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Moeen Cheema
Moeen Cheema
Moeen Cheema is a lecturer in law at the Australian National University's College of Law.
Cricket and politics in Pakistan
Pakistani cricket affects the nation's political moods more deeply than any other national sports team in the world.
Last Modified: 17 Jan 2012 15:31
The spot-fixing episode disgraced Pakistani cricket and ended with convictions in a foreign court [GALLO/GETTY]

Canberra, Australia - It has become a cliché amongst cricket commentators that cricket is religion in India. Across the border, one might argue cricket is politics. The Pakistan cricket team's (mis)fortunes on and off the field vividly reflect the country's political, social and economic conditions. The chain of causation does not flow one way either. Pakistan cricket also affects the nation's political moods more deeply than any other national sports team in the world.

There is evidence aplenty. Pakistan's pariah status as a travel destination was sealed by a terrorist attack on the visiting Sri Lankan team in March 2009. That it came as a complete surprise to many in the country confirmed a deep denial of the nature and extent to which religious extremism had penetrated Pakistani society. The attack shaped a growing resolve to counter militancy, which was manifested in a successful operation against the Taliban and allied radicals in Swat later that year.

But then, the denial gradually reclaimed lost ground, evidenced as much by the government's bland statements that Pakistan was winning its domestic "War on Terror" as by the Pakistan Cricket Board's claim that the country was ready to host international cricket matches. No one outside Pakistan took these claims seriously.

Arguably, nothing revealed more clearly the extent to which corruption has become deep-rooted in Pakistani society than the so-called "spot-fixing" scandal that engulfed Pakistan's last tour of England in 2010. The parallels with Pakistani politics are surreal. The spot-fixing episode disgraced Pakistan cricket and ended with the captain and two bowling spearheads being convicted in a foreign court.

Its parallel in national politics is the ongoing National Reconciliation Ordinance saga revolving around a certain "Swiss case" that, along with a number of high profile cases taken up by the Supreme Court, has brought corruption in the highest offices of government squarely to the centre of public attention. Both episodes demonstrate the prevalence of corruption in public affairs in Pakistan. Both episodes have also gradually whittled away the general indifference of the public towards corrupt practices.

The financial mismanagement of the Pakistan Cricket Board under its former chairman echoes another malaise that has eaten away Pakistan's governance structures. That Ijaz Butt was an incompetent crony of the incumbent president who ran the cricket board into the ground did not come as a surprise to anyone in Pakistan. Gentlemen of his ilk have been appointed to important positions without any regard to merit and have run vital economic institutions into the red - at great cost to Pakistan's economy which was already under stress. Such institutions include public corporations such as the Pakistan Steel Mills, Pakistan International Airline, Pakistan Railways and various utility corporations and regulatory authorities.

The comparisons between the state of Pakistan cricket and the affairs of its state are not all negative. The story of Pakistan cricket certainly has shades of bright, just as the story of Pakistan has many silver linings on the horizon. That there was life in Pakistan cricket after the spot-fixing controversy, which had one of its most successful years in international cricket in 2011, was evidence of Pakistan's resilience. That even Muhammad Amir's prodigious talent could be replaced by Junaid Khan in such a short span of time was confirmation of enormous untapped pools of human resources, that are crying out for governance systems oriented towards merit.

Pakistan cricket's solid progress post-disaster was based less on exceptional ability and more on old-school grind and back-to-basics attitude, which mirrors tectonic shifts in Pakistan's political landscape. It is less the charisma of scions of political dynasties or extravagant slogans full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing, that shape Pakistan's politics.

"Regional areas of Punjab and the north western part of the country are emerging as the most significant catchment areas for cricketing talent."

It is the more mundane, long-term structural reform-oriented rhetorics of rule of law, constitutionalism, accountability and fair electoral processes that have moved national politics in the right directions, even if through periodic convulsions rather than along a smooth trajectory. That the poster boy of such reform-olutions is none other than Pakistan's biggest cricketing hero - Imran Khan who led Pakistan to a World Cup win in 1992 - whose successes in cricket and in politics was achieved through a hard determined slog - represents a harmony in form and substance that has historically been absent in Pakistani narratives.

Of great significance is the fact that Pakistan's cricket resurrection is based in part on a growing regional and ethnic diversity in the team's make-up. While still not as diverse as it ought to be in a country of 180 million people, Pakistan's cricket teams are no longer dominated by Lahore and Karachi, the two mega-metropolises in the country. Regional areas of Punjab and the north western part of the country are emerging as the most significant catchment areas for cricketing talent. This reflects a parallel move towards greater regional autonomy in Pakistan's governance and economic structures.

After decades of repression and criminal neglect, the "backward" regions of Balochistan, interior Sindh and southern Punjab are finally getting some attention. Historic imbalances are far from being reversed, but at least there is some recognition of these injustices and some cause for optimism.

Who can say whether these positive developments in Pakistan's cricket and national politics will last. If recent history is a reliable indicator, at any moment Pakistan cricket might be engulfed in another ball-tempering or match-fixing controversy, or might implode in a conflict within the team or between some players and the management.

If, in the long run, historical mistakes are doomed to be repeated, then 2012 might well be the year of major political disasters in which Pakistan's transitional democratisation is marred once again by suicidal clashes between weak political parties, an entrenched military establishment and an increasingly assertive judiciary.

But even if such disasters come to pass in Pakistan's cricket or national life, faint hopes of renaissance and distant dreams of glory will soon emerge. Narratives of a phoenix-like rise from the ashes will be woven around the folklore of past grandeur, real or imagined.

The next generation of cricketers, who have learned their art of playing on foreign soils as perpetual nomads, will provide much reason to cherish the resilience inherent in Pakistani national character. A population bursting at the seams with a youth bulge will produce many more stories of triumph over adversity than it does suicide bombers and jihadis.

Moeen Cheema is a lecturer in law at the Australian National University's College of Law and writes regularly on Pakistan's law, politics, society and cricket.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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