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Cricket and politics

Cricket commands creed-like devotion in Pakistan and cricketers frequent the list of national heroes, though they can be turned into villains in no time in case they don’t measure up to public expectations. On the other hand, politicians, by and large, are not highly regarded and we tend to see them as the architects of most of our misfortunes. Be that as it may, one person has the distinction of being our most celebrated cricket icon to date and as well as one of the most popular political leaders these days. Can he scale similar heights in politics as he did in sports?

Certainly Imran Khan believes so and so do his tens of thousands of highly-charged supporters and activists. The Skipper feels it in his bones that, making a mockery of most of the surveys predicting a PML-N victory, he will come from behind and lead from the front to guide his political team to victory the way he did in 1992 when he successfully spearheaded the country’s campaign for cricket’s most coveted honour.

Khan is wont to drawing analogies between cricket and politics and, on the basis of the same, claims that he can make his mark in politics following his exploits in cricket. This, of course, is not to suggest that his success in sports is the only factor lying at the bottom of the predications for Khan’s political fortunes to go places. Nevertheless, the analogies are deemed important by the former cricketer as well as his huge fan club. One, therefore, may look at the similarities between cricket and politics.

Khan’s favourite analogy is that in both the departments leadership is of paramount importance. Of all the sports, cricket is said to offer the largest scope for exercise of leadership qualities. It’s also said to be the only game where leadership – or lack of it – can make the real difference. How well or poorly a side performs on the field can in large measurers be attributed to how it is led. A captain who himself leads from the front, just as Khan used to do, marshals his resources to the full, makes his team fight tooth and nail, has a well thought out strategy and commands the players’ total trust, can make even an average side do wonders.

The same is said to hold water in politics as well. The success or failure of political parties is in the main ascribed to leadership. The argument goes that when political parties, whose strings are pulled by faithless, fickle, and flirtatious leaders, get an opportunity to government, they make a mess of everything and turn out to be a total failure.

In the end, a regime is corrupt and incompetent because the people at the helm – the leaders – are out-and-out so. The destiny of the nation can hardly change unless it’s guided by a person of unimpeachable credentials. In short, in cricket as well as politics, leadership is alleged to make the crucial difference.

The proponents of such an argument actually play to the gallery. It’s always convenient, as it’s appealing to the popular mind, to pass the buck on one ‘bad boy’ be it in sports or politics. The key to understanding political developments is to comprehend the social forces – economic, cultural, moral, and religious – at work. Any analysis which attributes success or failure of governments or rise or fall of institutions to one person or a few is simply shallow and superficial.

In cricket also, the performance of a team is a function of a variety of factors of which leadership is only one. These include the strength of the side itself, the quality of the opponents, the playing conditions, umpiring decisions, and pure luck. Indians, as well as Pakistanis, perform well on slow, turning tracts but cut a sorry figure on bouncy pitches. Bangladesh is a soft opponent for any side.

The teams generally perform better in home conditions than while playing abroad. Leadership is seldom the capital difference between a good side and a bad side or between winning and losing.

It’s not a skipper who creates a successful side; rather a successful skipper is one who happens to head a strong side. In contemporary cricket, the three most successful captains are Clive Lloyd (West Indies), Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting (both Australians). The reason: all three led teams that were regarded as the best of their times. Imagine Lloyd heading India or Waugh leading New Zealand. Would they have been that much successful? Certainly not.

Coming back to Khan, he led his side in the world cups of 1983, 1987 and 1992. Why did his team win only once despite being the favourites in 1987? Clive Lloyd led the West Indians to victory twice (1975 and 1979) but saw them beaten by the then ‘underdogs’ India in 1983. The same goes for Ricky Ponting: lifting the World Cup in 2003 and 2007 but unable to make it even to the semi finals in 2011. In brief, neither in politics nor in cricket is leadership the decisive factor.

Cricket and politics can be compared in some other respects as well. Of late, wealth has come to exercise a deep influence in cricket. This influence takes two forms. One, courtesy commercialisation of sports, players earn a pretty penny both on and off the field (by endorsing products ranging from shaving creams to automobiles). Two, heaps and heaps of money can be made by fixing an encounter or some part of it, of course by roping in some of the players, and then outguessing others.

As for politics, its relationship with wealth is as old as anyone can think. Economics have been at the bottom of several of the far-reaching political developments, such as the end of feudalism, setting up of national governments and growth of democracy in Europe. In Pakistan, the feudal and capitalist classes have ruled the roost in the political arena and the power of money can make and break governments.

Biased umpiring can affect the outcome of a cricketing encounter. In the past when third country umpiring was not in vogue, in crucial moments the umpires would often decide in favour of the home side. With the introduction of ‘neutral’ supervisors, umpiring decisions have attained far greater credibility, though at times even highly reputed umpires being humans err.

In politics as well, it’s highly important that the body entrusted with holding elections is not known to be biased towards or prejudiced against any political party; so that parties win or lose on merit. In Pakistan, electoral rigging hasn’t been uncommon and those finishing on the losing side generally allege foul play. It was in response to such allegations that the 20th Amendment to the constitution was enacted providing for a neutral administration and an independent Election Commission. One hopes those supervising the upcoming polls make only the slightest of errors.

Cricket is full of surprises. The favourites may bite the dust and the minion may carry the day. And at times the side ranked second wins the ultimate honours merely because the top side is thrown out of the contest by a lower ranked side. The same may also happen in politics.

Despite having so much in common, cricket and politics are different ballgames. Excellence in either has its own variables and success in one is no cause for taking that in the other for granted. It’s then no more necessary for an outstanding cricketer to excel in politics than it is for a successful politician to have first made his mark in cricket. This, of course, doesn’t mean that a cricketer can’t earn a place for himself in politics.

The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: hussainhzaidi@gmail.com

Hussain H. Zaidi, "Cricket and politics," The News. 2013-04-29.
Keywords: Political science , Political leaders , Government-Pakistan , 20th amendment , National issues , Elections , Politicians , Corruption , Politics , Sports , Imran Khan , Clive Lloyd , New Zealand , Pakistan , Bangladesh , India , PMLN , PTI