Response to Ashraf's comments October 24, 2006

'I have never forced anyone to offer prayers' - Inzamam

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A few Pakistan players offer early morning prayers © AFP

Inzamam-ul-Haq, the Pakistan captain, has strongly denied accusations that he was putting players in the team under pressure to pray and that the selection process was linked to religion in any way as the debate over the role of Islam in the Pakistan team gathers steam.

Talking to BBC's Urdu Service, Inzamam said, "I have never forced anyone to offer prayers in the team or to keep a beard. There are only three players in the team who went to England who have a beard: Shahid Afridi, Mohammad Yousuf and myself. I've never linked team selection to offering prayers and reports suggesting otherwise are all wrong."

And in what appears to be a thinly-veiled response to new PCB chairman Dr Nasim Ashraf's recent comments to a TV channel, where he asked the team to find "a balance" between Islam and cricket and to avoid overtly public displays of religiosity, Inzamam said, "All those talking about our religious activities have never offered prayers and nor do they have any link to Islam."

Last week Ashraf had told CNBC Pakistan that, "There is no doubt their religious faith is a motivating factor in the team. It binds them together. But there should be balance between religion and cricket."

The chairman held a meeting with Inzamam to discuss the issue, in which he was clearly told, according to Ashraf, "that there should be no pressure on players who don't pray regularly or any compulsion on them to do it. He has assured me there is no pressure on anyone to do anything they don't want to do." A board source asserted the meeting's tone was harsher.

Ashraf's comments also attracted the ire of the MMA (Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal), a political conglomerate of religious parties who sit in government in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan. In a statement, religious leaders strongly condemned the chairman's remarks as damaging to the cricket team and the country's ideology.

Disquiet has been expressed privately by board officials since the end of the tour to England over the growing role of religion within the team. One official said recently, "Inzamam is not leading a team, he is leading a tableegh (missionaries)." And Cricinfo has learnt from sources close to the team that during the England tour players were often up late at night to offer tahajjud (special prayers) and waking up early in the morning to offer prayers before going back to sleep, thus possibly hampering preparations for matches.

But of more concern, as evident in the chairman's comments, is that undue pressure is being put on younger players to offer prayers and adhere diligently to an Islamic code, failing which their place in the team may be affected. Though not explicit, players who didn't attend prayers would be asked later why they didn't, thus leading some to make sure they attended.

Religion within the team has been a talking point since last year and in particular since the conversion of Mohammad Yousuf to Islam. It has been widely attributed by many, including coach Bob Woolmer, as bringing a traditionally fractious team closer together and enhancing performances on the field, a point borne out by Pakistan's success over the last year.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo