Back in the 1970’s to 90’s, cricket coverage in Pakistan was very different from what we see these days. Now the audience are used to watching games in high-definition, obtained by using state-of-the-art cameras that are distributed around the ground, offering the best possible views for deliveries bowled and shots scored. The latest addition to the already impressive galaxy of cameras is the computer-controlled Spider-cam that is manoeuvred through three dimensions over the ground, yielding a bird’s eye view, or catching a shot from a fielder’s eye-level. Though this is still no substitute for watching the game in the stadium, watching on Television now offers you a good enough match-watching experience.
In the early days that I referred to, televised cricket coverage depended upon cameras that were designed for indoor news shows. The result was a rather grainy and dim view of the ground, and the camera was barely swift enough to follow the ball. A change from black and white to colour telecasts marked a vast leap in technology, but the picture quality as compared to present day, was decidedly archaic.
One thing, however, at least at par with cricket coverage today was the standard of commentary. In Pakistan, the bulk of commentary in those years was done by two cricket enthusiasts, Chishty Mujahid and Iftikhar Ahmed. Chishty was a Cambridge graduate, whilst Iftikhar was a Chartered Accountant by profession. Cricket was their passion and their love for the sport was palpable in the enthusiasm with which they described the on-field action. Iftikhar Ahmed was the more emotional of the two and had an excitable persona. Chishty Mujahid, on the other hand, had a dry sense of humour with a more laid-back style. Together, they were a formidable pair. (Do note that the duo would often be broadcasting over live radio as well, when ‘away’ matches were not always televised, hence each ball played, each flick of the wrist and appeal for a run out had to be concisely, yet comprehensively conveyed over the broadband).
Pic courtesy Dawn Newspapaer.
Iftikhar Ahmed was a very successful professional who presided as President and CEO of Singer Corporation for about ten years. This highly demanding job did not prevent him from carrying on as a cricket commentator. Once on air in the early 90s, probably because of his business executive pedigree, he made a very astute observation. He was discussing the various strategies that the sport of cricket should adopt for it to prosper in a fast-changing world. In his opinion, for cricket to become global, it was very important to enter the American market. The United States of America was, and still is, the biggest global economy and there were untold riches awaiting cricket and cricketers if the Americans could somehow be made to follow the game. But he felt that it would only happen if a game of cricket could be shortened in duration to 25 overs-a-side matches. That would mean that a game could finish in just over four hours, which would make the play time almost at par with a Baseball match. He believed that only then, could one hope to make the game sell-able in the USA. I was watching that game on PTV and digested these remarks with mild amusement. To me, playing an international game with 25 overs a side was unthinkable, even farcical. Iftikhar Ahmed’s off-the-cuff comment, however, did not fall on deaf ears. When he made the remarks, he was accompanied by the renowned English commentator Henry Blofeld. Henry, who used to call Iftikhar ‘Chairman Ifti’, (referring to his status of being the CEO of a big global company), was a graduate of the prestigious Eton College. He had social connections among influential aristocratic circles in England. It is my theory that he was the one who mentioned this idea to the ECB officials, who finally decided to initiate the first T20 league in 2003. The game of Cricket has still not broken into the US market but the T20 format has renewed interest in the game on a global stage.
Amongst the various domestic T20 leagues, there is no doubt that Indian Premier League is the biggest one. Players around the world aspire to play in this championship. The games are played to packed crowds and are telecast around the world. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is continually multiplying its already considerable, financial clout. Although IPL has suffered quite a few match-fixing allegations, which has tarnished its reputation to some extent, and raised some eyebrows around the world, such is the influence of BCCI that no one has gathered up the courage to express these doubts out loud. That is mainly why, despite clear evidence of foul play by high ranking IPL franchise officials and some players, these charges are not pressed or followed up beyond a preliminary stage.
After IPL, Australian Big Bash league, English Natwest T20 Blast league, South African Ram Slam T20 league and Bangladesh Premier League rapidly gained popularity in their respective countries. None of these leagues, however, come even close to the relative global audience of IPL. The only league which could give IPL a run for its money is the new kid on the block – Pakistan Super League (PSL). Barely in its third year running, PSL has carved a name for itself on the global stage in virtually no time. And this success has been no accident. PSL has some good things going for it. Foremost amongst them, is that the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) set up a separate organisation which was responsible for organizing the tournament. This lean management structure allowed an effective leadership that was free from the bureaucratic malaise of a large PCB. Mr. Najam Sethi who was heading the PSL board, and is now the PCB chairman, has proven to be an astute operator. He has provided dynamism, vision and leadership, and his role has been pivotal in establishing PSL as a tournament that is beginning to be followed around the world.
Pakistan Cricket Board did take its time before launching the league. And for a change, they also did their homework. Business viability of the league was given due importance with various franchise owners having to pay handsome amounts of money to the PSL board for the right to field their respective teams. The players draft system was properly thought through and financial rewards for the players were substantial. A Man of the Match award in PSL, for example, is worth US$4500, an amount that is four times more than the far more affluent IPL.
Cricket by its very nature would always be a prime target for match-fixing. Being very cautious of the reputation of the nascent PSL, at the first hint of a possible incursion on the league’s prestige in 2017, six players were suspended. After a thorough investigation, when proven guilty, lengthy bans were slapped on two players (Sharjeel Khan and Khalid Latif – five years each) with lesser punishments awarded to the others. Everyone knew that PCB had learnt its lesson and was going to be fiercely protective of the PSL’s reputation. Match-fixing and match-fixers were not to be tolerated and would be weeded out.
The biggest obstacle in the way of a successful PSL, of course, was the fact that the tournament could not be staged in Pakistan. Given the security situation at home, it was obvious that if the league was to attract international players, then PCB would have to stage the games in its adopted home of the UAE. Yes, financially it probably wouldn’t be as lucrative and yes, most matches would be played in half-empty stadia, but it would at least give the much-needed international flavour to the tournament. The second year saw the final match being played in Lahore. Gaddafi stadium hosted the extravagant occasion in front of a jam-packed full house. Cricket, after a hiatus of almost eight years, was finally making a comeback. Working along the same lines, the third edition of PSL would have two playoffs, and the final to be staged in Pakistan. The build-up to the playoffs has not been without its fair share of drama. So far along in the tournament, out of six participating teams, only one has been eliminated, and any four out of the rest of the five could qualify for the playoffs. The points table looks really tight and it is very likely that the final positions could well be decided on net run rate (NRR) as the matches won and lost could result in almost equivalent points for various teams.
It has all unfolded like a carefully orchestrated drama. I hope and pray for the successful completion of the three Pakistan staged games. After those, we should witness the staging of three West Indies T20s in National Stadium Karachi (NSK). Once completed successfully, PCB would be in a very good position to stage the entire PSL 4 in Pakistan.
This is when both PSL and IPL can contend with each other on equal footing, in terms of prestige, money and global following. A game between Peshawar Zalmi and Islamabad United, when played in Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium would be a far cry from the game that was played recently between these two teams in Dubai. This game would be played to thronging crowds – a jam-packed stadium wearing a sea of colours and flags. The noise would be deafening, and the players would be rewarded with instant acknowledgement of their performance by thunderous claps, bugle horns and drum beats. The same can be said of all the other games that would be played in the ‘home’ or ‘away’ grounds of the six participating teams. The Pakistani youth would finally get a chance to watch their heroes perform live in the stadium, and this would result in a greater influx of fresh young talent to the game. PCB would be duly rewarded for its meticulously planned ‘return-of-cricket’ to the domestic scene, and the people of Pakistan would get a chance to enjoy some high-quality games right in their home cities. This would also result in greater financial rewards for players, and provided the security situation continues to improve, we would expect to see international players lining up to get selected for one of the six teams.
But perhaps the biggest advantage would be the propagation of the real image of Pakistan around the world. When the images of enthusiastic Pakistani cricket fans dressed up in national colours would be beamed around the world, people would realize what a friendly, cheerful and fun-loving folk we are. Images of a burqa-clad lady cheering on her favourite team, the sight of a young mother who is attending the game with her family of young children, scenes of a turbaned, bearded elderly gentleman, clapping enthusiastically as he applauds a straight six down the ground, or a youngster in jeans and T-shirt holding up a cheeky comment about the opposition team, would show what a diverse, full-of-life, charming and large-hearted people we are. The so-called soft image (or what I like to call as the real image) of Pakistan could not have been portrayed any better.
Since that fateful day in 2009, when terrorists fired upon the bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team, Pakistan cricket fell from one crises into another. 2010 marked the spot-fixing scandal which was probably when we hit rock-bottom. From then on, we have slowly, but surely, marched towards achieving our former glory. What we have done right, is that we have learnt from our mistakes. There has been an honest appraisal of do’s and don’ts and thankfully, the master plan has been followed. It seems that we are finally approaching the end of a long, dark tunnel. One can only hope and pray that we carry on with this process of recovery. Amen
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily express those of FUCHSIA Magazine.
Dr. Sajid Butt is a consultant-radiologist based in London, U.K.