Vantage point

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Abid Nabi and Muslims in Indian Cricket

The optimistic buzz surrounding Abid Nabi, the young paceman from Jammu & Kashmir set me thinking about a topic not many are comfortable discussing - Indian Muslims and Indian cricket.

A few weeks back, when demands were made from certain quarters that a survey be carried out to ascertain the percentage of Muslims in the Indian Army, there was a lot of dust kicked up. Some said any such survey would be tantamount to colouring the Army communally. Others said such a survey would be very important in showing how well or poorly represented Muslims are in one of India's most respected institutions.

In general, it is observed that the representation of several underprivileged communities and castes in all walks of life in India is not even close to being proportional to their population. The reasons for this can be manifold, with the main one probably being a lack of access to resources. Another reason, a more sinister one, is stated to be discrimination. Some feel that Indian muslims are discriminated against, at least while being admitted to the army, because of the tumultous history India shares with Pakistan, the Muslim majority part of the former undivided India that broke away.

In a country like India where most institutions are seen as rickety and untrustworthy, very few command respect and admiration. The army is one. The film industry is another. And of course the Indian cricket team is the third. It would be interesting to see how Indian Muslims have been treated in the world of cricket.

Indian cricket seems to have been largely "secular", both the administration as well as the fans. The Nawab of Pataudi, Mansur Ali Khan, was the youngest Indian captain. It was under him that the Indian team is said to have gelled cohesively and played as a unit for the first time. He also led India to its first series win abroad. All through the 50s, 60s and 70s, there were muslim players who did well, and were also very popular. One of the first crowd favourites was Salim Durrani, whose non-inclusion in the team was protested by Mumbai fans with threats of "No Durrani, No Test".

The first casualty of his religion in Indian cricket, at least if whispers are to be believed, was Abbas Ali Baig. He scored a century on test debut in England, then played well against Australia at home, but failed badly in a series against Pakistan. There were murmurs about how he might have played badly on purpose. The partition was just over a decade old and the wounds were still fresh. Baig was dropped after the series, and was never given an extended run in the team. It is widely believed that it was his failure in the Pakistan series that ended his test career.

With the exception of Baig however, most deserving Muslims got their due in Indian cricket.

However it can be argued that most Muslims who played for India in those era were from the privileged classes, starting from Mansur Ali Khan, who was a bonafide 'Royal'. The privileged Muslims have always gotten their due in all walks of life. It is the poorer Muslims who are under-represented.

The first underprivileged Muslim player to hit the big league was Mohammad Azharuddin. He was a popular batsman, and even captained India for a decade. Though his captaincy coincided with an extended poor run against Pakistan in ODIs, his loyalties, at least in terms of his religion, were never questioned. Of course, his overall loyalties came under the scanner with the match-fixing scandal. But Azhar's religion was a non-issue, remarkably so in the 90s, when Hindu-Muslims problems came to a boil.

The last few years have seen the overall median of Indian cricket shift from the big-city-upper-middle-classes to the small-town-lower-to-middle-classes. We have also seen an influx of Muslims players, almost all of them from modest backgrounds. Zaheer Khan grew up in a small town called Srirampur in Maharashtra. Mohammad Kaif is from Allahabad in Eastern U.P. Irfan Pathan is the son of a mosque caretaker from Baroda. Wasim Jaffer is the son of a Mumbai bus driver. Munaf Patel is the son of a farmer from Gujarat. And the Indian cricket establishment as well as the Indian public have embraced them with open arms. Munaf and Pathan, two of the most "buzzing" players in the team, are from Gujarat, which has been the 'Ground Zero' of Hindu-Muslim trouble in the last few years. But their religion seems to be a complete non-issue.

How much of a non-issue religion is in cricket can, in a small way, be gauged from the Bollywood film 'Iqbal'. Whenever Bollywood films show Muslims, there are some cliched platitudes thrown in about how they is very loyal to his country and all that. The compulsion to put in such a line elated to Muslim characters is felt even more severely when the movie is about the army. Even the "young and pathbreaking" director Farhan Akhtar, himself a Muslim, could not resist putting the cliched dialogues in his movie army-centric 'Lakshya' and the latest potboiler 'Rang De Basanti' could not resist the "message" either.

What makes 'Iqbal' refreshingly different is that though the movie is about a young son of a Muslim farmer (almost mirroring Munaf's life story) who wants to become a fast bowler, there is absolutely no reference made to his religion. None at all.

So far all practical purposes, it seems like Indian cricket has been secular, and Abbas Ali Baig was the tragic exception to the rule.

Why then did the news about young Abid Nabi prompt me into writing this post? Because he is from Jammu & Kashmir, and more specifically, from the Kashmir valley. The Kashmir valley is almost unanimous in its desire to secede from the Indian union. Pakistan covets the kashmir valley too, and has its strongest supporters from the region.

All the other Muslim players are from the rest of India. Even if there have been riots, terror attacks, and other problems in places like Gujarat, Mumbai and Uttar Pradesh, there is a widespread consensus that these are internal and often largely localised problems, which are fuelled by local politicians. The bad eggs, be they the Hindu rioters or the Muslim rioters, are supposed to be a minicule but muscular minority. With relation to cricket, yes there have been allegations from the Shiv Sena about the celebrations in Muslim neighbourhoods when Pakistan beats India but these are again aberrations.

Kashmir Valley is a different matter altogether. One of the breakout moments for expression of the discontent in the Kashmir Valley was a one-dayer between India and West Indies at Srinagar in 1983 when the crowd jeered India, supported the West Indies, and several sections of the crowd waved Pakistani flags. It was probably the first time that the magnitude of sentiments in the Valley were thrust into national limelight.

When Abid Nabi plays for India(people who have seen him bowl assure me he will) against Pakistan, I can not begin to imagine the historical baggage he will be carrying. The pressure on him to perform well, especially in crunch situations, will be tremendous. The danger of his being Baig-ed would be very real. I hope the Indian public, the Pakistani public, the media and the cricket establishment are mature enough to not let it happen.

But a Kashmiri Muslim fast bowler from the Valley playing against Pakistan will be an occasion loaded with possibilities that I can't wait to watch unfold.

cross posted on Different Strokes