From playing field to parliament: Pakistani sportsmen in politics

October 23, 2022

From Imran Khan to Nawaz Sharif and from Abdul Hafeez Kardar to Sarfraz Nawaz, there have been several personalities who have performed both in the sports arena and the corridors of power

From playing field to parliament: Pakistani sportsmen in politics

Politics draws into its fold people from all walks of life and vocations. Sportsmen, too, are not immune to the lure of popular public office and many have been tempted to venture into the political arena. In it’s short history Pakistan has had more than a handful of politicians who had played sports at national or international level before transitioning into the world of electoral contests and statecraft. Of our twenty one elected prime ministers three have played sports at a serious rank or grade in their earlier years.

Imran Khan

Imran’s exploits on the cricket field are well known to every Pakistani. His cricket career is the stuff of legends, emerging from a hereditary lineage of famous players to became perhaps the most complete cricketer that Pakistan has ever produced. In his prime Imran was a sight to behold. Pomp, panache and pedigree all blended together to produce superlative performances that fed our national pride. Coupled with his charisma and looks, the effect was electric. As he grew older and phased out of cricket, social causes became his primary concern, resulting in the establishment of the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital and Namal University.

In 1996 Imran founded his own party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and entered the political fray. He was elected as a member of the National Assembly in 2002 and became the Prime Minister in August 2018, a position which he retained till April 2022.

Mian Nawaz Sharif

Nawaz Sharif’s political and business persona are well known to the public. However, what is not common knowledge is the fact that he is a batsman of sufficient ability to have played first class cricket. He was a member of a strong Pakistan Railways team that beat PIA ‘B’ by an innings in the quarter final of the BCCP Patron’s trophy at Karachi in December 1973. Led by Arif Butt, the Railways side included players like Mohammad Nazir, the Test off-spinner who was popularly known as Nazir ‘Junior’. Nawaz Sharif opened the batting for his side but was dismissed without scoring. He was consequently dropped from the team and his first-class career was limited to this solitary match.

His political career, however, has had a longer and more prominent flight, making him the only three times elected Prime Minister of the country. Prior to assuming the prime minister’s office Mian Nawaz Sharif also held the office of the Chief Minister of Punjab for over five years.

Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali

Zafarullah Khan Jamali was a seasoned politician and parliamentarian who served as a member of the Balochistan Provincial Assembly, a member of the National Assembly and also as a Senator during the course of a long political career that lasted over four decades. He was also the Chief Minister of Balochistan for two brief tenures before being elected as the country’s Prime Minister in 2002, a post that he held for a year and seven months.

Before embarking on his political journey, Zafarullah Jamali was a keen hockey player in his youth. He played as a defender at the left full-back position for both Aitchison College and Government College Lahore in major inter-collegiate tournaments. He subsequently went on to captain the Government College side as well as the Punjab University team which he represented in the National Hockey Championships. He also played for Lahore against the visiting Kenyan national team, in 1962. Besides these three luminaries other Pakistani sports personalities have also tested the political waters with varying degrees of success.

Anwar Aziz Chaudhry

Anwar Aziz Chaudhry was another politician who had been a prominent sportsman in his youth. He had represented Pakistan in the 1948 London Olympics in three swimming events, the 400 metres freestyle, the 1500 metres freestyle and the 4 x 200 metres freestyle relay, ending his challenge in the heats in all three events. He soon proceeded on a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Michigan in the United States to study law. Returning to Pakistan in 1958, he entered politics in 1963. He was thrice elected to the National Assembly and also held three different federal ministerial portfolios over the years under different prime ministers of different political parties. He also had a brief stint as a provincial minister in Punjab. His son Danyal Aziz and his daughter in law Mahnaz Akbar also became parliamentarians.

Abdul Hafeez Kardar

Kardar will always be remembered as the captain who put Pakistan firmly on the international Test cricketing map. Through sheer force of personality he welded a young fledgling side into a cohesive unit of combatants that won at least one Test in their initial Test series against every other Test playing nation that they faced during his captaincy. He was also one of the few cricketers who represented two different countries in Test matches, having played for India on their tour of England in 1946. Following retirement as a player he stayed engaged with the game in an administrative capacity. He also had a short interlude in politics, being elected as a member of the Punjab Assembly in 1970 elections. He served as a minister in the provincial Punjab cabinet and was later posted as an ambassador to Switzerland.

Syed Iftikhar Ali Bokhari

Iftikhar Bokhari was the scion of a prominent political family of Jhang. An Aitchisonian, he made his first-class cricket debut in 1952 at the age of just 16 years, playing as an opening batsman for the Punjab Governor’s Eleven against Punjab University. Proceeding to Cambridge University for further studies, he appeared in a trial match for selecting the University team, but was unable to make it into the side. Instead he played with great success for Cambridgeshire in the Minor Counties Championship, winning the competition’s batting award in 1956. In1957, he was eventually awarded his Cambridge University cap in a solitary uneventful appearance versus Surrey. On returning to Pakistan Iftikhar Bokhari played for different local teams and is remembered for scoring the first double century in the Ayub Trophy, compiling 203 not out for Lahore against Punjab University in 1960.

Iftikhar Bokhari served as a member of the Senate of Pakistan from 1988 to 1991. His relatives who have served in parliament include his brother Zulfiqar Ali Bokhari, his brother in law Shah Mehmood Quraishi, Fakhar Imam, Abida Hussain and Jugnu Mohsin.

Aftab Gul

Aftab Gul was a firebrand leftist student leader and a Test cricketer at the same time. An attacking opening batsman, he was inducted into the Test team in 1969, at a time when he was also a leading activist of the student movement against Ayub Khan’s government. His selection was ostensibly influenced by his political standing. He was released from confinement specifically to allow him to participate in his debut Test, making him the only cricketer in cricket history to play in a Test match while on bail. He played only six Tests for Pakistan, gradually losing interest in the game. This was followed by a period of self exile in London during Zia-ul-Haq’s tenure. A lawyer by profession, he was in the limelight again when he defended Salman Butt in the famous match-fixing case.

Sarfaraz Nawaz

Cricket will remember Sarfaraz Nawaz as the inventor of reverse swing, a skill he learnt and mastered on the grassless, barren wickets of Pakistan. He began a tradition that was subsequently honed by Imran, Wasim, Waqar and Shoaib and used to deadly effect to decimate batting line-ups across the cricket playing world. Sarfaraz’s entry into the political world came when he won a seat in the Punjab Assembly in the party-less elections of 1985. In 1988 he contested on a PPP ticket and was made a sports advisor to the government of Benazir Bhutto. A chequered political career saw him becoming disillusioned with politics before rejoining it wearing a different party cap.

Akhtar Rasool

Akhtar was a key member of the Pakistan hockey team from 1971 to 1982. He won acclaim as a centre half of exceptional quality, exhibiting outstanding ball control, creative match play, and an almost instinctive ability to generate openings through precision passes and ball distribution to the right player at the right time. He represented Pakistan in four World Cups winning three golds and one silver medal. He also won two gold medals in the Asian Games and a gold and silver in the Olympics. After leaving hockey he embarked on a political career winning a seat in the Punjab Assembly in 1985. He was re-elected in 1988, 1990 and 1993 and also held different portfolios in the Punjab cabinet.

Qasim Zia

Qasim Zia, another Aitchisonian, played international hockey for Pakistan from 1980 to 1987. He was a member of Pakistan’s gold medal winning squads in the 1982 World Cup and the 1984 0lympics, playing as a full back, forming an impenetrable defensive duet alongside Mazoorul Hassan.

After retirement from hockey Qasim Zia ventured into politics where his family had already made a big mark. His cousin Khwaja Tariq Rahim and his grand uncle Mian Amiruddin had served as Governors of Punjab, his uncle Mian Salahuddin had been an MNA and his cousin Yusuf Salahuddin a member of the Punjab Assembly.

Qasim Zia initially won a Punjab Assembly seat in 2002 and functioned as the leader of the opposition from 2002-2007. He was re-elected to the assembly in 2008.

Malik Nasir Khan

Hailing from Bannu, Malik Nasir Khan was educated at Aitchison College, where he was an outstanding sportsman, excelling in hockey, football and athletics.

He represented Pakistan in the 1979 edition of the Junior Hockey World Cup, along with the likes of Manzoor Hussain Junior and Kaleemullah, playing an important role in Pakistan’s gold medal success.

He started his political career by taking part in Local Bodies elections, obtaining membership of the Bannu District Council in 1983 and 1987. He was elected to the NWFP Assembly in 1988 and 1993 and served as the NWFP minister for Sports, Tourism and Culture. In 1997 he was elected as a member of the Pakistan National Assembly.

Asif Bajwa

Asif Bajwa played international hockey for Pakistan from 1992 to 1996. He was part of the national team that won gold medals in the 1994 World Cup as well as the Champions Trophy of the same year. In fact, Pakistan’s equalizing goal in the World Cup final against Holland came from Bajwa’s cross from the right flank which was deflected into the goal by Kamran Ashraf. Bajwa was also a member of the Pakistan squad that won bronze medals in the 1992 World Cup, the 1994 Asian Games and the 1995 Champions Trophy. Bajwa’s political journey is less bejeweled. Having joined the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf in 2017, he contested the National Assembly elections from a Sialkot constituency without success.

A politician said to have great cricketing skills that were never given an opportunity to flourish was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. He played as an opening batsman for the Sunder Cricket Club in Mumbai, whose regulars included Vinoo Mankad, Subash Gupte, Dattu Phadkar and Polly Umrigar. His playing days ended when he went to Berkeley for studies but he continued to retain an active interest in the game as a follower and a fan. Kardar always felt that Bhutto was good enough to have earned a cricket blue had he gone to Oxford first and then to California rather than the other way round.

Dr Salman Faridi is a senior surgeon, poet, sports aficionado and an avid reader with a private collection of over 7000 books.

From playing field to parliament: Pakistani sportsmen in politics