Through the lens of cricket

July 10, 2022

A scholarly study of the game in relation to identity and international relations

Through the lens  of cricket


ricket in Pakistan: Nation, Identity, and Politics by Ali Khan is a unique and pioneering venture into social history which is not the path often taken by professional historians in Pakistan. As I had dipped into social history myself – my book From Hindi to Urdu (2011) being a social history of Urdu – I was tempted to review it. But on the other hand, I know next to nothing about sports, as I have never played any seriously. I am perhaps one of the very few educated, middle-class, South Asian people who have never watched any sport – even the fabled India-Pakistan cricket matches – or heard commentaries on them. The polo and golf I played were for the wrong reasons: polo to train the horse; golf to enjoy long walks in congenial surroundings. Could such a person review a book on the history of cricket in Pakistan? The answer to that question will be given by the readers of this review in due course.

Ali Khan, an anthropologist whose work on films I have read with admiration, starts with the thesis that cricket, being Pakistan’s most popular sport, “has played a significant role in defining the culture and history of the country, thus becoming an essential part of its post-colonial identity and national pride” (p. xi). A corollary of this thesis is that it became “a microcosm or reflection of society” (ibid). In the early phase, cricket in Pakistan was of a “mercurial nature” as was the nation (Chapter 1). Thus, Pakistani cricketers relied more on intrinsic talent than coaching and systematic analysis and study of the game. It was, so to speak, charisma-driven rather than method driven. Ali Khan mentions a galaxy of charismatic players (AH Kardar, Imran Khan, Younis Khan, Shahid Afridi, Wasim Akram, Javed Miandad, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Misbah-ul-Haq etc) describing the nature of their charisma, their immense popularity with cricket fans and their contribution to the creation of legends. But, as argued in Chapter 2, in this phase the leaders of Pakistan cricket were also what can only be described as ‘gentlemen’ not only in terms of education, social class, panache and upbringing – AH Kardar, for instance, was Oxford-educated and sophisticated in behaviour – but also in moral terms. This was reflected in the way the Board of Control for Cricket in Pakistan (BCCP) was managed.

In the initial years, Kardar and Alvin Robert Cornelius, also chief justice of Pakistan, were heads of the board. They not only worked hard and were incorruptible but even offered their services free of cost to the state. Air Marshal Nur Khan also came from this great tradition. Later, except for Shahryar Khan, a former diplomat, and a few other honourable exceptions, the chairmanship of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), like other offices, was sought by people whose interest in power, perks and emoluments exceeded their commitment to either cricket or the national image as constructed by the game. Ironically enough, it was during civilian democratic rule after the demise of Zia ul Haq that patronage politics came into its own and, corruption being endemic in society, the officials of the PCB as well as the players were tainted. Thus, people with inadequate credentials in cricket were appointed to the Board as chairmen. According to the author, their sole qualification was that they were the proteges of mainstream political parties. Meanwhile, like other institutions, the army appropriated cricket also since, as the author observes, “appropriating the cricket team has enormous promotional value for the army’s image amongst the population” (p. 48). This symbolic role of cricket was, as the author points out, very clearly understood by all Pakistan’s military rulers. Both Zia ul Haq and Musharraf showed up for cricket matches and interacted with players affably.

This brings one to the book’s third chapter which is about the painful subject of corruption and match-fixing. The author begins with the story of the scandal of Mohammad Amir who was caught in the act of spot fixing. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. There were other allegations, some of which remained unproved. Others were proved, bringing a bad name to the team and the country. However, argues Ali Khan, such questionable goings-on in the team were very much a part of what was going on in the society. Cricket had become commercialised and the society, being mired in corruption at all levels, provided an atmosphere in which the players were tempted. The author goes on to argue that, following Zia ul Haq’s Islamisation, the Pakistani society as well as the cricket team turned towards religion as a visible badge of identity. The Tableeghi Jamaat, committed to preaching the faith, entered the cricket team with Inzamam ul Haq and Mushtaq Ahmad offering prayers in public. It was then that Yousuf Youhana, who belonged to the Christian community, converted to Islam. This, suggests Ali Khan, was part of the players’ quest for redemption. However, it can be argued that this route to redemption, while it might have satisfied some players’ conscience at the individual level, did not actually lead to a visibly higher standards of morality. In fact, Pakistani society became more visibly religious as well as corrupt than it was in the 1950s.

The author brings his understanding of several intellectual disciplines to create an insightful study of how cricket can provide a lens for understanding the evolving culture, identities and perceptions of a people.

The next three chapters of the book are about Pakistan’s position in international cricket, the relationship with different countries and teams and the perceptions of Pakistanis about others as well as of others about them. The first mentioned chapter is about Pakistan’s relationship with Britain. This was, as expected, influenced by the colonial legacy. From England’s side, there was “patronising contempt” while the Pakistanis were brash and sensitive to perceived insults. There were scandals of Pakistani umpires giving questionable judgments, bickering and so on. Such incidents fed the Orientalist images about Pakistan which foreign players and journalists, especially the stand-offish British ones in the early phase (Chapter 4), had disseminated by their stereotypical complaints about Pakistanis and Pakistan (poor infrastructure, dishonest umpiring and aggressiveness). The narrative which resulted from British othering, an outlook based upon what Edward Said had called Orientalism, defined Pakistan as irrational, chaotic, corrupt, volatile and prone to intrigue and cheating. The British, in contrast, were rational, disciplined, honest, balanced and cool. The early 1990s, thus, represented a low point in Pakistan-Britain relations. This attitude changed, however, by 1996 when British politics was no longer Thatcherite and the old snobbish generation had retired.

The other two chapters are mostly about Pakistan’s relationship with India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and other countries. In the first phase and well into the 1990s the Indian and Pakistani players did not carry the weight of politics to the cricket ground. But, even more importantly, the fans on both sides gave a warm and touching welcome to players and fans of the other side. It was only after the Mumbai attacks of November 26, 2008, that the Indian attitudes hardened. By this time Pakistan itself was also the target of attacks by militants – with the Sri Lankan cricket team attacked in Lahore in 2009 that resulted in isolating Pakistan in cricket, as well as international relations. The last chapter is on cricket in the age of Covid-19 and one is dismayed to find that the cricket team and the PCB, in common with ordinary Pakistanis, never observed the protocols (distancing, wearing masks etc). The high number of players who got Covid, writes Ali Khan, suggests that “the actual number of cases in Pakistan could be anywhere between 3 and to 10 times higher than those registered by the government” (p. 214). This, the author concedes, was partly because the then prime minister, Imran Khan himself was not serious about Covid.

Ali Khan tries to maintain a balance between personalities and processes without, however, explicitly going into the ‘great men’ theory of history which claims that all significant changes are brought about by movers-and-shakers rather than ideas, processes, and economic forces etc. At places, however, as in his praise of the leadership styles of Kardar, Shahryar Khan and Imran Khan he does seem to incline more to the ‘great men’ theory than any other. However, I could not make out how the author defines authoritarian leadership. His praise of Imran Khan’s “authoritarian” and “transformational” style seems to suggest that, at any rate, he views them positively. But, somewhat disturbingly, he adds that when a player, Qasim Omar, accused Imran and others of “debauchery and carrying drugs”, he “was banned and never played for Pakistan again” (p. 71). One would have thought that the author would have mentioned that such serious charges should have been investigated. Also, if this is the only reason for such a draconian punishment, then I find it inexplicable that the author should let it pass without comment. These, however, are trivial lacunae – if even that – in a book which should be a trendsetter in historiography in Pakistan.

I will conclude by saying that Ali Khan’s book is a significant contribution to social history since, as mentioned before, it is a pioneering scholarly study of the game in relation to nation, identity and international relations. The author brings his understanding of several intellectual disciplines – anthropology, history, politics, cultural studies etc – to create an insightful study of how cricket can provide a lens for understanding the evolving culture, identities and perceptions of a people (an “imagined community”). The author has used a vast and varied archive of sources: books, media reports, interviews, biographies and reports by official bodies. Moreover, he has spent a lifetime watching the game, interacting with players, administrators of the PCB and so on. His bibliography, therefore, is impressive and his research methodology has scholarly accuracy. The book is very readable as, though informed with theory, Ali Khan does not resort to the arcane idiom of some pretentious academics. However, my own ignorance of the histories of games is such that if there are inaccuracies in his review of literature, I cannot detect them. Hence, I would like this review to be considered something of an introduction to what I think is a milestone in social history. For a serious, more thorough, analytical and informed review of the book, one looks forward to a historian or sociologist of games in general and cricket in particular.

Cricket in Pakistan: Nation, Identity, and Politics

Author: Ali Khan

Publisher: Oxford

University Press, 2022

Pages: 284

Price: Rs 995

The reviewer is an   occasional contributor

Through the lens of cricket