of Pakistan, who used to pull out wickets in moments of triumph, or jump in delight, exchange high fives or thump each others’ back were first seen genuflecting on the ground after the 1992 World Cup victory. I remember vividly how Javed Miandad plunged to earth offering a nearly fanatical salutation to the Almighty.

Today, there is no flamboyance, which till not so far back, was associated with Pakistan’s cricket stars, especially off the field. Barring a handful like Shoaib Akhtar, Pakistani cricketers can be seen lined up on the field doing namaz between practice sessions, than at pubs or bars or even the gym. No Pakistan cricketer these days begins an interview without saying Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim. His answer throughout will be peppered by loads of Inshallahs.

It’s a bit scary, but many times during an India-Pakistan tie, one can spot fans of the Pakistan team appeasing the beads of the rosary or uttering incorrigible prayers like zealots on a mission to defeat enemy No. 1, India.

It needs to be acknowledged that there has been a paradigm shift in the mindset of the younger generation players. For one, they come from lower middle class backgrounds that are much more conservative than the elite of the country. Two, they represent the breed that was growing up when Pakistan was turning deep green. Three, they have come under the direct influence of Tablighi Jamaat.

Former opener Saeed Anwar, who lost his daughter, was among the first who turned to religion for solace. One would argue that it may be a natural thing to happen. But then, he began to sermonize! His team members were the first circle of people within his influence. Former captain Inzamam-ul-Haq’s family already had a religious background. Slowly, the youngsters were lapping up whatever the seniors dished out as advice even on deeply personal issues.

After announcing retirement from cricket in 2003, Saeed Anwar has devoted his life to preaching Islam. Recently, he led prayers during the funeral of Wasim Akram’s wife Huma in Lahore.

The changes in the psyche of the Pakistan team are symptomatic of the times the country is encountering. Two decades ago, nobody could have imagined the metamorphosis of the playboy Imran Khan into a born again Muslim. He not only encouraged his Jewish wife to adopt Islam, take on a Muslim name, but also cover her head! A divorced Imran is now often seen in the company of those who hold radical views, have connections with the Taliban and even clerics like Maulana Fazlur Rehman, whom he wanted as PM!

From the beginning of this millennium, there have been increasing and constant incidents of enforced religiosity in the team, a development which has been noted by and frowned upon by the Pakistan Cricket Board, but to little avail.

According to Pakistan daily Dawn’s Nadeem F Paracha, cricketers instead of sticking to the nets for practice, were regularly assembled and lectured to by Tablighi Jamaat members including speeches by Junaid Jamshed, who went on record saying he wanted to convert late coach Bob Woolmer. Other members like Kamran Akmal, Shoaib Malik, Yasser Hamid, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan and Salman Butt had, at one time, grown beards or at least stubbles to impress Inzy. And Yousuf Yohanna aka Mohammad Yousuf apparently tried to proselytize New Zealand’s Daniel Vettori!

According to Paracha, even youngsters like Afridi, who were holding out, have been won over by the Islamic group and are now staunch followers of the faith. Obviously, it suggests that the dressing room culture of the team has been transformed beyond recognition.

The point is that religion is never a bad thing, as long as it is personal and motivating a human being to become better. Most players have deep individual faiths or lucky charms, which they turn to for mental support. But a line needs to be drawn between faith practiced in private domain and in public space.

How would it be if the Pakistan team gets more and more into dogma? During Football World Cup, UAE had declared Vuvuzela as ‘haram’ because it was too loud. Tomorrow, Pakistan may not want its women to play cricket or ask women and men to sit in segregated compartments in the auditorium or not want women to watch men playing at all! Would it be okay for the team to play with alleged infidels in the first place?

One may contend that what I am suggesting is a little too far fetched, but I would like to counter ask whether anyone had expected the Pakistan team to assume even the slightest religious hue in 1975? Yet, it has happened. One can never discount for what may happen in 2035.

While Pakistan itself grapples with tough questions about how much religion is too much, its cricket team needs to introspect about the same. Because given the direction Pakistan is headed, I am afraid, in times to come, the colour on field may risk turning dangerously green.