THE MADRASAS of the Muslim-dominated Mau-Azamgarh belt in eastern Uttar Pradesh have traditionally frowned upon cricket, but the recent success of one of their alumni has given the sport some legitimacy in the religious schools.
Ever since the name of Iqbal Abdulla, an all-rounder and left-arm spinner in the under-19 Indian cricket team that won the world cup on March 2, hit the headlines, his alma mater Jameeatur-Rashad Madrasa has perceptibly softened its attitude towards the sport.
“Our students do not discuss cricket with us,” said Maulana Aamir Rashadi Madni, the madrasa’s caretaker, beginning on a defensive note, but quickly turned more upbeat. “But yes, the ustads (teachers) were quite ecstatic when they learnt from the newspapers that Iqbal had studied here.”
Madni plans to felicitate Iqbal — who studied at the religious school until the primary level — when he returns to Azamgarh, and regularly to highlight his future achievements in a local magazine published by him. He was clearly proud of Iqbal’s accomplishment, and reluctantly said the boy had become a role model for youngsters in his madrasa.
It has also had a ripple effect on other madrasas, said local people, even though the boys themselves avoid discussing cricket openly as the focus in their schools remains on deeni talim (religious studies).
“Irrespective of where we study, we want to play cricket,” averred Ishtiaq, Iqbal’s friend who studies in a local high school. “Iqbal’s achievements have boosted our morale.”
Iqbal’s coach, Naushad Khan, who has groomed more than a dozen small-town boys in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra said, “Madrasas focus on teaching the Quran, but sports in the evening would only help them develop spiritually and physically. Schools, including madrasas, should organise matches and tours across the country as there is so much hidden talent. I am willing to help them, in whichever manner.”
This rural belt may not have produced any remarkable sportsmen, but its barren fields are dotted with scrawny children wielding the willow and tossing tennis balls. A little known fact is that Mukhtar Ansari, an imprisoned mafia don from Mau, is such a cricket buff that he has converted part of the compound of the Jaunpur jail — where he is lodged — into a makeshift cricket ground, and has taught many inmates how to bat and bowl. But despite the ‘Iqbal effect’ on youngsters in the religious schools, Madni was keen on explaining why his school did not encourage cricket. “We do encourage sports that help boys build their bodies,” he said.
“We plan to promote volleyball. Madarasas don’t have the space to play hockey and cricket. And cricket reminds us of British rule in India. Advanced countries such as United States, France and China do not promote cricket, but backward countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India are vying with each other to win cups in the game.” Iqbal’s father, too, was hostile to the game, said Madni. Yet Iqbal’s recent triumph has melted this hostility.
“Abba (father) wanted him to study, but bhai (brother) had this passion for cricket,” said Osama Abdulla, Iqbal’s younger brother. “He played strokes at home. Sometimes, Abba broke his bat and burnt the balls. But now he is also happy.”
At first, the father was just stunned. After news of the under-19 team’s victory, the family’s excited neighbours in Azamgarh’s Hazi Rasheed colony described how Iqbal’s father watched silently as they distributed sweets.
Iqbal’s two elder brothers were away, one working in Delhi, the other in Dubai. The neighbourhood, too, was not always this sympathetic towards cricket. Many residents used to slice the balls that flew into their homes.
But when Iqbal was called up to play for India, they rallied around and persuaded his father to accompany his son to Mumbai, where his coach Naushad Khan had moved. In addition to his father’s aversion for the game, Iqbal had other handicaps. The lane where he practiced day and night is just seven feet wide, too narrow for any sport, let alone cricket.