Does cricket lead to religious piety? Or is religious piety so deeply ingrained in certain players that they go “pious”, which in Pakistan means growing a flowing beard, shaving off the moustache and putting a cap on? In Pakistan it is not a “phase” that you outgrow — it is a permanent transformation. And, it seems to pay off. In India, former cricketer Gautam Gambhir has embraced Hindutva but it is not the same thing. In Pakistan, you can even become the prime minister.
In the case of Imran Khan, it is all explained in his book Pakistan: A Personal History (2011), where he recalls the “early signs” of being “chosen”. He writes: “Pir Gi from Sahiwal said I would be very famous and make my mother a household name.” But the man who stood by him as his spiritual mentor was Mian Bashir, who shocked him by naming the Quranic verse his mother used to read to baby Imran. Bashir also predicted that Allah had turned the tables in Khan’s favour in the Allan Lamb-Ian Botham libel suit whose reparations would have pauperised Khan.
Till the 1992 World Cup, no one prostrated before Allah Almighty after getting a rival player out or scoring a century. Today, it is an unspoken rule. The selector, former captain Inzamam-ul-Haq, is today heavily bearded. He was the one who “changed” during his captaincy and “persuaded” the entire team to “embrace Islam”. In the book, White on Green (2016), Richard Heller and Peter Osborne note the “piety” trend gaining ground after preachers like Dr Israr of Lahore called cricket a lascivious anti-Islam entertainment with Khan rubbing the cricket ball “sinfully” in the “groin area”.
Before Khan, another captain, Fazal Mahmood, had suddenly become Islamic after retirement from the police department, writing a book, Urge to Faith (1970), indicating that something indeed happens to famous sportsmen forced to stay away from normal life during their careers. Before Khan, there was the former captain Saeed Ahmad who first “played around”, marrying and divorcing a “society girl”, before growing a beard and joining tableeghi jamaat that has transformed many other cricketers since: Ahmad himself often barged into dressing rooms and treated the team to sermons of piety.
The case of leg-break bowler and test player S F Rehman is serious. He is now Maulana Sheikh Fazlur Rahman Al Azhari following the Wahhabi path of Islam — this after an MA degree and a PhD in Islamiat, and going to Cairo to embrace the “hard Islam” of Wahhabism, which rejects the “imitative” jurisprudence of Pakistani Islam. He defended the killer of Punjab governor, Salmaan Taseer, saying that the act represented a reaction against “liberalism” that aims “to destroy all faiths”. Taseer had defended a Christian woman wrongly accused and convicted to death for blasphemy.
Ex-captain and Christian Yusuf Yohanna secured himself against trouble by converting to Islam during his career as a batsman. He benefitted from conversion but many Christian men who tried to follow his example were not similarly rewarded. Though, leg-spinner and Hindu test-player, Danish Kaneria, usefully cultivated the habit of saying inshallah and mashallah as part of his conversation in a state increasingly hostile to non-Muslims, something like what India is in the process of becoming.
Tableeghi Jamaat seduced Shahid Afridi too but this was nothing compared to the marvelously gifted opener Saeed Anwar who, understandably, succumbed to Inzamam’s evangelism after a tragedy in his family.
Osborne refers to an article in the 2006 edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack: “Rare today in the Pakistani cricket is the soundbite or even private utterance not bracketed by bismillah (in the name of Allah) or inshallah (God willing). The team prays together fastidiously, recites ayats (Quranic verses) in its huddles and celebrates personal and collective milestones with sajda (the act of kneeling in Muslim prayers); they all fast during Ramadhan, some even during games.”
(The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan)