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Skipper’s coterie of preachers affecting spirit

Monday, 19 March 2007 - 10:42pm IST

From a bunch of happy-go-lucky players, who embraced the English way of life, the Pak team is now full of pious members indulging in religious rituals.

LAHORE: Following Pakistan's humiliating defeat to Ireland, many say it was the team's over-indulgence in Islamic rituals and lack of focus on cricketing matters that led to its premature ouster from the World Cup.

The Pakistan cricket team, which was once known as a band of happy-go-lucky playboys, has undergone a total transformation, turning into a coterie of Islamist preachers.

According to Asif Iqbal, a former skipper, professionalism was the hallmark of the team in his playing days. Most of the cricketers used to play county cricket and their interaction with English society showed in their grooming, behaviour and lifestyles.

Those days are now a memory. The present members of the Pakistani team pursue their religious beliefs with passion. 'Bismillah' (In the name of Allah) or 'Inshallah' (God willing) punctuate every utterance, whether on or off the field. Players huddle together to pray on the ground during pre-match preparations: the beard is sported as an advertisement of the faith; batsmen have been known to cramp up during Ramadan because they fast even if they are playing an international match.

This change has come about because a clutch of players - captain Inzamam-ul-Haq, Mushtaq Ahmed (bowling coach), Mohammad Yousuf, Saqlain Mushtaq, Shahid Aridi, Shoaib Malik, and Yasir Hameed -- have become members of the Tableeghi Jamaat (TJ), or party of preachers, participating in public gatherings to propagate Islam and stressing upon the virtues of an Islamic lifestyle.

According to a senior PCB official who requested anonymity, Inzamam's penchant for mixing religion with cricket has sparked accusations that he favours Tableeghi players over those who are secular or confine religion to their private lives. The non-Tableeghi group is reportedly led by vice-captain Younis Khan and includes Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammad Asif, Danish Kaneria, Imran Nazir, and Abdul Razzaq. This divide often shadows differences between players. Inzamam believes that the preaching sessions with Islamic scholars help to develop unity in the team, and that his own piety enables him to overcome distractions on tours abroad.

Bob Woolmer had stated before leaving for the West Indies: "There is the odd problem. You have to train the players with less intensity during Ramadan, or do it at a time of day when they have more strength. In some respects that can be frustrating as a coach."

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