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'Fans treat me with special indulgence'

A young man obligingly signs autographs for excited kids, even as the other members of the Pakistani team pick up a hose pipe and wash their hands and feet, writes Kadambari Murali.
PTI | By Kadambari Murali, Lahore
PUBLISHED ON APR 10, 2004 01:11 AM IST

A young man obligingly signs autographs for excited kids and shows them how to spin the ball, even as the other members of the Pakistani team pick up a hose pipe that's watering the ground and wash their hands and feet.

The azaan has been called and they are readying for their namaaz. The young man turns around as someone calls his name and walks over to the other player who's standing slightly separate from the rest, measuring up his bat.

Yousuf Youhana and Danish Kaneria are two of a kind in this Pakistani squad, in that they're both minorities. While the Catholic vice-captain's is a story oft told - about his underprivileged background and meteoric rise from the streets - leg-spinner Kaneria's is altogether different.

It is a story of a boy from an upper middle-class, devout Hindu family, whose family has done business and lived in Karachi for ages. Unlike Youhana, Kaneria did not use a soti for his first bat, nor did he wonder whether he could afford to continue with the sport because of lack of money.

His father retired as vice-president of the famed Habib Bank, his brother Vikrant works in a managerial capacity in a public sector undertaking and he went to Karachi's well-known St Patrick's High School.

His story is unusual because he is a Hindu in an Islamic state. Nothing else.

By the way, the 23-year-old's name is not a corruption of Dinesh, he says, his "abbu's best friend" Kaawas Mullah - a Parsi - named him. "I even have a first cousin named Farhaan," he says. "My kundli said I had to be named with D and so I was; my godfather liked the name."

Kaneria has another, better known cousin, his mother's brother's son. Anil Dalpat, another Hindu who played for Pakistan. Dalpat though, has nothing to do with Kaneria's interest in the game.

Kaneria doesn't want to go into what caused the friction but the animosity is clear and the reference to his famous cousin is the only time in the conversation when the bubbly leg-spinner's brow gets furrowed.

Kaawas Mullah incidentally, was the reason Kaneria started thinking of the game seriously. "By the time I was about 10, people had got used to seeing me with a ball in my hand. One day, uncle saw me bowling and realised that the leg-spin action came naturally to me. He told me I had God's gift and shouldn't waste it."

The young Danish was in Class Six when he started playing cricket regularly in school. "The teachers were fascinated by the fact that I could leg-spin so comfortably and by the time I was in the seventh, I was made to bowl with the new ball.

On Karachi's cement wickets, I did very well. I was very fat and couldn't field, so they would bowl me for five overs and take me off after that. I had those five overs to make an impact."

The weight was beginning to seriously affect him and in Class 8, Kaneria went to the academy of another relative who played first-class cricket, Mohinder Kumar. "From 3 to 10pm, I would just run, run and train. He made me obsessive about physical fitness. That is also the time I developed my loop. I was very short and needed to throw the ball further in the air to get it across properly."

Kaneria went on to join Islamiya College, play u-16 and u-19 for Karachi and joined the Don Bosco Cricket Club, a minorities-only club. "I have miles to go but I believe I can do it," he says confidently. "I have tremendous support from my team and the public too, they treat me with a special indulgence."

And does he ever feel left out, like the time when they do namaaz? The no is emphatic. "I don't do namaaz but hum saath saath dua maangte hain. Everyone looks at the heavens. Doesn't Sachin look up and gives thanks when he scores a century?"

It is interesting to hear Kaneria talk. Even as he talks about Satyanarayan pujas and vraths and says he recites the Gayatri mantra before entering a ground, he says "Inshallah, sab theek ho jayega", and makes references to abbu and ammi.

He doesn't call his parents that, but the references come naturally. "It really doesn't matter," he says, when this is pointed out. "You people in India think we are persecuted here, but we are not. Unlike in India, there is no tension between Hindus and Muslims here in Pakistan."

Kaneria is typical of the Hindus one has met in Pakistan and perhaps, of any minority community member anywhere in the world. Fervently religious and staunchly traditionalist, they protect their little world through customs and mores that are probably outdated in their country of origin.

And like Muslim players in India, he would be keener to prove his national credentials than someone from the majority community - who probably wouldn't think about a need to state it anyway.

He says as much. "Let's be very clear about one thing," he says, looking at his watch. "I'm a Pakistani before I'm Hindu. My country comes before my religion - there's no question about that."

Yes, one agrees, as we bid each other goodbye.

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