Cricket in Pakistan: Nation, Identity, and Politics
by Dr Ali Khan
Oxford University Press 2022, 306pp

Reviewed by: Prof Mohammad Waseem, LUMS
28 October 2022
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Ali Khan’s book Cricket in Pakistan eminently fills the gap in the existing literature on sports in general and cricket in particular. There are two significant aspects of the story of cricket as unfolded in the book that merit attention. First, the author is an anthropologist by training and is therefore prone to use a social scientist’s research methodology. That means that he is deeply committed to authenticity of resources ranging from interviews to archives. His methodology also draws on participant observation, which is the forte of anthropologists.

In theoretical terms, the author brings out the relationship between the role of sport in identity construction through the emotional bonds between the players on the ground and their supporters in the nation at large. In empirical terms, the author traces the changes in the field of cricket in Pakistan by way of demographic transformation, the variety of team leadership and a deficit of professional training. He points to examples of excellence in performance along with a lack of discipline.

Secondly, the author establishes the link between the sport and society in a way that illuminates the rise and fall of cricket in relation to the wider currents of culture and politics in Pakistan and the world of cricket in general. Especially, he talks about the Taliban phenomenon that injected militancy in the body politic during the decade following 9/11 and brought the factor of terrorism into play that isolated Pakistan from international cricket for a decade. In other words, one finds a symbiosis of ‘agency’ – in this context the cricket team – and the surrounding ‘structure’ of power and ideology.

In Ali Khan’s book, cricket acquires a larger-than-life profile. Its multifarious themes include: societal input such as the changing patterns of recruitment of players; a decade of match-fixing around the turn of the century that tarnished the image of the cricket team; and penetration of religious influences into the team. In this way, the book makes a major contribution to the study of identity, politics, class and religion as seen through the prism of cricket – the leading sport of Pakistan.

The author’s observations on the colonial legacy, the changing class background of players – and consequently their behavior patterns on and off the field – as well as organisational characteristics of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) provide a deep insight into the operational dynamics of the sport. The book traces the whole story of the origin and spread of cricket, starting from late colonialism and ending up in the first quarter of the 21st century. It harks back to what it considers the ‘liberal’ times of the 1960s and 1970s, when the Pakistan team exhibited urbanity, style and glamour. The players mixed with their counterparts from other countries with relative ease. Quite a few of them played county cricket in England and thus operated in a cosmopolitan atmosphere.

Political decentralisation at home following the restoration of the four provinces at the end of One-Unit in 1970 expanded cricket’s reach, both of its input and output, to newer areas that had been excluded due to elite dominance over the sport before and after independence. After Zia took over in 1977, a decade of social, moral, and religious conservatism followed which brought the erstwhile unexposed sections of the population into national cricket. Its catchment area expanded both horizontally in terms of region and vertically in terms of class. A background in tape-ball cricket in small towns was no longer a hindrance to recruitment to the national team.

At the same time, media coverage of news and views expanded to large areas through the expansion of the TV network that created a nation-wide interest in watching and playing cricket. Subsequently, the visual contact between viewers in millions of homes in and outside Pakistan and the team members’ performance with the bat and the ball out in the field became a fact of life that made cricket a symbol of national pride. The book brings out the influence of electronic media on the way people responded with excitement at one end and anger at the other corresponding to the ebb and flow of their team’s fortune.

The author has explored South Asian cricket in terms of what he describes as ‘sibling rivalry’, i.e., competition between the two legatees of British India over three generations after partition. Apart from the fact that a cricket match between India and Pakistan typically carried a high entertainment value in the midst of a charged atmosphere, it also exhibited camaraderie between the two teams along with a commitment to peace, at least in the first generation. Both Zia and Musharraf used cricket as an instrument of diplomacy by attending Indo-Pakistan matches.

The author has comprehensively analysed the period of Pakistan’s isolation from the world of cricket after the 2009 terror attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team. Pakistan could not host cricket teams from abroad for almost a decade. Khan mentions a huge financial and diplomatic cost to Pakistan in this period, along with depriving the wider public of world-class cricket on home ground. International cricket returned to Pakistan through a comprehensive effort of state institutions, especially the security apparatus, the diplomatic corps as well as the PCB dealing with improvement in the facilities for accommodation of visiting players. The Sri Lankan team visited Pakistan in 2019, followed by PSL (Pakistan Super League) matches that included some players from abroad and the tour of an MCC team of international cricketers in 2020.

Ali Khan concludes his discussion about cricket in Pakistan by raising interesting developments and questions. For example, he picks up the issue of gender and sports in the context of women’s cricket, the way it faced violent threats from the religious elements who found women playing in public disgraceful, and the way it gradually flourished with remarkable firmness and resilience. Similarly, the author throws light on the effect of COVID on international cricket in terms of health security, especially relating to positive test results in the case of some Pakistani cricketers who were thus sent home without playing.

The book offers a guideline for scholars to write more books about cricket and other sports not only in Pakistan but also other countries in South Asia and beyond. The book carries a unique characteristic inasmuch as it tells a story of individual players, captains, coaches and managers, interspersed with issues of corruption, deficit of finesse and cosmopolitanism and ideological orientations superseding the pragmatic rules of the game. The book is about culture, nationalism, leadership and sport, all in one.

© Bloomsbury Pakistan 2022


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