Past offers teaching to converted

There was a new, yet partially familiar name in the Pakistan cricket team that secured a dramatic and unexpected victory over England in Multan this week, writes Rob Steen. Mohammad Yousuf, however, is not a newcomer to the side, having played his previous 59 Tests under his birth name, Yousuf Youhana.

He made just eight runs in the match and if his concentration was slightly below par and his shot selection less judicious than usual, the widespread controversy over the reason for his change of moniker may have been to blame.

It is not uncommon for sportspeople to change names. Those with burdensome ones – such as the Indian batsman Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman, known to one and all as VVS – will act to ensure such irksome difficulties do not hinder their careers. Boxers, like actors, have long devised more billboard-friendly handles – Kid Gavilan, Fighting Harada, Sugar Ray Robinson and Sugar Ray Leonard – but that was not why Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali of the Nation of Islam, making himself many enemies in the process.

Yousuf has also attracted some enmity by making the same religious switch as Ali, but has won many more friends in his own country. Until recently the only Christian in the Pakistan XI, and just the fourth since Partition, he announced his conversion to Islam last month, reinventing himself as Mohammad Yousuf.

It was a move that appeared to risk nothing but excessive adulation from most Pakistanis. This, after all, is a land where Christians are confined to small, largely impoverished ghettos. When Yousuf made his Test debut, his parents did not possess a television set. Persecution of Christians by the state is regularly condemned by human rights groups.

This is hardly the first time religious preferences have infected sport. In Glasgow, until the early 1980s, footballers were signed by Rangers or Celtic according to which side of the Protestant-Catholic divide they fell. At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, German objections led to two Jews being dropped from the American 4x100m relay squad. In India nearly a century ago, Palwankar Baloo, a Dalit (“untouchable”) spin bowler, had to penetrate caste barriers to earn selection for “The Hindus”.

Now there is concern that Danish Kaneria, the spinner who played such a large part in England’s demise in Multan on Wednesday and the lone Hindu in an XI dominated by ardent Muslims, may throw his lot in with India. Members of England’s Asian community fear Bilal Shafayat’s decision to pray with his Pakistan opponents during an Under-19 tour has diminished his Test prospects.

As Pakistan rebuild under the guidance of another outsider, the English coach Bob Woolmer, Yousuf is one of their few dependables. In 60 Tests he has amassed 4,293 runs and 13 centuries, averaging more than 47. Crucially, and unlike so many of his flamboyant team-mates, orthodoxy, patience and composure come easily.

Some argue that his ambition to succeed Inzamam-ul-Haq as captain left him no choice but to jettison his faith. Indeed, his replacement as vice-captain by Younis Khan earlier this year may well have been the tipping point. While Inzamam retained his position despite a numbing series of defeats in Australia, Yousuf, in effect, was made the scapegoat.

In May, furthermore, he was sent home from the
Caribbean after an alleged altercation with other senior players. Publicly, it was stated that his father was ailing, though the latter was never taken to hospital. Shortly after Yousuf’s return, at his home in one of the posher parts of Lahore, his Mercedes car was stoned.

“There’s enough evidence,” wrote Agha Akbar, a Pakistani reporter, in the Indian magazine Outlook, “to suggest that Youhana was more or less a pariah in the dressing room who would eat and drink separately.” On tour, the other players’ wives bonded and offered each other mutual support but Tania Youhana was excluded.

The conversion angered Yousuf’s parents – “I don’t want to give [him] my name after what he has done,” his mother was quoted as saying – as well as the Christian community.

The name of Saeed Anwar is often mentioned in this. Following the death of
his daughter in 2002, the now-retired Test opener came under the influence of the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary group. His presence in the dressing room triggered a culture change as Pakistani players – many seeking a sprucer image after the national team had, with other sides, been embroiled in cricket’s match-fixing allegations – turned to Islam with renewed vigour, further isolating Yousuf.

Scepticism abounds. Dismissing Yousuf’s claims that he had converted three months earlier and was only now going public, an official from Pakistan’s National Council of Churches wondered why, as recently as the West Indies tour, he was still crossing himself upon reaching 50 or 100. I. A. Rehman, director of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, said: “It seems to me that Youhana was finding it difficult to keep his place in the side. Everyone is free to change one’s religion but to my mind there is apparently an element of coercion here.”

Yousuf’s riposte was terse: “I will rather quit cricket if that is the allegation.”

Whatever his motives for converting, it is difficult not to sympathise with the player, and hope that discussion will quickly return to his run rate rather than his religion.

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