Our politicians may not have anything better to do these days and so cricket-bashing is the flavour of the month in Parliament. The Indian team touring South Africa is the target of the nation’s ire. But it took a phone-call from an Urdu newspaper in Mumbai in the middle of last week’s ‘Debacle at Durban’ to open my eyes to an aspect of Indian cricket that needs to be universally applauded.
“Is it the first time there are four Muslims in the team?” was the question. To which my answer was: “Please check the score-card of the very first Test match played by India at Lord’s in 1932.” Mohammed Kaif, Munaf Patel, Wasim Jaffer and Zaheer Khan (Durban 2006) — Irfan Pathan had been dropped from the playing XI — are the spiritual heirs to the legacy laid down by S Wazir Ali, S Nazir Ali, Mohammad Nissar and Jahangir Khan (Lord’s 1932). And four years later at the Oval in 1936 six of the India XI were Muslim.
The newspaper’s headline the day after the Durban ODI: ‘Hindustan one-day team mein pehlee baar chaar Musalmaan ek saath.’ Yes, there is much wrong with Indian cricket. But while I have not done the necessary research in other sports, there is no doubt that cricket treats our minorities fairly.
Indeed, that famous first Test team, captained by the legendary CK Nayudu, also had in the playing XI two Parsees and a Sikh. Thirty-two out of 256 players who have represented India in Test cricket are from the Muslim community and four of those have been captain: Iftikhar Ali Khan (the Nawab of Pataudi Sr), Ghulam Ahmed, Mansur Ali Khan (the Nawab of Pataudi Jr) and Mohammad Azharuddin. The percentage break-up is just about the same as the official figures for the community as a whole in India.
In addition, two Christians (Vijay Samuel Hazare and Chandu Borde), a Sikh (Bishan Singh Bedi) and two Parsees (Polly Umrigar and Nari Contractor) have also captained in Test matches. More than 30 years after his retirement, ‘Tiger’ Pataudi remains the most charismatic, idolised and romantic of our cricketers. He led without a break for an amazing nine years and then came back for one final glorious series four years after he had been sacked as captain.
Pataudi was the first captain to do away with the bane of regionalism in team selection. For Indian cricket’s greatest weakness has not been religious discrimination but selectors chosen on a zonal basis who invariably back players from their own states. As Pataudi always insisted on merit being the lone criterion for selection under his leadership, he forged a united identity and character for the first time.
Pakistan’s cricket fraternity has felt uneasy with this leading role played by Indian Muslims, though this seems to be changing of late. When India toured Pakistan in 1978 for the first time in 18 years, their commentators insisted on referring to wicket-keeper Syed Kirmani only by his surname. According to a leading Indian cricket historian, this was because the surname is also common in the Sindhi community!
A passage from the book, Pride and Passion: An Exhilarating Half Century of Cricket in Pakistan by Omar Noman (a former UN official and Oxford University lecturer) sums up this ambivalence. When India and Pakistan played for the first time in 1952, Ghulam Ahmed, noted for his off-spin bowling, helped to save the fifth Test at Calcutta with his batting and ensured India won the series 2-1. Writes Noman: “The fact that Ghulam Ahmed was a Muslim added to the poignancy of his efforts. It was as if a Jew had scored a goal against Israel, playing for an Arab team.”
Two Hindus and four Christians have represented Pakistan since that first series. One of those later converted to Islam and is now the leading batsman in the world. But it was when Mohammad Yousuf was in his earlier avatar as Yousuf Youhana that a storm was raised after he briefly led Pakistan while regular captain Inzamam-ul-Huq was injured. This did not go down well with some former Pakistani greats, who cast aspersions on Youhana’s ‘character’, leading London-based Pakistani cricket writer Kamran Abbasi to speculate on the ‘character’ of some of the players who had earlier captained Pakistan.
Abbasi had also written in April 2004 how Youhana’s chances of appointed captain on a full-time basis were slim as some of his teammates “are shamefully reluctant to be led by a captain from a minority group”. That has dramatically changed and Youhana is being talked of as Inzamam’s heir-apparent.
It was only in India that cricket was played along communal grounds. The Triangular, later Quadrangular and finally Pentangular tournaments (stretching from 1907-08 to 1945-46) in Bombay in the pre-Independence days were fiercely opposed by Gandhi and sections of the local press. It is no wonder considering they pitted the Muslims, Hindus, Parsees, Europeans and the ‘Rest’ (consisting mainly of Indian Christians, Jews and Buddhists) against one another in matches that drew huge crowds, but never any ill feeling.
Writing the foreword to a recent book on the tournaments, the late S Mushtaq Ali noted: “I can say without hesitation that though the teams were divided on communal lines, they were all united in their love of the game and there was seldom any ill feeling between either the players or the spectators of different communities.”
That spirit lives on in Indian cricket. Our politicians could well take a leaf out of Indian cricket’s history books rather than periodically condemning it.
Gulu Ezekiel is a sports journalist and author based in New Delhi