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How cricket can save the world

Islamabad — Watching bushy-bearded Pakistani batsmen compete in the Champions Trophy competition on late-night television here a few weeks ago, it suddenly became obvious: Cricket — yes, cricket! — can save the world.

What’s the only sport played in Pakistani madrassas, where the other way to work up a sweat is by joining the international jihad? Allahu akhbar, it’s cricket!

What’s the sport that unites feuding neighbors India and Pakistan, for whom international “test matches” are a substitute for fratricidal warfare? Cricket!

What’s the sport where the global powerhouses include tiny, lovable second-tier nations such as Sri Lanka, New Zealand and the West Indies? You guessed it. Begins with “C.”

And perhaps most important in the world-saving department, what’s the sport where the United States — the nation that the rest of the globe resents for its dominance of nearly everything — is totally incompetent and, for the most part, doesn’t even play? Yes, that would be cricket.

Cricket unites the world’s religions. It brings together East and West. It is the living vestige of the British empire, the only one since Rome to deserve the name. It has all the merits of baseball -- it’s slow, boring, played on a beautiful field of green grass, and has a wealth of incomprehensible statistics and jargon -- plus, it’s global. When cricket has a “world series,” like the Champions Trophy competition in South Africa this month, it’s really a world series.

Yes, I know that soccer is supposed to be the sport that “explains the world.” Franklin Foer wrote a good book with that title, but he’s wrong. Soccer isn’t the beautiful game anymore. It has become as ugly as American football. It’s dirty play, and fakery, and a few highly overpaid superstars lording it over everyone else. Just like the financial industry, you might say. No, soccer isn’t going to save the world. It’s part of the disease.

But consider the other peculiar international sport, where the bowler hurls a rock-hard leather ball in an attempt to knock down pins set atop three spindly sticks, while the batsman tries to wallop the ball as it approaches this “wicket” and “hit it for six,” which is the equivalent of a home run. The winning score in a one-day cricket match will be, let’s say, 217 for 6, which means that the batsmen scored 217 runs while the opposing team’s bowlers knocked down six wickets. And if you don’t understand that, well, too bad.

My conviction that cricket can save the world was bolstered by Chaudhary Muhammad Faraz, a Pakistani friend who organized a tournament last year for the madrassas of Islamabad and Lahore. “It was a step toward bringing these people into the mainstream of society,” he explained.

And it worked. Despite a blast from local mullahs, who claimed the competition was a conspiracy by the enemies of Islam, the games went on. The Islamabad tournament included 24 religious seminaries and was won by Riaz ul-Alum, a Deobandi school. The Lahore competition had 80 teams and was won by Jannat ul-Atfal from the Wahhabi league.

Watching the Pakistani national team on television (and the audience, near as I could tell, included basically the entire country), I was struck by how many of the good players had the beards that marked them as practicing Muslims. Among them was the superstar batsman Mohammad Yousuf, who used to be a Christian but converted in 2005. The most popular player on the team is probably Shahid Afridi, a Pashtun from the Khyber tribal agency.

Yousuf, Afridi and many former cricket stars are members of a Muslim religious group called Tablighi Jamaat, which was founded by a pacifist. One of its preachers is Saeed Anwar, one of the greatest batsman in Pakistan’s history, who scored the all-time world record of 194 runs in a one-day international match.

Cricket is un-American. That’s a fact. But in a world that is nervous about U.S. power, and is looking for ways to express itself other than with suicide bombs, that may not be a bad thing.

Now, if you’re really interested, I can explain to you how Saqlain Mushtaq, another passionate Pakistani Muslim cricketer, invented a new form of spin bowling, known as the “doosra,” that breaks away from a right-handed batsman, from the “leg side” to the “off side,” which is the opposite of a "googly." But we’ll save that until after our misnamed World Series is over.

By David Ignatius  | October 22, 2009; 7:07 AM ET
Categories:  Ignatius  | Tags:  David Ignatius  
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Interesting piece David. It shows that there are many ways to resolve conflicts. Who would have thought cricket of all sports? Stumps,silly mid,innings, spin bowling etc can bring people of the Middle east together and instead of expressing their disgust of American hegemony with bombs, they can do it with a sport most Americans would not care to understand.

Posted by: bmukwaira | October 22, 2009 8:45 AM | Report abuse

What you also miss is that Cricket has rules of conduct, both official and implied, during the match.
So modern American and world soccer players, who curse, yell at refs, dive and cheat would all be fined, suspended and, in truth, derided by teammates and their country for their actions.
So it not only can bring countries together but it requires good behaviour of its participants!
Not a bad thing at all

Posted by: MadiganT | October 22, 2009 9:28 AM | Report abuse

I've been in New Delhi on a day the Indian cricket team defeated the Pakistani team, and I've been in Tampa on a day when the Bucs won a Super Bowl.

The Indians got WAY more enthusiastic over their cricket victory than Florida fans did over a Super Bowl win -- and just as drunk

Posted by: roblimo | October 22, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

I'm sorry, but I seem to remeber a test match between Sri Lanka and Pakistan being the target of a terrorist attack while the Sri Lankan bus driving to the match. This ended up causing a stir and if I am not mistaken forced the ODI tournament to be moved to South Africa from Pakistan. Plus don't forget to mention that the West Indies team was made up of 3rd tier players after a payment dispute with the match organizers.

I think that simply because Cricket is misunderstood by the American public, it has an exemption status which soccer once had. First we must understand what the terms "Yorker" and "Off stump" mean before we can begin to breakdown the meaning and following behind the game. Until then Americans will continue to be the "dumb blonde" when it comes to talking about cricket.

Posted by: schluckebier | October 22, 2009 11:23 AM | Report abuse

cricket, bocce-ball, polo...meh thanks but no thanks. Lump them in with golf, basketball, and NASCAR as unwatchable sports

Posted by: Please_Fix_VAs_Roads | October 22, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Cricket unwatchable???? Not at all. It just require patience to learn and appreciate the nuances of the game. I have noticed that patience and subtlety are uncommon qualities in American culture.

While it is global, and enthusiasts come from all corners of the globe, it isn't really a pacifist activity. The Ashes series between England and Australia in 1932/3 which became known as the "bodyline series" was nasty, acrimonious and dangerous.They changed the rules to protect the spirit of the game.

Also, while cricket does have etiquette and rules of engagement, what you may see as being gentlemen in white outfits being nice to each other is most probably something quite different. Those guys standing close to the batsmen are not necessarily silent. They are probably trading insults of all kinds. The practice is called "sledging" and is widely used, and not just by Australians.

Posted by: helengoing | October 22, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse

It seems like David Ignatius has turned into a spokesman for the Pakistani Intelligence. They're as smart as Americans are naive. The reason Pakistanis suggest Cricket can save the world is it makes them money. So imagine, right after the Mumbai attacks, American reporters asserting that cricket can reduce tensions and avoid Mumbai style massacres! First, the jihadi's score in Mumbai, and then their sponsors make money playing cricket!

Cricket won't solve a thing unless you get rid of the lies and brainwashing that leads to terrorism. That David would even write this speaks to how bad things are for Americans: their naive media has been converted.

Posted by: arun1patel | October 23, 2009 10:12 PM | Report abuse

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