Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2006

With Allah on their side

'Until this team, in fact, faith remained a private and individual realm. Once in a blue moon, according to one player, did the team offer Friday prayers together in the 1980s' © Getty Images

Cricket is like religion, it is said of the subcontinent, and of India in particular. For India's neighbour, though, the analogy assumes a deeper, more convoluted significance. In Pakistan, cricket is not really like religion. If the latter is truly opium for its masses, cricket remains purely their marijuana: teasingly recreational and definitely not as all-consuming.

And while cricket's popularity has receded (at least to judge by Test match attendances) over the past two decades, Islam has burrowed itself further into the national psyche. So much so that cricket, hitherto the one bastion free from it, also now feels its pull.

Rare today in Pakistani cricket is the public soundbite, or even private utterance, not bracketed by bismillah (in the name of Allah) or inshallah (God willing). The team prays together fastidiously, recites ayats (Koranic verses) in its huddles, and celebrates personal and collective milestones with the sajda (the act of kneeling in Muslim prayer); they all fast during Ramadan, some even during games.

His name has become so integral to strategy that an English journalist remarked during the winter tour that Allah should be Man of the Series. Even Danish Kaneria, a Hindu and now the solitary non-Muslim, peppers his talk with inshallah.

Kaneria used to be one of two, of course; in 2005 Yousuf Youhana converted from Christianity and became Mohammad Yousuf. If the subject of religion was mostly skirted round beforehand, his conversion yanked it into the public realm. Arguably, Shoaib Akhtar's revamp as cricketer as well as a diligent Muslim during the England series was an even more significant transformation. Until then, as a connoisseur of nocturnal living, he was a more brazen nod to Pakistan's secularism than either Yousuf or Kaneria. As in the country itself, collective piety has come belatedly in cricket. Pakistan was founded as a homeland to safeguard Muslim rights, not as an Islamic state per se. It is a subtle distinction but an important one, blurred only by time. The country's cricket parallels this evolution.

In Abdul Hafeez Kardar, Pakistan had an ideal first captain. Having played for the Muslims in the inter-communal Bombay Pentangular before Partition, Kardar was acutely aware of all the implications. His contemporary Fazal Mahmood rejected the opportunity to test his legcutter against Bradman by refusing to play for India, instead waiting for the new nation. He did so out of nationalistic rather than religious belief. In those early days Islam didn't knit the team together, the captain did.

In Pakistan, cricket is not really like religion. If the latter is truly opium for its masses, cricket remains purely their marijuana: teasingly recreational and definitely not as all-consuming

Until this team, in fact, faith remained a private and individual realm. Once in a blue moon, according to one player, did the team offer Friday prayers together in the 1980s. Before then, said another, some players prayed often after personal achievements, but never collectively and publicly as they do now.

Sporadically religion surfaced. Abdul Kadir, who played four Tests in the 1960s, was the first with open spiritual leanings. Although his father was a mosque cleric, Kadir pursued an active interest in mystical Sufism - not Islamic orthodoxy - through his career and after.

Among others, the awakening was public but belated, as with the legspinner Sheikh Fazalur Rehman, who fooled only Conrad Hunte in his solitary Test. Long after he retired, he completed a Masters in Islamic Studies; a devout Muslim, he gives weekly sermons and is a highly regarded Islamic scholar. According to the Encyclopaedia of Pakistan Cricket, he is now "a far cry from the ballroom dancer of yesteryear, often seen dancing the night away at the Lahore Gymkhana".

Saeed Ahmed, constantly in trouble as a player, joined the Tableeghi Jamaat (strict Islamic missionaries) in 1982, ten years after his last Test. Qasim Omar, who played 26 Tests in the 1980s, was another controversial No. 3, nicknamed "Disco" for his love of a party. Eventually banned from the game for making allegations of drug abuse against Imran Khan, he recanted much later in the name of Allah. But it was Saeed Anwar, in the 1990s, who provided the main stimulus. The tragic death of his daughter pushed him towards the Tableegh, and his influence spread quickly.

There was another factor, for Pakistani players in the 1990s were the match-fixing generation. Some sought religion for absolution and safeguard. Sharda Ugra of India Today argued: "The post-match-fixing generation is grappling with a 'double burden' ... not only are they under scrutiny for their professional conduct, they have also become characters in a public morality play, always vulnerable to being accused of match-fixing should they fail." When Salim Malik was first accused of corruption, the manager Intikhab Alam immediately asked him to swear his innocence on the Koran.

More complex, but perhaps equally significant, is the altered demographic of the team. Traditionally, Pakistan has relied on the urban nurseries of Lahore and Karachi to feed its cricket. And its cricketers were suitably urbane. Now more players emerge from smaller satellite towns, which are often more Islamic environments. Poorer literacy and awareness mean religious beliefs assume greater significance. Abdul Razzaq, from Shahedra on the outskirts of Lahore, suffered badly from dizzy spells in Australia last year: the cause remained a mystery until it was found he was on a spinach-heavy diet prescribed by a local spiritual leader.

Others point to the increased incidence of sectarian violence in the big cities and argue that piety is an urban rather than rural phenomenon. So perhaps the geography is less important than a broader change in society. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's cussed founding father, laid out an unequivocally secular vision for the country: religion would have no say, he insisted, in the running of the state. But along the way, this vision was lost. Since 1973, Pakistan has been prefixed with the "Islamic Republic of ", and it was not just a bureaucratic modification.

In 2005 Yousuf Youhana converted from Christianity and became Mohammad Yousuf © AFP

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto initiated the process in the mid-1970s; he prohibited alcohol, closed nightclubs and moved the weekly holiday from Sunday to Friday. His successor and nemesis, General Zia-ul-Haq, zealously stepped up this process, implementing Shariah law (the Islamic legal code, which is open to draconian interpretation) and Islamising the education curriculum.

More recently, the September 11 attacks sharpened the sense of Islamic identity in a country which stands on the front line of the America-led war on terror. Religion is now pervasive; in school, in state, on TV, in literature, at the heart of most political debates. Younger players such as Salman Butt and Kamran Akmal are children of this era and so, like most of their generation, are more openly devout than their predecessors.

Faith does seem to have strengthened a traditionally fractious side. Bob Woolmer, the current coach, is, of course, no Muslim but he is supportive of religion's adhesive power: he should know, having overseen the rise, in the 1990s, of a South African team with a devoutly Christian core.

Even the maverick Shoaib has spoken openly of the togetherness, the culture of forgiving, that Islam has bred within the dressing room. Some cynics maintain that Yousuf's conversion was implicitly forced, a roundabout result of his desire to become captain. This ignores the fact that he was vice-captain, and sometimes captain, while still a Christian, and the public relations potential for the country in having a Christian captain.

But if Islam is looking for a public-relations coup to offset the constant criticism it receives in the West, it need look no further, surely, than the joyous, bounding progress of the Pakistan team over the last year, with the genial but earnestly Muslim Inzamam-ul-Haq at its helm. Refreshingly, Islam has united them. The only fear, as Pakistanis know painfully well, is that religion has often also been at the very heart of the country's troubles.

© John Wisden & Co Ltd.