Saeed Afridi |
At the outset, let me apologize to all the cricket fans out there, especially those who happen to be Pakistani cricket fans. Actually, let me apologize twice. Firstly, because this is not going to be an ode to the game you love or the players you adore. This piece will not present any comparatives about cricket being the ‘beautiful game’ or dandy assertions of it being the sport of gentlemen.
There will be no attempt to cast the recently victorious Pakistan team as a group of sporting legends in the making and neither will there be paragraphs about the genius within their talent and the colossal impact of the victory on Pakistan’s current youth bulge population. For those kicks, you will have to read people who are much better writers and also have a genuine love for the game of cricket, which I do not; despite being born into a family of veritable, card-carrying cricket fanatics and hence the second apology. I am, for all my sins, a hockey fan.
The very fact that hockey, cricket and let us also add squash fans, I am among that group too, have been waiting for so long for Pakistan to translate its efforts into sporting success is not because Pakistanis have an inane inability to produce match winning and odds-defying talent.
Cricketers not the only stars
For all of you out there who watched their first bit of televised sport after the year 1990, yes, we do exist. We are the ones for whom the words Sami Ullah-Kaleem Ullah do not mean a couple of cute twins on social media. The ones who, when they hear the name Wasim, think Feroz rather than Akram. The ones who think of Ali Khan, not Afridi, when the name of a young Shahid is mentioned and we reminisce not about unorthodox boundaries, huge sixes over mid-wicket or the fastest century but we talk, glistening-eyed, about that day in India, that final, in 1982 and that absolutely crucial save by that spritely 18 year old goalkeeper which won Pakistan the World Cup. Yes, we do exist; yes, you don’t hear from us too often and yes, we are glad for you all because we too have been waiting for our slice of joy for a very long time.
The very fact that hockey, cricket and let us also add squash fans, I am among that group too, have been waiting for so long for Pakistan to translate its efforts into sporting success is not because Pakistanis have an inane inability to produce match winning and odds-defying talent. On the contrary, Pakistanis as a people seem to propel raw sporting talent almost on demand. They emerge unannounced from the shadows, like an unrealistically scripted movie in which some hitherto unknown character walks onto the silver screen to profoundly change the direction of events without any hint from the existing story or the supporting cast. Pakistan’s sporting talent is truly odds-defying and here in lies the problem as well as the reason for my lament. The odds never change. Since anyone has started writing about this country’s sporting endeavors, Pakistan has forever been the outsider, the underdog, the long-shot, the Danial and every other expression of sheer will, optimism and hope coming up against sturdy professionalism. A few years ago when I wrote a feature script drawing upon six decades of incidents within Pakistani cricket, using the 2006 Under-19s ICC Word Cup as its climax, almost every person who was interested in producing it also suggested a name for the story using the word underdog in some form or phrase. This unwelcome consistency got on my nerves back then. Sadly, if I was to pen another script today using Sunday’s victory as a climax, I’m almost certain that the same titles will be thrown at me. Nothing has changed since then and, amidst all the revelry and merry-making, Pakistanis should be compelled to ask, why?
Like almost all else in Pakistan’s state of governance, sport too has had to deal with the oft undecipherable decision making of the country’s political elite. It seems whether they are in uniform or without, Pakistan’s dictatorial executives find it hard not to meddle in the business of state institutions. If the decision to erase the Pakistan Sports Board’s corporate independence by the constitutional centralization of all sporting decisions into the maniacal hands of the executive, the prime minister, was a recipe for a disastrous cake then the devolution of the ministry of sport into inter-provincial coordination was a farcical cherry on top.
The final was played in UK, a country with almost half a million people of Pakistani origin, yet the presence of Pakistanis in the stadium for the final was paltry.
Very few, if anyone at all, is aware of what responsibility if any, a member of the ministry actually has and worse still, who is in charge of making sure that those responsibilities are performed. The idiotic spats between the sports board and the Olympics association, football and hockey federations are now so frequent and routine that they hardly grace the news. In the past four decades when sports the world over has become much more professional and institutionalized, in Pakistan almost all sports have suffered from institutional decay. Institutional heads covet the limelight for the superficial and epidermal success. It has got to a point where they take credit, and also face ire, for the performance of individual players or teams. Let us take cricket and the recent success in the Champions Trophy as our example.
Let’s manage success and failure
All that happened on the field has been viewed, replayed, documented and much praised by almost everyone who has any stake in Pakistan as a nation. In the euphoria of its success, very little has been said about the pre and post-victory management of the sport’s board. The final was played in the UK, a country with almost half a million people of Pakistani origin, yet the presence of Pakistanis in the stadium for the final was paltry. This is given over to the unexpected nature of Pakistan’s presence in the final and the extortionate black-market prices for final tickets. Little is said about whether the board had taken any measures when the tournament began to assure a number of tickets are made available for its country’s fans. In the event of Pakistan’s early departure, the ICC’s resale facility could be used to sell the tickets to spectators from the fortunate nations competing in the final. This is not a novel idea. It is something that is repeated the world over by national and club sides in sports as diverse as ice-hockey, football, basketball and water polo.
The respective institution ensures that the players, as well as spectators of their country or club, are forwarded every opportunity to participate and watch the sport in question. Sports tourism in itself is a veritable cash cow. Perhaps reaching the final was unexpected but by the time India were playing their 15th over, the cricket board should have realized that victory is almost imminent. So from then on, the institutional wheels needed to come into motion for the post-victory celebration.
That evening London saw impromptu roadblocks in areas with large Pakistani populations. Flags were out, people were on the street, shops were blaring ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ and people were distributing sweets to rather annoyed drivers who perhaps were not aware why they were facing a traffic jam. There was no focal point to these celebrations because they were not given one. There was no structure to the revelry because none had been prescribed. The cricket board had not designated a meet-and-greet venue or victory celebration. Not for that night or for the next morning. A social media campaign for a congregation at Tower Bridge or Trafalgar Square remained ignored, despite pictures appearing of team members posing before the iconic bridge the next day. Here we can allow the cricket board some leeway. Perhaps asking them to react within a day was too much to ask. Surely they would be better prepared for the team’s arrival on its native soil. The entire institution functioning under the cricket board and the inter-provincial sports ministry was at their disposal. Surely the homecoming will befit a major sporting achievement by the cricket team since 2009.
The breakdown included celebrations at a football stadium in London before a flight to Dubai for a similar celebration at Pakistan Cricket’s temporary home away from home. Then a whirlwind tour of all four provincial capitals with accompanying ceremonies.
A few days later, I could not help but lament the way in which the Pakistan cricket board handled the homecoming of the victorious cricket team. Had this been England, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand or India, the sports board would have done much better. In Pakistan, they could not even bring the entire team to a single airport. All celebrations were, impromptu, people driven. Whether the streets were in London or Pakistan, it was left to Pakistanis to help themselves, even when they wanted to express their joy. Whether they can count on the teams that represent them to return victorious is a matter for debate; what is certain is that they cannot count on the sports institutions to assist in any way. Much like their teams, the celebratory crowds were raw emotion, unfettered and unpolished.
After the champion’s trophy victory, an executive from a leading UK sports talent and event Management Company was asked how they would arrange the homecoming. As one of the largest in the business, it too is a bureaucratic corporate behemoth with its stakes in several sports in many countries. Nearly four hours later one of the company’s leading project managers responded with a complete itinerary, budgeted to just under one hundred and fifty thousand sterling. The breakdown included celebrations at a football stadium in London before a flight to Dubai for a similar celebration at Pakistan Cricket’s temporary home away from home. Then, a whirlwind tour of all four provincial capitals with accompanying ceremonies. She had tied in pyrotechnics, meet-&-greets, and promotional events. Despite thinking that the estimates were rather optimistic, I found myself swayed by the professionalism of the company and the project manager’s ability to put together the itinerary within four hours. She, of course, is judged by her talents and professionalism, answerable to an executive who then are accountable to shareholders. The Pakistani public, through their taxes, is the shareholders of the Pakistan Sports Board yet the executives of the board are not judged for their services for their shareholders but by their ability to ingratiate the prime minister and serve at the whim and pleasure of the PM. Whether the executives of the Pakistan Cricket Board needed to show prowess in order to get their jobs might be subject to speculation however it does seem that they have no desire for professionalism in order to retain them. Their jobs or their credibility do not depend upon their ability to place a sports structure in place, cultivate and refine future talent, organize services for spectators and players. The results are before us.
Pakistanis have now resigned to the fact that their cricket board cannot put in place an effective local cricket structure that would help identify talent, or provide a graduated league in order to cultivate that talent, or have tehsil level private academies that could infuse the talented with the cricketing techniques needed to refine that talent, or the popularised national stage to exhibit and display the resulting polished players. Now, Pakistanis can also add to this resignation the knowledge that they cannot even expect the board to help them celebrate the rare occasions when their players manage to beat the odds.
How long before Pakistanis begin to realize that there is little pride in wearing lapel pins marking them out as perpetual underdogs and start contemplating why no one refers to them as a professional sporting outfit? How long before Pakistan stops relying on talent coming through against all odds and start expecting professional consistency from all its talents? How long before Pakistanis demand better institutions to incubate, cultivate and refine that raw talent which Pakistan seems absolutely bursting at the seams with. How long?
The writer is a former management consultant focusing on the Energy Industry and writes on Energy Security and the Politics of Energy Resources. He is conducting research related to the role of Central Asia’s energy resources in China’s Energy Security at the University of Westminster, UK. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.