The Pakistani batsman Mohammad Yousuf used to be a Catholic known as Yousuf Youhana. Since he converted to Islam last year, his average batting score has been 83.06, compared with 47.36 before (this past weekend he scored 193 against England). The question now being asked is: are these two facts related?
You might think that it would require a very small miracle to shave the odds in a game like cricket where the outcome can turn on a difference of half an inch in the position of a ball travelling at 90 mph; yet even the most devout sportsman doesn’t really believe that happens. At the same time, however, sportsmen are notoriously superstitious, just like fans and gamblers. They want there to be an explanation for everything that happens. They will half believe in all kinds of things, such as lucky shoes or pre-match rituals. Perhaps there is a value to conversion even if it is just a form of self-hypnosis.
Dr Kitrina Douglas, a psychologist who was once a professional golfer, has examined the effect of religious faith on sporting success for the UK Sports Council. It can, she says, lead to sporting success indirectly. For example, she says, it is well known that sporting success can be bad for the development of the personality, because it is so important socially. No one is interested in anything about an elite sportsman except his job. This can lead to an unbalanced narrow-mindedness in which all of his self-worth is caught up in sporting success. Failure, when it inevitably comes, is a catastrophe. Douglas says that religious faith, by giving people perspective, can make them better able to succeed in the long-term.
Yet perspective is quite often bad for sporting performance in the short-term, says the Rev Graham Daniels, the director of Christians in Sport. Daniels was himself a professional footballer, with Cardiff and Cambridge, and while he thinks that all sportsmen could be helped by thinking of their bodies, and their talents, as gifts from God which need to be exercised as a form of praise, he has seen many who, when they found God, lost some of their single-mindedness. “Some people question everything when they have found faith. They can equate their years of training and planning for success with self-centredness. Alternatively, some people find it a huge joy and fillip.”
The real test, then, for Yousuf’s conversion, in sporting terms, isn’t this year’s batting figures, but those he chalks up in the next five years. And, even then, we already know one thing about prayer in competitive sport. It can’t work reliably, because if it did everyone would be doing it. Imagine a technique that was as effective as a performance-enhancing drug, but perfectly legal and wholly undetectable. Wouldn’t any professional sportsman sell his soul for that — even if he had to find it first?