Clash of cricket and religion: Pakistan's faith sparks unholy row

The Pakistan Cricket Board is asking its players to stop exhibiting religious beliefs in public and to avoid the kind of extreme observance that has disrupted the team. Stephen Brenkley reports from Ahmedabad

Pakistan took the field in the Champions Trophy yesterday for the first time since a resounding edict was issued. Put bluntly, this told players to cut out the overt displays of religious zeal.

On paper, this courteous request-cum-command came from the new chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, Dr Nasim Ashraf, who has been in office less than a month and has tried to confront a decade's worth of issues. Ashraf said: "There is no doubt that their religious faith is a motivating factor in the team. It binds them together. But there should be a balance between religion and cricket."

In practice, it was pretty certain that the man behind the discreetly phrased injunction was the one who appointed Ashraf, the patron of the PCB and the President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf. It was immediately interpreted in the country as an intention to de- Islamify the national cricket team.

It was difficult to be sure what was the immediate effect - except that Pakistan lost by 51 runs in their Champions Trophy match in Mohali yesterday. Suffice it to say that nobody obviously defied the presidential decree.

For Dr Ashraf (and President Musharraf) to do as they have in calling for players to stop displaying their beliefs in public has created the sort of controversy in Pakistan, if not among Muslim cricket followers everywhere, that Jack Straw's comments did on his female constituents in Blackburn wearing the niqab when they consulted him. Ashraf was addressing a topic that has potentially wider repercussions in the nation. Visible public displays of Islam are news everywhere.

There is no question that the Pakistan team has become increasingly devout to the point where it has been suspected that absolute dedication to Islam comes before ability at cricket. Ashraf touched on this when he said that he had told the team captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq, who is currently suspended for his behaviour in the Oval Test against England, that Islam did not allow for the imposition of views on others.

"I have told him clearly that there should be no pressure on players who don't pray regularly or any compulsion on them to do it. I have told him players should have proper rest for their cricket." Last summer, on Pakistan's tour of England, players were sometimes seen praying together in public. One of the abiding images will be of Mohammad Yousuf, their prolific batsman, kneeling in the direction of Mecca and praying when he scored a century (which, it should be said, is comparable toAustralia's Christian batsman Matthew Hayden crossing himself when he reaches three figures).

Many, probably most, of Pakistan's players have come to embrace a strict form of Islam which entails praying five times at specific times including around sunset and sunrise. In an English summer this meant players staying up late and getting up early, disturbing sleep and eroding reserves of energy.

Some close to the team, including players, are in no doubt that as the tour wore on the standard of their cricket was affected. Practice sessions are often split into two so the team can go off and pray, which can spoil the fluency. At intervals, players sometimes pray instead of listening to playing plans, which can be especially difficult as the tea interval lasts only 20 minutes.

Sajid Mahmood, for the moment the solitary Muslim in England's team, gave a mature response when he was asked yesterday about his faith and the public display thereof. "It's been Ramadan recently, and I haven't been able to fast here because of the heat. It's a big part of me. Every time before I bowl I always look up to pray to God. It helps me. I don't tend to go off the field to pray because of the schedule. How you show your faith on the field is down to individual preference but I don't do it."

After Pakistan's victory in the opening match of the Champions Trophy last week the media was kept waiting for 40 minutes because Younis Khan, their splendid stand-in captain, was praying. Nobody impugned his religion but a reporter or two on deadline, of all denominations, came close. Younis said: "We are all Muslims in the team, so when does the question of forcing anyone to follow religion arise?" But Younis at least has encouraged his men to see things in the wider world, like to visit the cinema.

Bob Woolmer, the English coach of Pakistan, has watched this trait of devotion develop in his two years in charge. "When I took over I told them that if they wanted to be a success we had to pull together and be a solid unit. That encouraged the team to be more aware of their religion and it is certain that the team is much more disciplined."

'Twas not ever thus. The early teams from Pakistan never wore religion on their sleeves. Drawn largely from the country's middle classes, and occasionally educated at Oxbridge, they were still children of the Raj. There gradually evolved a different kind of Pakistani team as the game spread into rural areas. This side were induced to indulge in some wilder elements of western culture. It has been said, probably without exaggeration, that some members were out of control.

Alcohol and soft drugs were imbibed on a regular basis. Some stories like the alleged smoking of cannabis by some team members, including the great bowler Waqar Younis, were broken. Others were hushed up. The excesses of those days are the main reason cited for the refusal now to accept the leg-spin bowler Mushtaq Ahmed as part of the coaching team (though, perversely and typically of Pakistan, this has not affected Waqar).

Two things then happened. First, cricket's great match-fixing scandal and Pakistan's part in it broke. Several players were implicated and named in an internal report by Mr Justice Qayyum. Some of them found solace and sought forgiveness in religion. They were, not to put too fine a point on it, born again.

Secondly, the three-year-old daughter of the durable opening batsman, Saeed Anwar, died in August 2001. Saeed, not noticeably religious, immediately turned to his faith and his influence spread quickly to the rest of the squad.

So it has burgeoned. Many, from the outside, perceived coercion. Inzamam, in a robust response to Dr Ashraf, denied this. But the lack of persuasion does not necessarily mean that players who do not subscribe have been openly welcomed.

The case of Yousuf is fascinating. He first played for Pakistan in early 1998, a Christian boy called Yousuf Youhana, from a poor Lahore suburb. Youhana was a talented cricketer who did things permitted for Christians. On England's tour of Pakistan in 2000 this reporter can remember signing the agreement necessary to get a bottle of beer in a hotel room. The signature immediately above was that of Yousuf Youhana.

Last year, Yousuf announced that he had converted from Christianity to Islam and was Mohammad Yousuf. There were rumours, strongly rebuffed, that he was the victim of team pressure. As a Christian, his Test average was 47.47. In the 11 matches since it is 81.39. Yousuf is touchingly gratified: he says simply he is a better man. More than any other member of the team, he has shown off his devotion.

On balance, Woolmer would say it has all been positive for the team but President Musharraf's concern may be more broadly based. He and other Pakistanis of liberal bent have long been worried about the influence of madrassas where only religion and no other subject is taught. The cricket team, he knows, can have a wider influence. That probably explained the intervention.

Perhaps the mood will shift. Perhaps the President will insist.

Warne looks forward to 'whipping the Poms'

Ominously for England Shane Warne said yesterday that his career plans lead to one thing and one thing only: the Ashes.

"I just want to play my part this year in hopefully regaining the Ashes and whipping the Poms," the Australian leg-spinner said in Adelaide ahead of Victoria's Pura Cup match against South Australia. "Other than that, I haven't looked past cricket this [Australian] summer.

"Retirement is all about enjoyment," Warne added. "When you are not pulling your weight in the side the enjoyment is not there - you stop."

Warne's fellow bowler Glenn McGrath has dismissed concerns that he will not reach his previous peaks again. "I'm on track for the Ashes...," McGrath said. "I'm improving every game and every spell."

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