Players from Fazl-e-Umar CC in Rabwah

Fazl-e-Umar CC's players at their ground in Rabwah

© Saba Imtiaz
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Feature

Rabwah dreams of the green cap

In a town Pakistan is trying to wipe off its map, a people targeted by the right wing are trying to play cricket

Saba Imtiaz |

Faisal bin Mubashir thought he could make it. On January 4, 2014, he thought he could pull through to a double-century. "The season was going very well, but I had [been getting out in] the nervous 90s," he recalls as we chat at the ground of the club he used to play for, two years on from that innings. He was playing for Bahawalpur against Quetta in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, his 13th first-class match since his debut in October 2011. In the previous four games, he had three times missed out narrowly on a maiden hundred, dismissed for 90, 94 and 81. His memory of the match is fresh. "The first hundred in first-class cricket is a big honour. Sometimes, if you're well connected, you get to play for Pakistan if you score a hundred."

Faisal thought he could get to 150, maybe 170 at most. But when he crossed 170, he knew a double was on, even though there was pressure from the coach to declare. On 197, he waited out a couple of overs, until he finally sneaked a boundary. He would go on to make 216.

Faisal is 29 years old and now lives in Bahawalpur, in the south of Punjab. Last September, in Pakistan's T20 Cup - which used to be the premier domestic T20 tournament before the Pakistan Super League (PSL) was created - Faisal played for Bahawalpur Stags and was the tournament's leading scorer, with five match awards in nine matches. The performances did not attract much attention. Faisal can only guess why - perhaps, he says, it is because he comes from a small, much overlooked cricket district. Playing for Pakistan, he feels, is a long shot. "If a hundred people are practising, then only one will come out of it playing for Pakistan… people dream of this."

Three of his fifties came in the first stage of the tournament, a qualifying round for weaker sides. He flagged a little on the bigger stage, though not dramatically. But it was this that Haroon Rasheed, Pakistan's chief selector, alluded to when I spoke to him about whether Faisal was on their radar: "He played well in the early qualifying rounds, but as he progressed he wasn't consistent enough."

"When there's a water break, if I drink water first, then I can tell that some people won't drink it. I try to drink water right at the end" Faisal bin Mubashir

Faisal is not a big name and doesn't often make headlines. He isn't the subject of feverish online debate, but there is a town where Faisal's story is repeatedly told, the town we are in now, where almost every cricketer knows his name and statistics. This is Rabwah, home to Faisal's former club, Fazl-e-Umar CC, a town where stories of broken dreams abound.

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It has been brought to our attention that the Anjuman Ahmadiyya is holding a sports tournament within Rabwah, which has antagonised people. There is a great danger to peace. In view of this great danger, the sports tournament should be closed.

A local magistrate's letter to Hakim Khurshid Ahmad, the head of affairs for the Ahmadiyya community in Rabwah, dated February 10, 1994

It is past 10am on a Sunday in January, but the host team - Fazl-e-Umar - is nowhere to be seen at Rabwah's cricket ground. A teenager arrives, looks around, and starts doing push-ups. Naveed Ahmad, the 36-year-old club captain, arrives soon after. He makes a series of brusque phone calls telling his team-mates to hurry to the ground. Eventually the team straggles in, in ones and twos, and in uniforms that are several shades of white and off-white. One player has a cap in the colours of the German flag; others wear blinding white sneakers. The T-shirts hang off the younger players' lanky frames, their bodies unsullied by the sedentary lifestyles so common in Punjab.

Many of these players grew up in Rabwah. Some moved here from other cities. Abdul Hai, a 31-year-old real-estate dealer from Lahore, comes down to Rabwah for the cricket season. Faisal and his younger brother, Rafay Ahmed, are expected to arrive soon; they are playing for Fazl-e-Umar today.

Faisal bin Mubashir (left) and his brother Rafay Ahmed have come disappointingly close to being selected for top-level teams in Pakistan

Faisal bin Mubashir (left) and his brother Rafay Ahmed have come disappointingly close to being selected for top-level teams in Pakistan © Saba Imtiaz

Rabwah is home to Pakistan's Ahmadiyya Muslim community. It lies just past the city of Chiniot, the languid Chenab River, and a series of oddly shaped, craggy red rock hills - a town that has literally fallen off the map. It was renamed Chenab Nagar in 1998, but the name hasn't stuck. Rabwah has all the signs of the newfound urbanisation sweeping Punjab; ads for Schengen visas and magical cures to increase one's height abound. It also bears signs of the changes wrought by years of attacks on the Ahmadiyya sect: buildings with high walls - it is markedly visible where the new bricks were added - and barbed wire, armed patrols and security cameras. Dozens of Ahmadis have made Rabwah their home in recent years. Some arrived in coffins. Others were fleeing mobs and militants.

For over 40 years, the sect has been the target of a wide-ranging campaign of systematic abuse and discrimination, fuelled by the state's 1974 decree that, at a stroke, made Ahmadis non-Muslims. The Pakistani clergy and right wing believe Ahmadis dispute a key tenet of Islam - that Muhammad was the last Prophet - while Ahmadis believe that the founder of their movement, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, is the second coming of a promised messiah, and not a new prophet. In 1984, Pakistan effectively made it illegal for Ahmadis to practise Islam, equating their doing so to an act of blasphemy. Blaspheming against Prophet Muhammad is punishable by death in Pakistan, and the blasphemy law is often used to target Ahmadis.

With all but state-sanctioned approval, militants have attacked Ahmadi mosques (in 2010 one attack in Lahore killed 94) and the right-wing clergy and hard-line religious groups have embarked on a campaign of assassinations, blasphemy cases, a social and economic boycott, and general widespread discrimination. If the dream of playing cricket in Pakistan is passed down from one generation to the next, so are the reins of the anti-Ahmadi movement. Pakistani children are told at school that Ahmadis are non-believers and blasphemers. Every key government form - from a passport application to voter registration - requires Pakistani Muslims to sign a declaration rejecting the Ahmadiyya faith. The community is largely absent from public life: they do not practise their faith openly, refuse to contest elections or vote because they object to the separate electorate for Ahmadis, and are legally barred from practising Islam or calling themselves Muslims. Countless Ahmadis have left Pakistan after the sect was excommunicated, finding new homes in Europe, the US and Canada.

Even though over 60,000 Ahmadis live in Rabwah, there is no safety in numbers. The misery of being constantly hounded never fades. In Rabwah's main library, a case that used to hold translations of the Quran has been emptied for fear of the potential repercussions. Ahmadis can't be seen to be keeping copies of the Quran, and Ahmadi translations or interpretations of the text can also be problematic. Just months earlier an Ahmadi man was sentenced to prison for eight years for allegedly selling religious texts in his shop. The library entrance now bears a sign saying that the facility is only for Ahmadis.

Over the last six years Naveed has felt the mood in the cricketing milieu shift to outright hostility against Ahmadis. These long-held prejudices - cemented in schools, in the law, and in daily life - play out across Pakistan, and have managed to creep into the Ahmadis' home ground in Rabwah.

Did Naseer Malik imagine a world where his team-mate that day, Imran Khan, would shun the idea of even hiring an Ahmadi or asking Ahmadis for their votes?

"There are many teams that come from Faisalabad and they'll play the match but won't eat," Naveed tells me, switching between dense Punjabi and Urdu. "They'll play the match. Won't eat," he repeats, as if still incredulous that people can go without food to maintain their prejudices. "I think we once had chicken [for the teams' lunch], and this kid from Saeed Ajmal's academy came to me and said: 'Naveed bhai, aap murghi halal karte ho?' (Do you slaughter the chicken according to Islamic dictates?) I said, thank God, I'm a better Muslim than you."

Another visiting cricketer insisted his team had to go for Friday prayers to a mosque, but then refused to pray with the Ahmadis at the time they were going to pray, or to pray at the ground, because the cricketer said they would have to listen to the Ahmadi prayer leader's sermon.

Because the prayer times were different, the match was in danger of being called off. They eventually packed off the visiting team to a nearby non-Ahmadi mosque, and the ensuing match was tinged with bitterness. This has happened more often in recent years, Naveed says, as the influence of religion in cricket has crept into the lowest levels of the game. Some teams don't care about the faith of Rabwah's cricketers. Others can't afford to care, because they want to curry favour with the club's coach or play at their ground.

On this Sunday morning, the players of the Zain Cricket Club have driven all the way from Faisalabad in a van, and don't know why their hosts are so late. When Abdul Haye, Fazl-e-Umar's coach, finally emerges, he has a good reason for not being there: he had delayed the match because of dew on the ground.

The graves in Rabwah of victims killed in the attack on Ahmadiyya mosques in Lahore in May 2010

The graves in Rabwah of victims killed in the attack on Ahmadiyya mosques in Lahore in May 2010 © Getty Images

The reason why cricket thrives in this blighted town is this ground, a thing of beauty: an expanse of curated grass, a practice area, a smooth pitch and an 80-metre boundary. Trees frame the property and the red rock hills loom in the background.

The ground only exists because of Pakistan's anti-Ahmadi tenets. The land was originally earmarked for the annual Ahmadi jalsa, a large, multiple-day religious event. But the Pakistani government refuses to grant permission to hold the event, which is now organised in other countries with sizeable Ahmadi populations. Rabwah has also repeatedly been refused permission to host sports events, including inter-community tournaments. So the community decided to develop the property as a cricket ground instead. This explains why it doesn't have an official name.

Until about 12 years ago, there were rumours that the property was ridden with snakes. It was a rock-strewn, disused piece of land. It took months to clear, and a PCB advisor was asked for help with plotting out the pitch. Cricket is now played in Rabwah through the year, except for a couple of months in the summer when the punishing heat and the humidity from nearby paddy fields make it difficult to do so. Rabwah's cricketers repeatedly describe the ground as a blessing. They brag that there isn't another ground like this in the entire district.

Fazl-e-Umar's players find themselves at the ground every day. Work hours at the Ahmadiyya community's offices end at 2pm and there is little else to do other than amass at the ground. "Awaragirdi karni hai na?" [We have to loaf around passing time right?] Naveed says. "I start playing instead."

Rabwah is home to Faisal bin Mubashir's former club, Fazl-e-Umar CC, a town where stories of broken dreams resound through the streets

Like many of Rabwah's cricketers, Naveed has had a shot or two at aspiring to the major leagues: playing for the district, a trial for a first-class team. When he played in other cities, he says his team-mates, including Misbah-ul-Haq, were often surprised he had never been called up for bigger sides. He doesn't have an answer for them, because, he says, he has never been told the reason outright. But he believes that his faith "is the biggest reason".

For now, he has to lead his team to victory. Folding chairs are quickly set up, a thermos of tea and a couple of cups circulate among the players, and the toss takes place. The hosts lose and are asked to bat first. Coach Haye settles into his chair. He has already run a few miles this morning, he says, rebuking the player sitting next to him, whose belly is straining against his shirt. "He's eaten gobi parathas today," the coach says, in mock exasperation.

"I'd planned to eat these parathas today," the player responds.

"Planned!" Haye snorts, setting off a round of teasing and admonitions.

Earlier that weekend Haye was watching a match at the ground, sitting in a folding chair that creaked under his sizeable frame. Rabwah Cricket Club, the other prominent club in town, was hosting a team from Faisalabad. The clubs split use of the ground, taking turns on alternate Fridays, Sundays and Wednesdays.

Abdul Haye (left) and Naveed Ahmad, coach and captain of Fazl-e-Umar, struggle to hold on to talented players, who move to the West in search of better lives and cricketing opportunities

Abdul Haye (left) and Naveed Ahmad, coach and captain of Fazl-e-Umar, struggle to hold on to talented players, who move to the West in search of better lives and cricketing opportunities © Saba Imtiaz

When Haye was growing up, he played cricket on a ground near Rabwah's main mosque. His parents couldn't afford to send him to study in Lahore, so he went to the local Taleem-ul-Islam College. During his secondary education, he moulded himself into a fast bowler. Cricket wasn't the town's dominant sport in the '60s and '70s - Rabwah's boys were big on rowing and basketball. Haye joined Fazl-e-Umar, which he recalls was formed in either 1969 or 1970 and was then registered under the Faisalabad division.

"There were about 20 to 30 of us," Haye remembered. He still has a pile of clippings about his short-lived career, culled from newspapers of the day - the Muslim and the Pakistan Times. In 1972, Haye was the only boy selected from Rabwah for Sargodha division's Under-19 team. He was recruited by the Pakistan Army to play for its myriad department teams. "During my time, the 501 Workshop [part of the army's engineering branch] won the inter-army championship for the first time in its history," Haye said. It was a feat he helped pull off by convincing the team management to let him bring in a couple of players from Rabwah - his brother and brother-in-law - and another from Islamabad. "I can't win with the players you've got," he told them.

Then Haye heard from Pakistan Television, who were not a first-class side at the time but in the grade below. They wanted to sign him up. Haye had a club match that day but he was in a car accident on the way to the game. That put him out of commission for a couple of months, effectively signalling the beginning of the end of his cricketing career. Meanwhile, jobs for Ahmadis were drying up. Haye's brother, his former coach and team-mates had already left for the West. He stayed back in Rabwah to take care of his parents, particularly his mother, who was bedridden. He opened a couple of businesses, including "Cassette House" - which now sells CDs but hasn't changed its signage - and a sporting goods shop.

By the early 2000s Fazl-e-Umar was floundering. Its star players were long gone, and there was no place to practise. Haye stepped in, registered the club with the PCB, and tried to whip the team into shape. Instead of finding conventional financial supporters, he roped in former team-mates, now comfortably ensconced in places like Germany. "I've made them into sponsors," he explained. "I said, 'Look, if you send €100 [approximately U$114], then we can do net practice for a month.' If I need to do nets, I need 14 bowlers, and 14 balls cost Rs 4000 [$38]. And if you don't change the ball after four or five days, the boys don't play." Despite issues with his back, Haye still bowls 40 to 50 balls a day in the nets.

"There are many teams that come from Faisalabad and they'll play the match but won't eat" Naveed Ahmad

Fazl-e-Umar routinely play against visiting clubs and tour other cities, though Haye notes that nowhere else are the facilities as good. Occasionally a star cricketer or two has shown up in Rabwah, including Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Hafeez. Ajmal, the legend goes, was hit for seven sixes in six overs, and the umpire wanted to report his action. Haye stopped him from doing so, not wanting to offend their guests.

Rabwah has no star cricketers of its own. Faisal bin Mubashir may be the best-known Ahmadi cricketer in recent years, and while his team-mates know of his faith, it isn't a fact he pushes in anyone's face. When he visits Rabwah he tries to pass on to the club's players what he has gleaned over the years.

There is an Urdu phrase that you will hear often in Rabwah: rang lagna. Literally, it means to be coloured, but in this case it is taken to mean getting the green cap of Pakistan. This national recognition remains out of reach in Rabwah, where the belief that societal discrimination against Ahmadis must naturally extend to cricket is embedded. None of the boys believe they will ever have a shot at representing Pakistan, even if only a few have gone further than club cricket.

The Ahmadis don't practise their faith openly, and refuse to contest elections or vote, and are legally barred from practising Islam or calling themselves Muslims

The Ahmadis don't practise their faith openly, and refuse to contest elections or vote, and are legally barred from practising Islam or calling themselves Muslims © Getty Images

On the surface their stories are not different to those of so many aspiring cricketers who feel they have not got their due because they didn't have the right connections or didn't come from the right part of the country. But unlike the majority, underpinning the disgruntlement of these stories is their faith.

"It's one thing if there is a future," Anas Amin, a 22-year-old bowler, tells me, his head bowed as he tries to keep score at the Sunday match. "The religious issue comes in between."

"You need a lot of hard work to play first-class," says Zubair Ahmad. "And our class will be an issue. We can't even greet anyone with salaam." (Ahmadis are not allowed to use Islamic words.)

The club has produced an array of cricketers they feel were above ordinary - several star batsmen, a fast bowler they felt was better than some who had represented Pakistan. But no one sticks around long enough. "They're all looking for an agent who can take them to Germany," Haye says and laughs. Eight of the club's best players recently moved to Germany, leaving Haye in the lurch, scrambling to recruit and train more players. The legend of the men who left overshadows almost every conversation. Everyone has a brother, a cousin or an uncle who made it out, and who managed to keep playing cricket in a league in England or Holland or Germany.

Leaving isn't easy. It can cost up to $15,000 to get out of Pakistan. "Anyone who has that much money can go to Germany or England, where their life will be much better," Zubair says. "They can play cricket in England. And earning a thousand [euros] there means Rs 100,000 in Pakistan." Many Ahmadis travel to Thailand or Sri Lanka, where they try and claim asylum, or use it as a base to strike out to Europe.

The physician had spotted Rafay's religion on his passport. "So he started asking around, 'Are you Ahl al-Hadith?' "When he asked me, I said, 'Thank God, I am a Muslim.' He said, 'What kind of Muslim?' I said 'I'm an Ahmadi Muslim'" Rafay Ahmed

Zubair wants to leave too, but his family doesn't have the money. He's hoping to convince his father to at least send his brother away. Zubair started playing cricket the year Mohammad Amir got banned. Amir is set to return to the Pakistan side a few days after this match and Zubair plans to watch. "Once he comes and plays, everyone will realise that he is a good bowler. There is no other bowler like him. He is a child who made a mistake."

Zubair stopped studying after second grade. He says he was far more interested in cricket. He only speaks in Punjabi, though a word or two of Urdu occasionally squeezes itself into conversation. He seems far too young to be burdened with the life he leads. "My brother works in the graveyard and I work at a kitchen-utensils shop in the market. I earn Rs 3000 [about $29] a month. I work two and a half hours in the morning, and another two hours in the evening."

It is a bright, clear day and it feels like June as the sun beats down on the ground; remarkable for early January in Punjab. Layers are being peeled off, and the match continues.

Every so often, someone yells out for the score. Both teams have their own scorers, and after every four overs, someone runs to the magnetic scoreboard to change the tiles. The teams tally their scores; if there is only a few runs' difference, the visiting team's score comes up trumps. Matches are usually of 30 to 35 overs an innings; on Fridays the Rabwah team needs to wrap up matches before the telecast of the weekly sermon from London by the head of the community.

When the home team bats, the rest of the players break off into little circles for practice. There's a slightly disconnected sense to the proceedings - or perhaps a paratha-induced stupor - but the runs keep racking up effortlessly. Batting first, Fazl-e-Umar end with over 250 and go on to win the match. But Haye's training, the ground's upkeep, and the discussions over technique all seem ultimately futile. The club's future seems limited.

Fazl-e-Umar comes under the administrative purview of the Jhang District (which is part of the Faisalabad Region). Haye describes Jhang's cricket officials as helpful, though Jhang is the home of the sectarian and militant Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat.

Not everyone is helpful. The city of Chiniot has long been a hub of anti-Ahmadi sentiment and organises an annual anti-Ahmadi conference each year to mark the legal excommunication of Ahmadis from Islam.

Rabwah's cricket ground was originally meant to be used for an annual Ahmadi religious event

Rabwah's cricket ground was originally meant to be used for an annual Ahmadi religious event © Saba Imtiaz

Haye alleges that Chiniot's sports officials exclude Rabwah's teams or cricketers from tournaments they host. "This is cemented in their heads," he says. "They're sitting there with these long beards, and they've just decided that they're not going to have us play."

Sohaib Ali, secretary of Jhang's cricket association, told me that they have picked players from Fazl-e-Umar in the past, for U-19 tournaments and senior ones. "When boys are playing, they don't care who is from what religion," he said. "There has never been an incident where this has come up." He also corrected me and said the town's name was Chenab Nagar.

There is indeed little proof on paper that an anti-Ahmadi policy exists to disenfranchise cricketers, from the PCB down to local tiers, but religious bias is rarely articulated as public policy. The possibility that other factors play a role in Rabwah's players not being selected cannot be discounted. As Haye acknowledges, there is a culture of politicking and favouritism and lobbying at every level of Pakistani cricket, which mistakenly denies and rewards players all the time. But with Ahmadis, the "religious label", as Haye sees it, cannot help but add another layer.

Given that cricket is synonymous with a conflated sense of nationalism as well as Islamic identity, it doesn't seem possible in the current climate that an Ahmadi would be selected for the Pakistan side without causing some kind of furore. (By contrast, hockey is so ignored now that it seems to have largely escaped attention that an Ahmadi has captained the national side in the modern age.)

In Pakistan, the idea of selecting an Ahmadi for a job can become an issue of national concern; a key demand of the anti-Ahmadi movement was to fire Ahmadis from government jobs. As the noted physicist and writer Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy once recalled, Benazir Bhutto refused to meet Dr Abdus Salam after he won the Nobel Prize in 1979. Salam, who was Ahmadi, had helped advise Pakistan's nuclear programme during the government of Benazir's father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. In 2014, Imran Khan said he wanted the prominent economist and Princeton professor Dr Atif R Mian in his cabinet. Imran, apparently, had no idea that Mian was an Ahmadi; after a backlash from the right wing, Imran appeared in a video contritely professing that he had only read about Mian in a magazine, and that he did not believe that anyone who followed Mian's faith was a Muslim.

Mian pithily responded on Twitter: "Stop trying to play God."

Rabwah has all the signs of the newfound urbanisation sweeping Punjab; ads for Schengen visas and magical cures to increase one's height abound

June 7, 1975 was no ordinary day. This was no ordinary match. It was Pakistan's first game in the inaugural World Cup, against Australia at Headingley. A 25-year-old debutant right-arm fast bowler would bowl the first ball of the match for a side that included the core of Pakistan's great mid-'70s team. He was, by common consent, a promising prospect, especially suited to conditions in England.

He had actually begun life as a batsman, until, at a training camp, the great Fazal Mahmood told him he should become a fast bowler. He debuted for lowly Khairpur but soon moved to Karachi and found employment and a cricket career with the National Bank of Pakistan (NBP). Across two domestic seasons - 1973-74 and 1974-75 - he took 90 wickets; in between this spell he won selection on the tour of England in 1974, ahead of the veteran Saleem Altaf, and took 20 wickets there, though he did not play a Test.

This man was Naseer Malik, and as Haye reveals, he was an Ahmadi. Haye says this almost as a casual fact, as if it is normal, as if it isn't a big deal.

The revelation hangs in the air. It is difficult to comprehend. Pakistan's first ball in a World Cup was bowled by an Ahmadi. Pakistan's first ball in a World Cup was bowled by an Ahmadi.

Malik bowled that ball nine months to the day after his country's parliament had passed a law constitutionally excommunicating him and his community. In the months that preceded that day and the ones that followed it, Ahmadis were dubbed traitors and heretics. Malik did well, taking 2 for 37 and ending the World Cup with five wickets. He was, in fact, Pakistan's joint-leading wicket-taker for the tournament, alongside Imran Khan and Sarfraz Nawaz. He never played for Pakistan again. Haye believes Malik was selected for the World Cup because the impact of the 1974 decision was yet to set in, and because the team needed him.

Zubair Ahmad works in a kitchen-utensils shop in Rabwah and plays for Fazl-e-Umar in his spare time

Zubair Ahmad works in a kitchen-utensils shop in Rabwah and plays for Fazl-e-Umar in his spare time © Saba Imtiaz

According to Khadim Baloch's Encyclopaedia of Pakistan Cricket, Malik suffered an ankle injury that kept him out of cricket for much of the following season. When he returned he did well, and as part of ZA Bhutto XI against New Zealand, in October 1976, he was on the fringes of national selection again. He did not make it, though perhaps a lack of motivation had something to do with it. In an interview with the Cricketer (Pakistan) in December 1975, Malik said he did not consider himself "a professional cricketer". Cricket was a hobby, he said, and he was proud he had got a job at NBP on his educational merit (as an engineer) and not through a sporting quota. Eventually he retired from first-class cricket in 1982, returning in the mid-'90s as a match referee. He supervised a fast bowling camp organised by Sarfraz in 1999. On August 1 that same year, he died of a heart attack. He was buried in Rabwah.

What was he thinking that day in June when he made his Pakistan debut? Would he have thought about his journey, from his birth in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) to captaining his college team, to this moment at Headingley? Did he know he was making history in more ways than one? Did he know that Ahmadi boys would never dream of what he had achieved? Did he imagine a world where his team-mate that day, Imran Khan, would shun the idea of even hiring an Ahmadi or asking Ahmadis for their votes? Did he know that 41 years after he made history, Ahmadi boys would be told to "join the circle of Islam", and that their team-mates would refuse water if they drank it first?

In 2013, Faisal bin Mubashir's brother Rafay was waiting for his turn to play in a practice match in Lahore. He had been selected for the Pakistan U-19 side for a tri-series to be played in England that August. Rafay was excited about the future, about the possibility of playing in a game that would be broadcast and watched back in Pakistan by his parents and family. As Rafay waited - the burden of expectations, his own, his family's, weighing on his shoulders - the team physician turned to him. "Become a Muslim," he said.

Rafay had a ready retort, honed from years of being teased and mocked about his faith in school: "I'm going to play now. I'll become a Muslim after that."

For 40 years Ahmadis have been the target of a campaign of systematic abuse and discrimination, fuelled by a state decree that made them non-Muslims

Before this "invitation", Rafay had gone to apply for a visa for the tournament in England. The physician had spotted Rafay's religion on his passport. "So he started asking around [the others], 'Are you Ahl al-Hadith?' [people of the traditions of the Prophet]," Rafay recalls. "When he asked me, I said, 'Thank God, I am a Muslim.' He said, 'What kind of Muslim?' I said 'I'm an Ahmadi Muslim.'"

He still can't describe the feeling of representing Pakistan. He sat out the first four games before playing two and missing the final, which Pakistan won. He scored 35 and 1. He then played another couple of games against England U-19 in December that year, in the UAE, but made only 1 and 1. It's easy to see why he wasn't selected later, especially as there were others in those sides who impressed and progressed (Sami Aslam and Zafar Gohar, to name just two). Rafay admits to a lack of performances. Now he hasn't played professional cricket in a while. He missed a season because of a badly twisted foot, and now can't find a place in either a local or first-class team.

In Rabwah, one name is now the living epitome of the town's disappointment, the crystallisation of its disillusionment: Faisalbhai. "No one is as unlucky as Faisal," Haye says. "If you can't make it to the Pakistani side after performing this well, then what is the criteria??"

After each match in that domestic T20 Cup, Faisal's old coach Khalid Farooq convinced him that the PCB was watching, that they just wanted to see how he would do in the next one, or the one after that, or the high-stakes match against Lahore. "We were staying at the Hill View Hotel [in Islamabad]. All the players [of all teams] were there, except for [Shahid] Afridi. Everyone was saying that Faisal is going to be named in the national squad, that it had to happen now. I told the coach that I have to put my name forward, and he kept saying, 'When you get the good news, call me.'" Faisal kept hearing that his name was all but final for one squad or another, in Pakistan's A side, if nothing else.

The day-to-day running of the club is funded by donations collected from Abdul Haye's former team-mates who now live in Europe

The day-to-day running of the club is funded by donations collected from Abdul Haye's former team-mates who now live in Europe © Saba Imtiaz

But after the tournament, there was silence. Faisal is reluctant to go into further detail or assign blame for his not being picked. Perhaps, he says, it is because he is from Bahawalpur and not a major city like Karachi or Lahore. Haye and the others insist it is because Faisal is Ahmadi. He has not hidden his faith. His family are prominent members of the community in Bahawalpur, and many of his team-mates over the years have found out because he has had to bow out of praying with them.

"Some people do discriminate, but I don't feel it," Faisal says, demonstrating a sense of patience far beyond his years. "When there's a water break, if I drink water first, then I can tell that some people won't drink it then. So there are these small differences that keep cropping up. Anyway, you can guess what's going on. I try to drink water right at the end."

He is not sure whether anyone in the PCB is aware of his faith. When I asked Rasheed whether or not Faisal's faith had played a role in his non-selection, he said: "I can say for myself and for the selectors that we do not think of this. As national selectors we are not representing a particular place. Our thought process has to be 'national' for us to pick a national team."

One problem, as another selector, the former fast bowler Saleem Jaffar, pointed out is that Faisal is not yet part of a big-name department side. He signed on with State Bank of Pakistan (where his father works) just before the T20 Cup, but they are a Grade II side and not yet playing first-class cricket. "The quality is better than that of regional cricket, and the boys play with Test cricketers," Jaffar explained. "If a boy plays well in a region, a department will pick him right away, and that's where he's made."

Cricket is very much part of Faisal's family. As well as Rafay, his oldest brother, Muneeb, played and looked destined to do so professionally. "Our father had given him permission," Faisal says, pausing to sip his tea. But Muneeb's career was cut short, Faisal says, because it was difficult at the time for boys from small-town Bahawalpur to make it into a regional team. Muneeb now lives in Germany. Aqeel Anjum, an older cousin, has also forged an accomplished first-class career as a batsman.

On the day that Faisal realised he wasn't being drafted [in the PSL], Rafay declared he wouldn't let anyone watch a single match of the league in his room

Mubashir Ahmad, the father of the boys, is to be credited for encouraging the three to play cricket. "There are very few parents like ours, who give the kind of support our father has given us," Faisal says. "Parents tell their children to become doctors and engineers. But our father said, 'Fine, study, but if you want to play cricket, do it properly. Make a name for yourself.' People would ask him what his children did, and he'd say, 'They play cricket.'"

Initially, studies did get in the way. Though Faisal's first breakthrough came in 2004, when he played for Bahawalpur's U-19 team in an inter-district tournament, he soon went back to studying for a master's degree at Rabwah's School of Theology. It was there that Haye spotted him playing in a tournament. When Faisal returned to cricket again, in 2011, he played for Jhang in an inter-district tournament and propelled them to victory in the final against Faisalabad.

"That final [for Jhang]... I had confidence and talent, but I didn't have the practice, because I'd been out of cricket for five years." He made 113 in the first innings, and 67 in the chase in the second. A few months later he was making his first-class debut for Faisalabad, scoring 72 in his first innings against PIA in the Quaid-e-Azam trophy. Four years later came the performances in the T20 Cup that did not bring him much attention.

"It's the kind of performance you only have in your dreams," he says. "God was so kind." He prefaces almost every other sentence with an earnest Alhamdulillah and mash'Allah.

Pakistan did not come calling and neither did any side in the PSL. A franchise official responsible for player picks said Faisal's performances in the T20 Cup had been monitored but gave the impression that he was not an especially fashionable choice: a one-down anchor for a weak regional side, nearly 30. Five, six years ago, maybe, not now. On the day that Faisal realised he wasn't being drafted, Rafay declared he wouldn't let anyone watch a single match of the league in his room, where usually every match is watched on a flat screen TV, in full mahol (atmosphere).

A policeman guards Garhi Shahu mosque, an Ahmadi place of worship in Lahore, which was attacked in May 2010

A policeman guards Garhi Shahu mosque, an Ahmadi place of worship in Lahore, which was attacked in May 2010 © Getty Images

Rafay is Faisal's biggest champion. He helps him train and stick to a low-carb, protein-heavy diet, and once challenged him to race until one of them dropped (it took over two hours for Faisal to beat Rafay). The brothers encourage each other, even as they face the unending spate of disappointing news. "He became emotional when I wasn't named for a [PSL] team," Faisal says. "Our father said that we shouldn't worry. Whatever God has done is for the best.

"I was ready with my bag and was supposed to go the ground when the live announcement [for the PSL] was airing on ARY. I was sitting there thinking, 'My name will appear just now… when I leave, I'll go to the dessert shop, buy boxes of sweets and distribute it to everyone in the ground.'"

When his name wasn't announced, Faisal was disappointed. "I felt like putting my bag down and not going. But that would be giving up, and this is a sin. Whatever it is, I have to go. I didn't practise the way I should have. I was trying to get rid of my frustration; I hit every ball in the nets. There was a frustration that anyone would have. But it's not that I've lost the will and become disenchanted. I think that God will do what's best for me.

"And if it isn't meant to be, it won't happen."

Meanwhile, a community waits for someone to break the glass ceiling. Faisal's uncle, Kashif Imran, lives in Rabwah and occasionally plays for Fazl-e-Umar. He wants to see any Ahmadi cricketer break through, not just Faisal. "It'll be a break. It'll erase this indelible stamp that's there right now - that they won't get an Ahmadi to play. If that kind of thinking exists, it'll change that. If just one guy represents, the path can open up."

Saba Imtiaz is a freelance journalist and the author of Karachi, You're Killing Me! @sabaimtiaz

 

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LOGIN TO POST YOUR COMMENTS

  • POSTED BY muhammad on | June 6, 2016, 20:41 GMT

    Saba Imtiaz Kind for your information living in Pakistan, one should know "RABWAH" is no longer a name of a city or town in Pakistan. The Real Name of this Town is Chenab Nagar. Please guide people towards right information. The Real Name of This Town is "CHENAB NAGAR"

  • POSTED BY Shahid on | May 12, 2016, 22:30 GMT

    Why do we have this article in a sports mag ?

  • POSTED BY Prabhat on | May 12, 2016, 12:53 GMT

    Kudos! Brilliant piece of journalism - very brave to bring this out - it is sad to see that non-cricket matters dominate the sport so much when the goal should be to have the best possible national team !

  • POSTED BY Muhammad Abbas on | May 11, 2016, 14:26 GMT

    I wish the writer given a live show about the RABWAH and this club and given a chance for live callers to given the real picture of this club. For all the people who have never been to that area should know that this is in punjab and Pakistan 80% team is consist of that province. Moreover regarding the ethnicity or religion is come always very last moment or if you are not goods enough.

  • POSTED BY sankar5957966 on | May 11, 2016, 11:33 GMT

    I am astounded by this, Pakistan should have a system where spots in the team are assigned based on religion based on population. Same should be the case in India also. South Africa is taking the lead by punishing the teams for not integrating fast enough, the perils of democracy. It might require some teams to have more than the usual players, but social equality is bigger than cricket. It is also obvious that some continents are under-represented in cricket and they also should be given a fair share. How can Asia have 4 teams, while South America have none (Guyana is folded into WI and cannot be considered). Lots of topics for sob stories. You might find a cricketer in Falklands migrating to USA for lack of opportunities.

  • POSTED BY educat0973413 on | May 11, 2016, 7:46 GMT

    Quite a political essay. If Kaneria, Yousaf and Many Shahs can play from Pakistan, so Ahmdiya can too...

    Pakistan's 1st Foreign minister was ahmdiya, and many in still bureaucracy,

    Cricinfo, please refrain from these sensitive issues, being a cricinfo reader since 2004, it is very painful where MIRZA is discussed.....

  • POSTED BY pervez on | May 10, 2016, 23:59 GMT

    Great article and a very good insight into cricket in Pakistan.

    My response to Khan of Islamabad who only wants to focus on cricket is to paraphrase C L R James - what do they know of cricket, who only cricket know.

    Please keep publishing these human interest stories showing both the good and bad undercurrents of this noble game.

  • POSTED BY Touseef on | May 10, 2016, 18:19 GMT

    Excellent article. Very well written. Very sad indeed that players of such quality are denied opportunity to play at top level just because of their faith. It is very unfortunate that cricketers from the region have to suffer because of state sponsored persecution. Pakistan has to change its mindset in order to succeed in every profession including sports. I am not sure how Pakistan fans will react if some Ahmadi Muslim does get to play for national team. Judging by attitude of people mentioned this article and some comments underneath, I suppose they will get worse treatment than spot fixers. That is a risk which I am not sure PCB or PSL franchises are willing to take. I hope things change for better sooner than later.

  • POSTED BY mkf on | May 10, 2016, 17:02 GMT

    Such a polticized, religiously provocative article by the 'writer'. Complete waiste of time & resource, of the cricketmonthly magazine.It has nothing to do with cricket. The 'writer' is desperately trying to gain cheap publicity by creating a conspiracy theory about a baseless issue. And in the process Ridiculing, & Maligning, the Pakistan Cricket, PCB, Pakistani Culture.This malicious piece of article is based on poor understanding and misinformation. The players of this particular community're playing cricket in domestic tournament all over the country, had there been a biase as clearly mentioned by the 'writer' they wouldn't 've been selected for domestic cricket. and on the other hand there're other (minority) communities in pakistan who gets far lesser oppurtunities then these players but I think the 'writer' dosen't care about them. I know that we've problems & we're working to fix'em, but articles like these(vicious,missconceived) won't help infact they'll compound the problem

  • POSTED BY Hassan Ahmed on | May 10, 2016, 16:18 GMT

    Great article. I use to live there and was also a part of this club then shifted to Lahore in 2004. Honestly speaking everyday I think to go back to that place.

  • POSTED BY first on | May 10, 2016, 16:18 GMT

    Now now we are getting my Indian friends all teary eyed and going bravo bravo. Yet when some article appears about minority marginalisation under their present regime, they all get hyper-defensive calling it just another attempt to tarnish the image of their "free" country.

    It's an article all about religion appearing with cricket only sprinkled in to make a connection to a sports journal.

    Come on cricinfo, follow the "freedom of speech" and publish this comment.

  • POSTED BY Zia on | May 10, 2016, 16:16 GMT

    an exaggerated and political agenda based article that shouldn't hv been on a sports site......Frankly speaking though Faisal Mubashir got some runs in domestic cricket but there's nothing eye catching or exceptional about him,he looked just about an average player with dozens of others even better than him so they deserve a chance first and also Pakistan have selected Danish Kaneria and Yusuf Yohanna in past who were from minorities so no exaggerated arguments and hypothesis stand valid,,if somebody is not playing on high level its because of his limited skills, simple is that....

  • POSTED BY Hasan on | May 10, 2016, 11:33 GMT

    After reading this article ,i realized that how it is difficult to grow up in such an extremist society ? Oh my poor nation, grow up and behave like human being. Islam always preaches that peace. Why we people have so much narrow minds ? But i am hopeful and have belief that i will see you (mubashir bhai ) in Pakistan team. Be patient and show your performance. nothing is impossible !! Believe in God. Life always tests you through different ways and this is your test time and soon you will get reward. !!

  • POSTED BY khan on | May 10, 2016, 10:53 GMT

    its more a politics and exploitation of Pakistani culture with exaggerated and fabricated stories then reality. A cricket magazine is supposed to write about cricket then projecting hatred against Pakistan and Pakistanis

  • POSTED BY feroze on | May 10, 2016, 10:45 GMT

    as per constitution of Pakistan, Ahmadis are non muslim.

  • POSTED BY Ali on | May 10, 2016, 7:53 GMT

    I think this article is more about religion / Ahmadia cast than cricket...

  • POSTED BY Rawal on | May 5, 2016, 8:55 GMT

    This is such a bold and brave piece of journalism! I really commend the writer for the details that have been included in this article, ranging from the difference in the religious beliefs as well as highlighting the kind of treatment that Ahmadis have received from the country´s top politicians and government officials - which is most important in drawing the exact picture for any outsider reading this. Again, well done ma´am. A brilliant feature.

  • POSTED BY maqwaq0660247 on | May 3, 2016, 0:37 GMT

    Talented cricketers like Faisal Mubashir of Ahmadiyya community of Pakistan are being neglected because of religious discrimination: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

    I salute the writer for her great research to bring this issue to the world of cricket. This is a true that people of ahmadiyya community in Pakistan are discriminated on basis of religion and big departments like cricket board hesitate to give chance to very talented Ahmadi players like Faisal Mubashir, who has great record in first class cricket. what international community do for it? can international cricket community morally press Pakistan cricket board to consider selecting the talented cricketers like Faisal Mubashir in national team?

  • POSTED BY Imad on | May 2, 2016, 13:00 GMT

    Brilliant feature which brought tears to my eyes. As an Ahmadi I can relate to the discrimination. As a sports fan I cannot understand it. Sport is supposed to transcend race, religion and all those barriers we have created in society. One can only pray that Pakistan can overcome this prejudice which has now become ingrained in the very DNA of the people and the country.