Pakistan Cricket: The Way Forward

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Pakistan's players celebrate the dismissal of New Zealand's captain Kane Williamson in a T20 match in Mohali, March 22. Pakistani cricket has come under intense scrutiny after their dismal performance in the T20 series in India. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

By Razia Desai

Aiming for the boundary but landing far short of a length.

This would be an appropriate description of what ails Pakistani cricket at the moment. The national team’s hasty exit from the World T20 tournament has, in recent weeks, led to intense criticism from former players, followed by media reports of the axing of the captain, coach and chief selector, as well as objectionable rumors of in-fighting amongst players.

Had the Pakistani team done well in India, former T20 captain Shahid Afridi’s impending retirement would have been somewhat sweetened. However, as is the norm in Pakistani cricket, players are solely blamed for all losses whilst richly-paid administrators continue to rule the roost.

When a batting legend such as former Sri Lankan captain Kumar Sangakkara, is quoted as saying “Pakistan come to tournaments unsettled, with a lot of controversy and lots of doubts over selection, there seems to be lot of talk even within the team and around the team, even by the management,” this is hardly an endorsement for the team.

Keeping an eye on the Super 10 Group, Pakistan won its first match against Bangladesh by 55 runs, lost to arch-rival India by an embarrassing 6 wickets, revamped their side and lost to New Zealand by 22 runs. In their final Group10 match, Australia won by 21 runs.

However, post their exit, the team had somewhat of a reprieve when fans noted that a strong Test side such as South Africa has also won only one of its first three matches and like Pakistan, was dependent on one team losing to another.

With the news that yet another unofficial fact-finding, advice-giving committee comprising 17 former cricketers has been formed, avid followers of the game can only lament at the waste of resources that could be better used in the domestic arena.

What then is the way forward? Many feel that all is not lost, as the fact that Pakistan now has its own T20 league, is a sign of corporate interest in the game’s future.

Basking in the glory of the Pakistan Super League’s setting sun, Pakistan Cricket Board Chairman Najam Sethi has removed all shadows of doubt about the potential of the tournament.

After several years of deliberation but no fruition, as well as wrangling with the Masters Champions League for the use of the United Arab Emirates’ stadiums, the opening ceremony was well-received. Its blazing fireworks and singing extravaganza completely fitted in with Dubai’s grandiose way of hosting large-scale events.

Whilst the plush Dubai stadium attracts more of a well-heeled crowd, Sharjah’s nine matches lifted the tournament as all the evening matches were sold out to almost its full capacity of 14,500 seats. This in turn, had Dubai fans scrambling for tickets and the finale between Quetta Gladiators and eventual winners Islamabad United, was a well-publicized sell-out.

Nonetheless, this is a tournament whose local players have been taking part in successful international T20 leagues such as the Caribbean Premier League and the Bangladesh Premier League. Therefore, in order to compete on the world stage, it will have to iron out its teething problems and revitalize itself.

Sharjah Cricket Stadium’s General Manager, Mazhar Khan feels that the PSL’s next tournament should have a slightly longer time frame. He observed that “The teams had very little time to adapt to the UAE conditions and gel with their international arrivals, hence there should be practice games prior to the start of the tournament.”

A much trumpeted attraction, the foreign players taking part in the event resonated with the UAE’s diverse cricket fans. Dubai sees a large number of starry events throughout the mild winter months but West Indian cricketing legend Sir Vivian Richards showed who the all-time show-stopper is with his presence. His emotions on full view for Quetta Gladiator fans, he was nothing short of stupendous during this tournament, with fans surrounding the team bus after matches, screaming “Sir, Sir.”

Prior to the start of the event, Twitter was awash with personal endorsements coming from international selections such as former England batsman Kevin Pietersen, who despite reports to the contrary, did not pull out from the event. Resplendent former Sri Lankan batsman Kumar Sangakkara moving on to the PSL after the MCL ended, Grant Elliott flying in from New Zealand for the latter half of the event, Shakib Al Hasan and Tamim Iqbal drawing in thousands of zealous Bangladeshi fans—all of these inclusions were positive signs, given that their respective boards had made them available for play.

The PCB as well as many a senior player, emphasized the importance of a home-grown league as a means of harnessing new talent. New find batsman Khalid Latif, left arm spinning all-rounder Mohammad Nawaz and spinner Mohammad Asghar, are names that now roll off the lips with familiarity. The slightly more experienced fast bowler Mohammad Sami and opener Sharjeel Khan, were given an unexpected lifeline by being drafted into Pakistan’s squads for the recently concluded Asia Cup in Bangladesh and the World T20 in India. A hat-trick for bowler Mohammad Amir, sealed his return as cricket’s most-talented comeback kid. Lahore Qalandars brought about a resurgence of Umar Akmal’s wondrous batting talent. Karachi Kings’ Ravi Bopara showed his fortitude by unexpectedly having to captain his team for its final match. The winning team’s leader Misbah ul Haq, secured his reputation as the most strategic Pakistan captain of the last decade.

An on-crease bust-up between Peshawar Zalmi’s fiery pace bowler Wahab Riaz and Quetta Gladiator’s headstrong opener Ahmad Shahzad, was a boon for the ratings. Foreign media picked up on the story overnight and suddenly the league seemed real. After all, what is a cricket match without some palatable tension?

Peshawar Zalmi team owner Javed Afridi describes the PSL as an academia of cricket for the future.  However, he is brutally honest about the tournament’s shortcomings. “This time around the team owners were strong, with Peshawar Zalmi and Karachi Kings taking the lead in terms of marketing. In future, the PSL name should be stronger than the teams.”

He also adds that if the tournament continues to be held outside Pakistan, at least two more teams should be added to it. He is keen to emphasize that the tournament must be taken back to Pakistan as soon as possible, so as to “give it back to its people.”

With constantly unfair comparisons to established leagues such as the Indian Premier League, a point to note is that once the tournament began to show sure signs of success, Indian publications did send a few journalists to cover the second half.

Senior Gulf News journalist and a veteran of cricket reporting, K. R. Nayar suggests that “As audience is of essence to a T20, expatriates must be lured in to the PSL, to show that although Pakistan is the host, the tournament itself has a universal outlook.”  He praised the crowd-pulling concept of fans catching a sixer in the stands and being rewarded in dollars. Nayar thinks more such interaction with fans, will go a long way towards pulling the sponsors in.

PCB officials, their hearts set alight by the warm flames of success, have been telling all and sundry that whilst there were few franchise takers a year ago, they are now awash with offers for new teams.

However, it was the quality of cricket on display that increased television ratings back home and across the Pakistani diaspora abroad.  The fact that these performances could not be replicated on the international stage, namely the Asia Cup and WT20, speaks dividends about the need for reform in the domestic system.

Once the Pakistan’s women’s team won against their Indian counterparts in the WT20, detractors began to concede that some administrational tactics in the women’s domestic system must be working. Hence, the belief is that whatever ails Pakistani cricket, it can be remedied. The key is that administrators who have never played the T20 format, identify the key issues.

The Pakistan Cricket Board in its standoff with the Indian government, would not send the team to India without security assurances. Resolving the issue does not take away from the fact that the national team went through a few days of not knowing if they would be participating in the tournament, to missing a practice game, to the captain being crucified for his “We get more love in India” comments.

For Pakistan to be a rising force in cricket once again, stability both on and off-field is key to players performing successfully.

PSL franchise Karachi Kings’ decision to start three new sub-teams, with a focus on scholarships and education for under-privileged youngsters, is a big step forward. Corporate interest has taken the Indian Premiere League forward in leaps and bounds, thus combining education with talent and opportunity will help tighten the missing links in Pakistan’s cricket and produce stronger characters.

Former captain Imran Khan suggests having lesser teams, as in the Australian format, with the aim that a tougher rise in the domestic system will result in stronger cricketing skills. Being a product of the English county system, he is well poised to advise younger players of the pitfalls of taking part in only large-salaried leagues. Many a Test player has gone into oblivion, focusing on only T20 glamour. For a player to have a lengthy career in all formats, he has to keep his focus on his game and not just the fame.

In the end, it is always, all about the cricket.

 

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