Vol. 5 Num 859 Sat. October 28, 2006  

Inzi denies forcing Islam

Banned captain Inzamamul Haq Tuesday dismissed concerns about the increased influence of Islam on Pakistan's cricketers, saying he never forced anyone to pray or grow a beard.

Inzamam was reacting to comments by the country's new cricket chief that players should not feel under pressure to be religious, and there should be a balance between their faith and sporting activities.

"I have never forced anyone to offer prayers, nor have I linked selection in the team to religion. This is not correct at all," Inzamam said in an interview with the BBC's Urdu service.

The master batsman is serving a ban of four one-day internationals for keeping Pakistan off the pitch in protest at ball-tampering allegations during the Oval Test against England in August.

"Those who are saying these things have never offered prayers, nor have they any link to Islam, which does not force anyone," Inzamam said.

"Look at the players yourself. Just three players who toured England -- (batsman) Mohammad Yousuf, (all-rounder) Shahid Afridi and myself -- have beards, and our prayers and religious activities have never stopped a match."

The issue hit headlines last year when Yousuf -- formerly known as Yousuf Youhana -- converted to Islam from Christianity. He grew a beard and started bowing on the pitch when he hit big scores.

Newly-appointed Pakistan Cricket Board chairman Nasim Ashraf commented on the religion question last week in a television interview.

"There is no doubt their religious faith is a motivating factor in the team. It binds them together. But there should be a balance between religion and cricket," Ashraf told CNBC Pakistan.

He said he had told Inzamam "clearly that there should be no pressure on players who don't pray regularly, or any compulsion on them to do it under pressure".

"I have told him there should be no perception among players that if they don't pray they will not be in the team, and Inzamam has assured me there is no pressure on anyone to do anything they don't want to do," Ashraf said.

In the 1980s, Pakistan's cricketers were typified by playboy and legendary allrounder Imran Khan -- who has himself become increasingly devout in his new career as a politician.

The team turned more towards to religion after former opener Saeed Anwar joined a preaching group, following the death of his daughter in 2001.

He in turn influenced others, including former spinners Mushtaq Ahmed and Saqlain Mushtaq, who now sport beards and preach Islam in England.

Anwar also persuaded Yousuf to convert from Christianity.

The Pakistani players attend religious congregations on a regular basis and are often seen offering prayers in public, as well as having a special prayer room set up in their hotels.