Dr Ali Khan on his latest book: ‘Pakistan cricket is a strong brand’

His latest book Cricket in Pakistan: Nation, Identity and Politics explores the symbiotic relationship between the popular sport and the young nation’s aspirations


Joydeep Sengupta

Published: Thu 4 Aug 2022, 7:58 PM

Dr Ali Khan is an associate professor and dean of anthropology at the Mushtaq Ahmad Gurmani School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). His research interests vary from labour issues to popular culture in Pakistan, focusing particularly on cinema and sports. Dr Khan’s book Representing Children: Power, Policy and the Discourse on Child Labour in the Football Manufacturing Industry of Pakistan was published by Oxford University Press (OUP) in 2007. He was also the General Editor for a series of seven books on sociology and anthropology in Pakistan. Two major pieces of research resulted in co-authored and edited books on cricket Cricket Cauldron (I.B.Tauris, 2013) and Pakistani Cinema— Cinema and Society (OUP, 2016). A second edited collection on cinema — Film and Cinephilia came out in 2020. His latest monograph, Cricket in Pakistan: Nation, Identity and Politics was published by OUP this year. Dr Khan has an M.Phil and a Ph.D in social anthropology from the University of Cambridge in England.

He took avid interest in cricket from his formative years because of his father who was a keen sportsman and cricket fanatic. His brothers and he grew up not only following the game but also playing for school, university and various clubs. In a way, it’s been a lifelong passion.

“My research looks at the way the history, politics, economics, and society of the region have transformed cricket, making it a part of a popular culture that represents Pakistan. But simultaneously, cricket has also shaped the very influences that sculpted it while allowing the exploration and analysis of the intricate relationships between sport, culture, politics, identity, and regional cooperation through the unique lens of Pakistani cricket,” he says.

“When one thinks of Pakistan, inevitably a variety of themes come to mind. Colonialism, partition, new nation, Islam, India, corruption, terrorism, Imran Khan, Malala Yousafzai — these are some of the most prominent among them. But what connects all these topics is cricket. Their role in Pakistan is reflected in their role in cricket in the country and an analysis of it leads us to a unique insight into the nation,” he adds.

So what are the key takeaways from his latest book? “If you want to understand Pakistan, you can do so by looking at cricket in the country. In it, you see all the good, bad and ugly of Pakistan. You see resilience, audacity, invention, and youthful exuberance. But you also see corruption, greed, poor leadership, and unfulfilled potential,” he says.

He attributes the mercurial streak of the team to the national psyche. “We’re a young nation — not only in terms of Pakistan as a country but also in terms of a youthful population. Youthful exuberance will be difficult to contain and tame. Our coaching structures are also weak, meaning that natural talent is largely uncoached talent and can on its day be unstoppable. But it also tends to be inconsistent. The inability to provide stability in terms of captaincy, team selection or even leadership of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) breeds insecurity amongst the team and again works against consistency,” he says.

Is the current team more cohesive since Imran Khan’s glory days as a captain?  “Khan got the team he wanted from the late 1980s and under him the team was cohesive. He built that team and for five years Pakistan vied with West Indies as the best team in the world. Before and after that Pakistan struggled with factionalism. Currently, the team seems quite cohesive. They have a good core group of young players who support one another,” he says. “The mood in the dressing room reflects the leadership of the team. This includes the captain, senior coaching staff and the board. Poor leadership will lead to factions forming and growth of negative behaviours, such as match fixing. Politics may play a role in terms of the appointment of the PCB Chairman. But the dressing room is the domain of the immediate leadership,” he adds.

He feels the issue of players being victimised time and again for fluctuating fortunes of political parties “has been overplayed”. “I don’t know of players who have been favoured or victimised overly because of political linkages. You must perform in cricket to remain in the team. Generally, we will have slightly different ideas on who should be part of the team but if anything, the problem of selection is far greater at club level where patronage will throw up some talent and suppress others. Once you are on the international stage, you get exposed quickly.”

He adds, “following cricket passionately is the foundation for the research”. “But of course, beyond that I was able to interview former and current cricketers and administrators and fans during a four-year period. I also spoke to journalists and undertook a lot of secondary research at libraries and archives in Pakistan and England.”

Dr Khan’s training as an academic helped him take a dispassionate view of the game and the protagonists around it. “The academic training becomes important to be able to make linkages to various social and political phenomena that one may not think about simply as a cricket fan. Cricket’s importance to our foreign relations. How representations of Pakistan have impacted how England–Pakistan relations have been shaped. How to possibly explain the contradictory Pakistan-India relations. Also, how you conduct interviews and gather primary data makes a big difference to the quality and authenticity of your final analysis.”

In his opinion, “the Pakistani captain Babar Azam is a wonderful batter. He is a captain that is gaining experience. But he is still early in his career. I think Imran Khan was the best player-captain I saw. Mushtaq Mohammad was the captain who taught us to break out of our inferiority complex. Inzamam ul Haq and Misbah ul Haq have enormous contributions as leaders in difficult times. Babar may go on to surpass all of them but it’s too early to put him in the same league.”

Cricket has been a unifying factor in Pakistani way of life. It has been a unifying force beyond the metropolises such as Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.  “Since 1970s, we’ve seen an enormous expansion in the appeal of cricket. Up until the late 1970s, about 80 per cent of all cricketers who had played for Pakistan up until that time had been from Karachi and Lahore. But the emergence of cheap transistor radios and, more importantly, the spread of cricket through TV meant it began to reach a much greater audience. First class and international grounds also expanded so that touring teams played in Faisalabad, Multan, Sialkot, Sahiwal, Bahawalpur, Gujranwala and Peshawar, among others. From the 1970s, we also had an increasingly successful team full of charismatic cricketers. Suddenly, cricket was able to grab the attention of a much wider group and it began to be followed with the fervour that was normally associated with Brazil and football. This has continued to date and we now have players emerging from every part of Pakistan.”

He adds, “Over the decades, cricket has given much to Pakistan. It has been a beacon of hope at times of darkness. We have won international events — most importantly, the 1992 World Cup, the 2009 T20 World Cup and the 2017 Champions Trophy. The 2009 T20 World Cup, for example, came at a time when terrorist violence was peaking in the country and Pakistan had been stripped of hosting international cricket. After a decade of no cricket at home, we’re emerging back on the international circuit. The country needs stability so that Pakistan, its population and its cricket can thrive. Pakistan cricket is a strong brand. The team is exciting. The Pakistan Super League (PSL) has done well commercially. These initiatives need support so that we can upgrade infrastructure after 10 years in the wilderness. Cricket, like Pakistan, needs stability and peace for it to reach its potential.”


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