Nov 28th 2013
IT HAS been a bad month for the Pakistani Taliban. On November 1st the group’s charismatic leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed by an American missile strike. This week the Pakistani army launched an air assault on its main redoubt, the tribal area of North Waziristan, close to the border with Afghanistan. Yet these were at least familiar setbacks. More surprising to the jihadist group, it seems, was the outpouring of love and grief Pakistanis have showed for Sachin Tendulkar (pictured), the great Indian cricketer who retired on November 16th.
To show the militants’ dismay, their spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, has released a video condemning all praise for Mr Tendulkar as unpatriotic. Flanked by two gun-toting jihadists, he declares to the camera: “There is an Indian player called Tendulkar. He is being showered with praises by Pakistani media and people... Somebody should tell the media that Tendulkar may be a good cricketer but his qualities should not be highlighted because it is against the Pakistani nation and our motherland.”
Fat chance. When it comes to India’s leading Bollywood and cricket stars, Pakistanis have always found it easy to put political differences aside. And none has been more popular than Mr Tendulkar. That India’s greatest cricketer of modern times played his first international game—way back in November 1989—in Karachi is a source of considerable pride to many Pakistanis.
When he returned to the city to play a one-day international in 2004—on the first tour of Pakistan by India’s national side for nearly 15 years—the Karachi crowd chanted his name. Some Pakistani boys were wearing Indian team shirts written with his name. No wonder Dawn, a Karachi-based daily, has felt able to declare Tendulkar “the greatest postwar batsman to have played the game”.
Mr Shahid, displaying a less certain sporting judgement, instead urged Pakistanis to rally around their country’s widely-derided cricket captain, Misbah ul-Haq. His performances, the bearded militant conceded, were not all that might be wished for; an inelegant batsman, Mr ul-Haq is known as “Tuk-tuk” for his plodding rate of progress. And yet, Mr Shahid intoned: “No matter how bad a player Misbah-ul-Haq is, he must be praised”.
Members of the Pakistani army, which has lost thousands of men to Taliban suicide-bomb attacks and beheadings over the past decade, might question Mr Shahid’s patriotic credentials. Many other Pakistanis might think it more significant that inhabitants of the remote tribal areas, where the Taliban rule, have traditionally played football, not cricket.
Mr Tendulkar has had run-ins with jihadists before. In 2002 three Kashmiri militants, who were allegedly backed by Pakistani agents, confessed to Indian police that they had been plotting to kidnap India’s revered little master. Had that plot come to fruition it is easy to imagine the threat of war that had arisen the previous year—after the two countries rushed a million troops to their border—would have resumed.
Or, then again, perhaps millions of cricket-loving Pakistanis would have denounced jihadism in disgust.