While one is delighted to learn that the ranks of the faithful have further swelled with the arrival of test star, Yousaf Youhana, the conversion business having spread into cricket, the manner in which the switch has been conducted gives it a strange and unpleasant twist. This business of what faith you profess is strictly a personal affair, although looking around Pakistan, you would be hard pressed to believe so. YY's jump from the arms of Jesus into the arms of the beards is his business but what's going on?
There is Saeed Anwar, a superb stylist in his hey days, now a dedicated opening batsman for the Raiwind Desperate Brigade. He has worked overtime and converted YY to the faith. The parents of Youhana have made it clear that their son was brainwashed by Saeed Anwar and party and have made no bones about what they think about this business. While it is public knowledge that Saeed's tragic loss of a daughter turned him from a dashing cricketer into a brooding young man who apparently found solace in spreading the good word, what personal unhappiness and delusion with the living world did Youhana face that made him question his set of beliefs? From all accounts he has done amazingly well. Coming from nowhere with social disadvantages larger than a cricket stadium, he managed to get into the national test side by the sheer class of his stroke play. It was as if he just could not be stopped. Now and then one heard of social spats within the team -- Wasim Akram's wife allegedly refused to eat breakfast at the same table as the Youhanas in Australia -- so the story went, but nothing sensational ever came out. If Youhana was burdened with his faith in the middle of a side that was leaning more and more towards a public display of their belief, no one ever said a word about it. His gesture of crossing himself when he went out to bat or when he reached a landmark was endearing and in my personal opinion, this was a feeling shared also by the public. For most Muslims it was a good sign, a reinforcement of an inner belief that we are, at heart, good people who can live in peace with others who may not necessarily follow the same path as we do. What Youhana's addition to the ranks of the faithful will do for the spread of Islam, I cannot say, but the signals it is sending out, are not good.
In Pakistan's cricket, there have been less Christian cricketers than the fingers of a hand. Wallis Mathias, Duncan Sharpe are two names that come to mind. Maybe there were another two or three but whatever score they notched up, it was never into double figures. That's a bad record given that we have been playing cricket just about as long as we have had the army messing up our lives. Considering the proportion of "white" that represents the minorities in the hugely dominant green flag (although wags have a theory why the mast rises through the white part only), the numbers are even lower than the proportion promises. With the President's government bleating on and on about enlightened moderation, a beast getting more and more mythical each passing day, the sight of a Christian and a Hindu -- Danish Kaneria, in the national side, fighting for the green and white flag, did more for our "image" than all the billions that have been and will be squandered on ill-conceived plans and horrifically priced consultants. It wasn't as good as watching Azharuddin leading India or more recently, Irfan Pathan wrecking sides or Sania Mirza spiralling into the top 30 tennis players in the world, but it was still some small satisfaction -- a reinforcement of beliefs most of us hold privately but are afraid to profess openly.
However, the sight of Youhana locked between the beards, his trousers rolled up to the mandatory ankle-level hasn't sent the spirit soaring into the skies. It is only a matter of time before the beard will start to sprout and Youhana will further the widely held belief that we cannot tolerate those who don't see things the same way as we do. Youhana may find inner peace but at a great cost to us. As for the large, poor and socially disadvantaged Christians for whom he had become a role model, it is a cruel reminder that the fairy tale is over. The growing dominance of players in the national side, who are openly brandishing an evangelist brand of religion, is not a good sign. It will not lead to a broader vision of the world but a narrowing focus and the dangerous conviction that we are the chosen ones and that's where the buck stops.
In Pakistan, particularly since Zia ul Haq's 11 dark years, the public display of holy morality has continued to show up, often in ridiculous situations. In his reign, just about anyone who had a position to protect or a favour to obtain, made their piety very public. The idea was to impress everyone, particularly those ranked higher, so that they would look upon such devout supplicants as being good and noble people.
Those who earlier went to bed in nothing less than three-piece suits could not be persuaded to let go of their "sherwanis" and "shalwars". Those who did not even know what times were ordained for prayers, began preparations hours before. Soon enough, feet arrived in basins meant to wash hands, ankles made a broad re-appearance and a host of other rituals followed. Somehow it was all-important to show your faith to as many spectators as you could find. This continues. Congregation of "Jamaats" on PIA flights is now common -- the hell with rules. What's worse, even crewmembers join in. Some years ago, invited to watch our PIA flight descend into an early-dawn Rome, we instead saw our Captain with a beard that would have had Moses in thrall, crouched low over the controls offering his prayers to his Maker. Shaken, we dashed back and fastened our seat belts.
Now that the "Tablighees" have pierced the corporate fortress of the PCB, what are we to expect next? Danish Kaneria's conversion? Mandatory prayer timings? Haj pre-requisite for team selection? Trousers rolled up to ankle length? Skullcaps over helmets? Who knows? What is clear is that getting visas for the players will become harder and harder, our enlightened moderation bleating notwithstanding.