This week Pakistan collectively closed its eyes and swayed to the soul-stirring voice of a qawaal who in his short life had remained true to the Sufi ethos of ‘mausiki’ being a form of ‘ibadat’. Music was worship for the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. On his 25th death anniversary, there was the usual retelling of stories about the Shahenshah-e-Qawwali in Pakistan.
Nusrat’s voice had the power to transport listeners to a world without worries, appeal to those from other cultures and floor both Bollywood and Hollywood alike. It also would help Pakistan win the 1992 cricket World Cup.
This unique sporting badge of cricket honour stands out from his humongous body of musical work. It also explains why most sportspersons walk around with headphones, teams have theme songs or why jumpers want the crowd to clap rhythmically before they sprint towards the pit. Music has the strength to help athletes push the limits but as Nusrat showed it also helps them to be at peace with the complex uncertainty of sports.
How Nusrat’s qawali became the thread that Pakistan held on to during their World Cup freefall is part of Pakistan’s cricket folklore. It was this resolve that gave the country its first World Cup and also decades later a cricketer Prime Minister.
Skipper Imran Khan was the one who had got his team hooked to Nusrat, so much so that the mystical voice of the qawaal would become the constant background score of Pakistan’s historic journey to lifting the World Cup.
The story goes that all through the game the dressing room would have a Sufi atmosphere with Nusrat’s ‘Allah Hu, Allah Hu, Allah Hu’ playing on loop. Aamir Sohail would have it on his cassette player and he would take it to the training area and also the team bus.
Years later Javed Miandad would say that Nusrat gave them “jazbaa“. For Rameez the songs were a communication with “uparwala”.
While Imran’s boys were getting battered and were on the verge of getting knocked out of the World Cup, the master himself had started doubting them. Maybe, he wasn’t aware of his own power.
Back then it was public knowledge that Nusrat was an integral part of the team’s dressing room. As a result he too was facing flak. Cricket fans from the sub-continent were just being themselves, they were being typically unreasonable when their team was down.
In panic, Nusrat called Imran, his friend and fan. In a later-day interview, he recalled the conversation. “I called Imran and told him ‘qaum toh aapke saath hume bhi bura keh rahi hai .. ki yeh sub players qawaaliyan sunne lage aur match haarne lage (The country is also blaming me for the defeats, saying the players are listening to qawwaali and losing games,” he had said.
In that March of 1992, Imran was in a zone. He had unreal conviction in his team. It seemed like someone had given him a glimpse of the future. Maybe shared with him the script of the final beforehand. Nusrat says Imran, matter of factly, told him not to worry as they were going to win the World Cup. “We are listening to qawwalis every day,” he said.
Few years back, with Pakistan never tiring to walk down the ‘1992’ lane again, Imran Khan would mention Nusrat in his World Cup total recall. He hinted that music as a source of motivation for the entire dressing room was something no one did at that time. It was something that kept his team ahead of the curve.
Nusrat’s voice had an otherworldly feel, the devotional tone of his words had a meditative effect and the philosophical essence of the piece made cricket defeats insignificant in the larger context of existence. With Nusrat in their ear all day, defeats didn’t mean the end of the world. It always promised a new day waiting to bring in fresh starts.
Though not that meta, other singers too have come to the aid of cricketers wanting to keep the clutter out of their heads. On one Australian tour, Sachin Tendulkar had scores of 0, 1, 37, 0, and 44. In India, the apocalypse seemed on cards. Even for someone used to staggering expectations since his days at Shivaji Park, the outside noise was an irritant.
Tendulkar, it is said, listened to Bryan Adams’ Summer of 69 on loop for five days before the Sydney Test where he scored an unbeaten 241. It was a torturous inning. Tendulkar cut back on his shots, abstaining from hitting through the covers. He was ‘playing till his finger bled’. He wanted to turn back the clock, wanting to live the ‘best days of his life’.
From Adams to John Lennon. Arsenal’s most famous manager, Arsene Wenger would get inspired by Beatles to firm his football philosophy. Born in a small French village bordering Germany, Wenger said his place had a “cult of physical effort”. Even tractors came to his village when he was a teenager. A street footballer till he was 19, he went on to be an eminent modern-day footballer- thinker.
On BBC’s iconic show Desert Island Disc, Wenger spellt out why he chose ‘Imagine’ as one of his songs. “They (Beatles) make things that look very complicated, simple,” he says. That’s the reason Arsenal could make complex strategies look simple and beautiful.
When Nusrat, Adams or Lennon were ideating, writing, composing or singing, little did they know that their songs would inspire iconic teams and help sporting superstars achieve historic feats.
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National Sports Editor
The Indian Express
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