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Pakistan cricket's Sikh hope

Mahinder bowls for an NCA XI against a visiting Malaysian team Singh Studios

Dr Harjeet Singh finally gets it. "Until he [was in the] headlines on TV, no one knew that we also play cricket." Who is the "he" here, and who are the "we"? Putting Dr Harjeet into context by way of his location, Nankana Sahib, will answer a few questions.

The tiny 20,000-strong Sikh community in Pakistan found itself on the sports news pages when the doctor's son Mahinder Pal Singh, 20, a medium-pacer, was one of 30 players selected for the PCB's National Cricket Academy training and skills camp in Multan last year in October. Mahinder became the first Sikh in Pakistan's history to join the mainstream of cricket's second-largest country.

It was the fact of Mahinder's ethnicity that made the news, belonging as he does to perhaps the smallest minority in Pakistan. Seven non-Muslim cricketers have represented the country in a total of 207 Tests and two ODIs. Among them, from Wallis Mathias to Yousuf Youhana (before he became the cricketer formally known as Mohammad Yousuf) are five Christians and two Hindus, but no Sikhs.

Mahinder is only starting out in his career, but he has already been on a fairly long and difficult path to get to where he is. A few like him were well known in club cricket in Pakistan - names like Papinder Singh, Madan Singh and Gulab Singh, of whom the last played two or three grade-two matches but was never seen again.

Mahinder's earliest attempts to break with his community's conventions and make it into the Pakistan cricket system appeared doomed. "Nobody in our community has gone that far and taken cricket as his ambition," says the young man, a Waqar Younis fan in his childhood. For many young Sikh men, tape-ball cricket is no more than mere leisure; their careers lie in the textile business, like those of generations before them.

"It has been a childhood dream for me to play for Pakistan," says Mahinder. "I wasn't allowed until I did my matriculation, [when] I made a deal with my father that I will carry on studies but will also play cricket."

He grew up in the heart of the Sikh community in Pakistan, Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak. It is 100km west of Lahore, but far from Mahinder's family's original home in Mardan district in Pakistan's troubled north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK).

"Four of our boys tried their luck in the last ten years, but none of them went as far as Mahinder. We have a desire to see our boys in cricket"

Balwant Singh, head of Gurdwara Janam Asthan in Nankana Sahib

In 2003, Harjeet and his family began to be counted among the country's Internally Displaced People (IDP), following insurgency in the region. Mahinder was only seven when the family moved to Nankana Sahib, and he grew up playing tennis-ball cricket on its streets and surroundings.

In 2013, as a 17-year-old, he decided to sign up at the Abdul Qadir Academy just outside the Gaddafi Stadium. He spent a year there, and Qadir remembers him. "I told him that he needs to work really hard," he says. "I was being honest with him by telling him that some players aren't talented enough but this isn't a problem. It's the persistence and hard work that will take him to the top.

"He unfortunately wasn't consistent, and he wasted his golden years by not putting the required effort in for the game."

Qadir said he didn't follow Mahinder's career after he left the academy, but added, "I am sure if he is working hard wherever he is, he must have improved, because hard work always pays back."

The lack of progress at the Qadir Academy convinced Mahinder that the path into Pakistan's cricket mainstream didn't involve the route he had chosen. "For nearly two to three years, I didn't know how and what is the way to get myself in the system."

From his family's home base in Nankana Sahib, where his father works as a homeopath, Mahinder has moved to Lahore. There he lives close to another sacred place for his people: his hostel is within the compound of the shrine of Ranjit Singh, who ruled the Sikh empire from Lahore in the early 19th century.

Mahinder's unsuccessful stint at the Qadir academy, he says, nearly broke him. He had expected to play on the Under-19 circuit with the blessings of Qadir, a former chief selector. When the annual U-19 trials took place, he missed them because he was playing in a club match in Lahore.

He then chose to focus on his studies for about five months, before switching clubs, moving from Wahdat Eaglets to the Services Club in northern Lahore, where he is more comfortable and gets enough matches. He travelled to Mardan to take part in open trials at the NCA, where he caught the eye of the academy's director, Mudassar Nazar, and also of Ali Zia, senior general manager, academies, and of a coach, Ijaz Ahmed. A second round of trials in Multan got him a ticket into the NCA programme.

Mahinder is now studying for a professional pharmacist's degree at Punjab University to fulfil his father's dream of him becoming a doctor. Cricket is where his heart is, and he continues to play the club game. Harjeet found out about his son's obsession with cricket when he was in class eight in high school, and disapproved, not believing his son had the "approach" (used here in its uniquely subcontinental interpretation, to mean "clout") to get through to the highest levels of cricket. When he discovered that medicine wasn't his son's passion, father and son arrived at a middle ground.

Mahinder says, "I don't know how far I will go but I want to give it a shot, at least to live my dream." He believes he will "definitely go somewhere to make my name for my country. But if I lose my way, I have a degree to secure my future. That way I will not go away with a regret that I didn't try to fulfil my dream."

Any reservations against making a push in professional cricket, or about representing a country where they were a minority community are, according to a Sikh elder, "self-inflicted insecurity". Balwant Singh, the head of Gurdwara Janam Asthan in Nankana Sahib, who teaches the tenets of Sikhism to Sikhs in Pakistan under the age of 35, says Mahinder's progress is a beacon for the community. "Four of our boys tried their luck in the last ten years, but none of them went as far as Mahinder. They lost their way because there was no guidance, until Mahinder managed to touch down at the NCA. We have a desire to see our boys in cricket." Speaking of the roles Sikhs play in Pakistan's public life, he offers examples of those who hold positions in the army, rangers, emergency services, parliament, and on national television.

Balwant says, "In our community, we prefer business, and educating our kids is our main priority, but Mahinder finally convinced us that he can take his own way to make his family proud. It will always be great to see our Sikh brother representing Pakistan. Whatever he managed to achieve, our next boy will go further. It is a cycle that has started with Mahinder."