Cross-batted: Cricketers as politicians
Cricket in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka is a lot more than just a game. Not only has it brought fame and fortune to many players, at times it has even provided them with enough clout and influence to declare themselves as candidates for political positions, or lent considerable weight to a political party or a cause of their choosing.
In this piece, we’ll briefly look at the phenomenon in Pakistan.
Last year former Pakistan cricket captain and stylish batsman, Aamir Sohail, announced that he was joining the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).
This is the first time that the moderate right-wing party has attracted the attention of a known cricketer.
But Sohail is not the first Pakistani cricketer who has decided to take a plunge into politics.
Another former cricket captain, Imran Khan, is the most well known name in this respect, now heading his own centre-right party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).
Though Khan was never before part of any other party, in the 1980s he was said to be close to the ‘Islamist’ Pakistani military dictator, Ziaul Haq. But the relationship was not political. And anyway, throughout his cricketing career Imran’s lifestyle was wholly modern and secular.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the late 1980s that Imran began alluding to political issues.
For example, in 1988-89 when an anti-India insurgency erupted in Kashmir, Imran (who was captain of the Pakistan team at the time), said that the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan should be decided on the cricket field!
In another statement at the time he felt that Pakistan and India should co-exist just as the United States and Canada do: Neighbours with separate and sovereign entities but with strong economic, political and cultural ties.
When Imran decided to retire from the game in 1987, it was left to Zia to coax him back into the game that he then continued to play till 1992.
Khan maintained that cricket teams in Pakistan and the cricket board were infected with all kinds of intrigues and that a Pakistani captain had to run the show like a firm and shrewd politician.
He was invited to join the PML-N by Nawaz in 1992, but he politely declined saying he wanted to concentrate on building a cancer hospital in Lahore.
After completing the hospital, he put in a brief stint as a TV commentator during Pakistan’s 1993 tour of the West Indies.
This was also the time that he experienced a ‘spiritual awakening’ and decided to enter politics.
On the advice of former ISI chief and one of late Ziaul Haq’s closest aides, Hamid Gul, Khan formed the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) to challenge the country’s two leading parties, the left-liberal Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and the moderate right-wing PML-N, accusing both of being corrupt.
He had a falling out with Gul when he married a British national, Jemima Goldsmith, and his party lost badly in the 1997 election.
Till his recent rise as a potential ‘third force’, Khan’s politics have continued to relay contradictory signals.
He’s put up a staunch anti-West/anti-American front and was largely mentored by the chief of the fundamentalist Jamat-i-Islami (JI), late Qazi Hussain Ahmed; but at the same time, Khan has demonstrated that his party has overwhelmingly liberal views on various social issues.
He has also been accused by his opponents for having a ‘soft corner’ for the Taliban, an allegation Khan refutes, suggesting that he just wants the military and the government to hold ‘meaningful talks’ with the Islamist militants before unleashing a full scale military operation against the menacing insurgents and terrorists.
The first high profile incident of a well known former cricketer joining politics came in the shape of famous Pakistani cricket captain of the 1950s, Abdul Hafeez Kardar.
Kardar joined the populist left-liberal party, the PPP, in 1967 and became very close to its chairman, Z A. Bhutto.
He was also made the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) by Bhutto when he came into power in 1972.
It was under Kardar’s reign as chief of the PCB (1972-77), that the Pakistan team was transformed into a truly world class outfit.
After Kardar had retired from the game and captaincy in 1958, the Pakistan cricket team in the 1960s lost almost 80 per cent of the Tests that they played in that decade.
As chief of the board, Kardar encouraged the inclusion of young, attacking players in the side such as Imran Khan, Sarfraz Nawaz, Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad and Wasim Raja.
He also convinced the Bhutto regime to make the banks and companies that it had nationalised and the Pakistan airlines (PIA), to give regular jobs to cricketers.
Kardar’s masterstroke came when he selected Mushtaq Muhammad in 1976 to lead the side.
An attacking captain, Mushtaq, who was also a great supporter of the PPP and Bhutto, went on to lead Pakistan to eight Test victories (between 1976 and 1979) against New Zealand, India and two of the top sides in the world at the time, Australia and the West Indies.
But things were not always smooth between Kardar and Mushtaq. Kardar refused and in fact, threatened to remove Mushtaq from captaincy when the latter demanded a pay raise for his players.
The issue threatened to boil over when Kardar decided to reinstate Intikhab Alam as skipper and drop Mushtaq.
Prime Minister Bhutto himself had to intervene and took Mushtaq’s side, leaving Kardar fuming and handing in his resignation.
Kardar quit politics when the Bhutto regime was toppled in a military coup in July 1977.
Another popular cricketer to have had sympathies for the PPP was the great Javed Miandad, who did not join the party, but remained to be its supporter throughout his playing career (1976-96).
In an interview he gave to a local private TV channel in 2004, he named Z A. Bhutto as his favourite political personality.
But Miandad’s case gets even more interesting if one considers how he was ‘owned’ by the MQM in the late 1980s for being from Karachi and a Mohajir.
The MQM, that was an entirely Mohajir-centric party at the time, presented Miandad as a heroic figure of Karachi cricket.
Pakistan cricket (till about the early 1990s) was largely divided between Lahore (in the Punjab) and Karachi (the capital of Sindh).
Karachi cricketers, sports journalists and associations continued to accuse the cricket board of preferring players from Lahore.
The cold war between the two cities in this respect took an ugly turn when Miandad who was made captain in 1980 (at the age of 23), faced a rebellion from a group of 10 players in 1981.
The rebellion was led by stylish batsman (and Imran’s cousin), Majid Khan, a Lahorite, and most of the rebels were from Lahore and/or the Punjab.
The Karachi press accused them of being racist and anti-Karachi/Mohajir, even though some of the rebels were also from Karachi, such as Mohsin Khan, Iqbal Qasim and Sikandar Bakht.
In 1982, an agreement was reached between Miandad and the board when it was decided that Imran Khan (who was also part of the rebellion) would replace Javed as captain. Javed told the board he would refuse to play under Majid or Zaheer Abbas.
Though the MQM continued to put up Miandad as Mohajir nationalism’s poster boy, he never publicly declared his support for the MQM.
Eccentric fast bowler Sarfraz Nawaz and former captain Mushtaq Muhammad were both known to be staunch supporters of the PPP in the 1970s and 1980s, but out of the two only Sarfraz joined the party (in 1987).
He contested a Punjab Assembly seat on a PPP ticket in the 1988 elections and was made a sports advisor by the then prime minister and chairman of the PPP, Benazir Bhutto.
During his cricketing career (1969-83), Sarfraz first partnered Asif Masood in the country’s première quick bowling attack, and from 1975 till 1983, he and Imran Khan became one of the most effective fast bowling pairs in the country.
But Sarfraz was also a highly volatile character. A brawler by nature, he made sure to break every curfew set by his captains, slipping out to visit nightclubs, drink and pick up women and return in the wee hours of the morning, even when a Test game was on.
Along with Javed Miandad, he was also one of the first Pakistani cricketers to indulge in the tactic of on-field sledging, where a fielder or the bowler would taunt and abuse a batsman to disturb his concentration.
In 1977 when Z A. Bhutto was toppled by General Ziaul Haq, Nawaz pulled out of most of the Tests that the country played between November 1977 and July 1978 after faking an injury.
During a first-class side game against the visiting England team in November 1977 (in Rawalpindi), the TV cameras and microphone accidentally caught Nawaz fielding on the long-on boundary and talking to a friend on the other side of the rope.
The microphone picked up his conversation in which he was abusing Zia. The camera at once cut to another part of the ground.
He was incensed when Mushtaq Muhammad was removed as captain in 1979 and replaced by Asif Iqbal whom Sarfraz accused of stabbing Mushtaq in the back.
Asif refused to pick Nawaz for the 1979 tour of India, saying that he would not be able to handle the brawling fast bowler.
Nawaz responded by claiming that it was him who refused to play under Asif.
Before joining the PPP, Nawaz had already won a provincial assembly seat in the Punjab during the ‘party-less election’ of 1985 held under Ziaul Haq. Though the PPP had boycotted that election, it supported Nawaz.
He remained with the PPP across the 1990s. It was also in the 1990s when he turned against his former bowling partner and best friend, Imran Khan.
In 1994 when Imran began to vehemently criticise the second Benazir Bhutto government, Sarfraz accused Imran of moral hypocrisy, saying that Imran was the wrong person to talk about political or social morals because all his life he had been a womaniser!
By the early 2000s, Sarfraz had become disillusioned with the PPP and quit politics.
During this period he publically accused players like India’s Sunil Gavaskar and Asif Iqbal for being the pioneers of match-fixing!
The two men, along with Imran and even Javed Miandad, have gone on to suggest that Nawaz has lost his mind.
In 2010 after praising the MQM for being truly secular with genuine middle-class leadership, he returned to the political arena by joining that party.
Although a proud Punjabi himself, he at once offered his help to the MQM to ‘expose the corruption and hypocrisy of Punjab’s politicians’, especially Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan.
Legendary fast bowler, Wasim Akram, too has had a political past. In a 1987 interview given to ‘The Cricketer,’ he proudly talked about taking part in pro-PPP rallies as a teenager that were held in Lahore against the hanging of Z A. Bhutto by the Zia dictatorship (1979).
Though he never joined the party, Akram continued to be a PPP supporter in the late 1980s, in spite of his mentor, Imran Khan, being staunchly anti-PPP.
Interestingly, Akram who still idealises Imran has always politely refused to join Khan’s party.
Today, he is largely apolitical and claims to have no interest in political matters at all.
Perhaps the most fascinating case is of former Pakistan Test cricketer, Aftab Gul, who was a member of PPP’s youth wing and then accused of being a terrorist by the Ziaul Haq dictatorship in 1980.
A fiery left-wing student leader at the Punjab University in the late 1960s, Gul was also a highly gifted opening batsman.
He made his Test debut in 1969, but then joined the youth clusters organised by PPP’s socialist ideologue, Shaikh Ahmed Rashid just before the 1970 election.
A huge Z A. Bhutto fan, Gul lost interest in cricket after Pakistan’s tour of England in 1974. Instead of carrying on his cricketing career, he concentrated on being a lawyer.
In 1977 when the Bhutto regime fell to a reactionary military coup led by Ziaul Haq, Gul offered legal support to a number of young PPP and PSF workers that were arrested by the military regime.
Then in 1980 the regime claimed to have found Russian-made SAM missiles during a raid on Gul’s home in Lahore. Gul was not at home at the time and went into hiding.
The regime accused Gul of being a member of Murtaza Bhutto’s militant left-wing Al-Zulfikar Organisation (AZO) that was being supported by the Soviet-backed communist regime in Kabul.
According to the police, Gul was supposed to hand over the missiles to AZO terrorists who then planned to use them to shoot down Zia’s plane.
Gul escaped to London. He returned to the country in 1988 after Zia’s demise but quit politics. Today, he a successful lawyer.
Tear-away fast bowler and controversial figure, Shoaib Akhtar, was also a PPP supporter in his teens, and some of his close associates believe that Akhtar may still join this party if he ever decides to enter politics.
Akhtar came from a family of PPP supporters in Rawalpindi. He rose from being a knife-carrying hooligan on the streets of Pindi’s lower-middle and working-class area to become arguably the fastest bowler in the history of cricket.
Eccentric, hot-headed and rebellious, Akhtar also had a great liking for partying.
He was also staunchly opposed to how the conservative Islamic evangelical movement, the Tableeghi Jamat (TJ), had infiltrated the team in the early 2000s.
He accused the TJ of using Pakistani players as poster boys for its recruitment campaigns and insisted that religion and sports should not mix.
Insisting that his faith was his personal matter, he claimed that TJ’s presence in the team was hampering the players’ performance.
Between 2002 and 2006, TJ managed to recruit some leading Pakistani players, such as Inzamam-ul-Haq, Saeed Anwar, Saqlain Mushtaq, Mushtaq Ahmed and Mohammad Yousuf. Shahid Afridi was TJ’s last big catch (in 2005), before its influence in the team began to recede – especially after Pakistan’s disastrous performance in the 2007 World Cup.
Though the TJ is a non-political and largely peaceful Islamic evangelical movement, over the years it has been criticised for turning religion into a bundle of exhibitionistic rituals.
Some critics have also noticed how from the 1980s onwards, the TJ has aggressively tried to recruit personalities from the country’s military, bureaucracy, show-biz circles and the cricket team.
Players like Shoaib Akhtar and former cricketers such as Pervez Mir (these days a TV anchor), believe that joining the TJ distracted the players and instead of playing cricket (for which they were being paid for), they were more interested in recruiting more players for the organisation.
Critics also questioned why the Pakistan team, most of whose players had become influenced by the teachings of the Jamat, got tangled in so many corruption scandals.
Interestingly, though Akhtar was admonished for criticising the TJ’s presence in the team and for disturbing the team’s new faithful environment with his ‘immoral acts,’ he was one of the very few Pakistani players whose name never appeared in any match or spot-fixing scandal.
At one point Waqar Younis too dabbled with TJ in the early 2000s, but soon dropped out.
Though TJ’s influence in cricket has continued to recede in the recent years, its biggest catch at the moment remains to be the dashing Shahid Afridi who in a 2005 interview thanked the TJ for saving him from the kind of ‘immoral lifestyle’ he was leading.
Former captain and wicket-keeper, Rashid Latif, was a member of MQM’s student-wing, the APMSO, in the 1980s and today is an active member of the MQM. Another wicket-keeper, Moin Khan, is also said to be close to MQM.
Political parties now attractive to political-minded cricketers are the PML-N (just as the PPP was in the 1970s and ‘80s), and the MQM.
Surprisingly though, very few cricketers have volunteered to join Imran’s PTI.
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.