Learning right lessons from Kaneria’s tale of exclusion

Learning right lessons from Kaneria’s tale of exclusion

Danish Kaneria is only an example of how identity-based coagulations can spark dissonance within teams.  (Photo by Reuters)

Individuals in stress situations find different ways of centering themselves. They meditate, speak to friends and family, seek therapy, connect with affinity groups, refer to self-help books.

They also turn, or return, to religion. A number of international cricketers – 2019’s most prolific Test batsman Marnus Labuschagne the latest among them – have spoken of how religion helped them discover the inner equilibrium needed to cope with the demands of top-flight sport.

The cricketer’s, indeed any individual’s, personal relationship with religion is unexceptionable. As it should be. The territory gets fuzzier when adherents of the dominant persuasion in a dressing room start imagining their religion as a larger team binding force. Which is what appears to have started in the Pakistan cricket side sometime in the mid-2000s. The side eventually had to be told by the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) to dial down on its displays of religiosity, the prayers on the field, the press question responses laced with traditional Islamic salutations, and so on.

The Pakistan side’s engagement with religion at that particular moment of time has been traced to a combination of proximate and not-so-proximate factors. The arrival of players from non-cosmopolitan backgrounds. The quest for popular redemption post the match-fixing scandal. The discovery of religion by influential senior players such as Saeed Anwar, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Saqlain Mushtaq, and Mushtaq Ahmed. All of it amidst the creep of religious conservatism since the Zia-ul-Haq years and possibly stoked by growing Islamophobia post 9/11.

Majority groups can develop blind-spots to minority-specific issues, translating into avoidable behavior ranging from insensitive conduct to pressure to subsume individual identity and accept systematic othering. This is especially true of times when they seek out a larger purpose in their activities. The revelation therefore that the Hindu Danish Kaneria was unfairly treated by some of his Pakistan team-mates during the team’s faith-finding days does not shock. Neither does Mohammad Yousuf’s embrace of Islam during that phase, even though he has always maintained that he was never under pressure to convert from Christianity.

Kaneria, of course, is only an example of how identity-based coagulations can spark dissonance within teams. Indian cricket has thankfully avoided any sort of religious divide but tales of regional factionalism emerged often in the past. In other workplace contexts, dominant cliques based on color, gender, caste, language, ethnicity, etc. can mar team spirit.

The pressure to conform, abide by the team’s established and emergent norms has always been around. The non-conforming can find themselves labeled ‘difficult’, but things turn testier when they are from minority backgrounds.

In that case, any assertion of individuality is perceived as disinclination to yoke oneself to the team cause, accept the team ‘culture’, and the country’s ‘way of life’. These strains of criticism have been directed from certain quarters at Muslim cricketers from Australia, England, and South Africa for their unwillingness to don apparel etched with names of sponsoring alcohol brand sponsors or avoid celebratory champagne showers. A non-Muslim with similar reservations will not invite disapproval on grounds of refusal to assimilate, may even end up being hailed as a poster-boy for abstinence.

Expectations that religion will serve a cohering purpose for cricket teams have been belied. Pakistan, a side where minority representation hasn’t been common, are hardly known for team camaraderie, and the country’s proud cricketing record owes largely to the enviable talent the country possesses. Neither has religion’s entry into dressing rooms lent moral compass. Hansie Cronje was part of a staunchly Christian ginger group within the South African side, and Pakistan have been hit by scandals before and after their explicit association with faith.

Meanwhile, the best sides assembled in cricket history, the West Indians of the 1980s or the Australians of the 2000s, did not need the crutches of religion to inspire themselves as a collective. Pride in profession and playing for country was motivation enough for them – with individuals keeping their association with religion private, viewing it as a stabilising personal influence rather than foisting it as a team-gluer and recognising its potential to distract from their core business of playing. Tellingly, it was in acknowledgment of such distraction that the PCB cautioned the Pakistan side.

In India, Kaneria’s case is being used to persuade doubters of a recent and controversial change in citizenship law that privileges Indian citizenship for non-Muslim refugees from select countries. This, for starters, misses the fact that most of those protesting the change are not against its inclusions but its exclusions. More importantly, we may be missing out important lessons on fostering cohesion and prioritising energies.

(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and writer)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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