Over a coffee: Reclaiming cricket as entertainment —Dr Haider Shah
On merit, Dhoni as a captain deserved the win against a flamboyant zealot who, like his countrymen, wore extremism on his sleeve all the time
When events like Saleem Shahzad’s mysterious killing and the assassination of a Baloch professor in broad daylight are making headlines, discussing cricket and Shahid Afridi on the editorial pages of a national daily might sound outlandish. The fact that I am a keen follower of cricket and go with my kids to the nets regularly is not the only reason for this choice. It is not an exaggeration that, in today’s Pakistan, cricket is the only unifying force, which provides some semblance of national unity and a feeling of nationhood to Pakistanis in general. Everything else seems to be divisive and capable of only generating centrifugal forces. Urban Sindh stands severed from national politics, being ruled as a fiefdom by the leader of MQM via remote control. Similarly, Sindh also appears insulated from the national political currents and Balochistan is in the grip of a growing insurgency while many parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are reeling under the terrorist network of jihadi puritans. It seems for a variety of reasons that the constituents of Pakistan are fiefdoms forming a loose confederation achieved by virtue of shared vested interests rather than any common national policy.
The forefathers of Pakistan believed that religion would prove a sufficient cohesive force among different nationalities in the new country. But the massive security arrangements on the eve of Moharram or Eid Miladun Nabi clearly prove that the forefathers did not get it right. In fact, Pakistan has become a battleground for both Iran and Saudi Arabia in their obsessive struggle for dominance of the Muslim world.
In this backdrop, cricket emerges as the only non-controversial symbol of national unity. From a village in Sindh to the streets of Karachi to the rugged plains of the tribal areas, one can see cricket as the only true symbol of the national culture. This sport transgresses all social, ethnic and political boundaries across the country. What football does in Europe, cricket does in Pakistan. In a country where there is a dearth of entertainment facilities, cricket is one of the most inexpensive means of happiness and fun for millions of youngsters.
Shahid Afridi is one of those personalities that often remain in the news for not very good reasons. In many ways, he represents all that is Pakistani. He likes to brandish his piety by explicit use of divine references and, at the same time, has a knack for showbiz glamour as is evident from the ever increasing streaks in his silky hair. Also, when talent alone cannot win a game, he has no qualms in using any crooked method even if it means eating a cricket ball in front of hundreds of cameras. If, after the 1971 debacle, no one is held accountable, after Ojhri no heads roll, after Kargil, no one is called to account, and after Abbottabad and Mehran Base, no one resigns then why should Shahid have resigned from international cricket after he brought disgrace to both cricket and country? I have, however, great unease to see characters like Shahid Afridi leading the national team for entirely different reasons. I am of strong belief that cricket, being the only national unifying symbol of Pakistan, should remain free of any religious blandishments.
Of late, two sets of missionaries have targeted the players of our national team. One is the match fixing syndicate, which was exposed by the investigative team of a British tabloid. Second is the group of puritan sermonisers who want to turn all prominent entertainers into poster-boys for their movement. In the Pakistani team, we have seen their visible effects in the recent past. In fact, Inzimam turned the Pakistani team into a madrassa club where more emphasis was on religious rituals than on physical fitness and entertainment value. We have already seen the deadly consequences of turning a blind eye to sermonising activity in the case of the navy. The shocking defeat from Ireland in the 2007 World Cup was attributed by the then media manager of the team to the Talibanised culture of non-sports priorities introduced by the then captain. Shahid Afridi is the continuation of the same dangerous trend in the national team.
International sports are about representation of national values. A team captain appears as the ambassador of a nation. While the performance in Mohali can be excused as the better team winning, the conduct of Shahid as a captain was less excusable. His ostentatious display of religious zeal remained distasteful and was a source of further radicalisation of our already intoxicated masses. Our youth proudly displayed videos of Shahid Afridi leading collective prayers in the midst of Mohali ground as if cricket had been turned into a jihad against infidels.
On the contrary, the Indian team captain, Dhoni, proved a coolheaded captain who was also modest, humble and sensible in his choice of words. The difference was too striking not to notice. On merit, Dhoni as a captain deserved the win against a flamboyant zealot who, like his countrymen, wore extremism on his sleeve all the time. Using religious conviction to draw strength on a personal level is one thing but to brandish one’s religious devotion and paint it on the whole team is another. In Pakistan, cricket is loved and followed by everybody including religious minorities and those that do not have much interest in religious rituals. The captain represents all of this pluralist society abroad. Shahid Afridi, unfortunately, seemed to be representing a religious creed led by Maulana Tariq Jameel who preaches that earthquakes in Pakistan were divine retribution due to the sins of the people.
It is high time that Shahid Afridi proved sincerity to at least one cause. Instead of pulling heaven down over the PCB’s refusal to allow him to earn pounds in the land of impure westerners, he is best advised to join the celebrity entourage of the holy maulana. The PCB also needs to come up with a plan to rescue cricket from both the match fixing syndicate and Talibanised sermonisers. It needs to remind the players that, as entertainers, it is their foremost duty to treat cricket as an entertainment service provision — and not let it turn into an arena for jihadi activists. This area of national coherence must always remain wholly secular.