After many years of attempts, hopes and criticisms, the Pakistan Super League finally got kicked off in Qatar in 2016. Given the passion and madness associated with this particular game, not only in Pakistan, but all over the region (Nepal and Afghanistan being the new entrants), one would want the PSL to succeed. Though the Indian Premier League (IPL) has taken a giant leap in South Asia, other countries – Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have also made attempts to have their own leagues with varying success.
Given the commonality associated with the game in South Asia in terms of inputs (interferences?) from bureaucracy, politics, media, bookies and at times even religion, there is something that Pakistan could learn from the regional experiences in holding a Cricket Super League. While the inputs may be unsolicited from across the boundary, given the passion, support and love for the game cutting across various frontiers in South Asia, an external contribution may even have some value!
The first major lesson that one could draw from the existing experience in South Asia on mega T-20 Cricket leagues – is related what becomes the primary content. Despite the discovery of some young talents, the T-20 leagues are more of show, business/money and bureaucratic hold. It is an irony that these leagues while having popularised the game on the one hand, have also taken Cricket away from it! The same thing is bound to happen with the PSL as well; but having started late, the organisers, players and the former Cricketers can take a conscious effort to reduce the negative impact of the above. While the above is a reality, the PSL being the late entrant could be cautious and avoid the perils of such Leagues today.
Second major lesson that the PSL could draw from the other leagues is related to the cleanliness of the game in terms of interferences from politics, bureaucracy and even the underworld. Of the many reasons for the failure of Sri Lankan Cricket League, political interference from the then regime led by Mahindra Rajapakse is considered as a key factor. South Asia shares a common problem in this context; from running the Associations at the State/Provincial levels, to the apex Cricket Commission, there is a strong presence of political leadership. Outside the political, there are also numerous non-cricketing bureaucrats who have apportioned a solid role for themselves as Officials! (This is not only with the Cricket, but also with other games in South Asia; count the official/player ratio in our regional and international contingents to realise this). Neither of the above should be allowed either directly or indirectly own individual franchisees.
Besides these two, with team owners and sponsorers, there are further additions to the non-playing component, but having a crucial impact on the game, and more importantly the players. Cricket in general and T-20 leagues in particular have become good business. In fact the Business Schools in India read the IPL as an innovative business model!
But the real issue is related to keeping the game clean. The IPL in India had to let two teams go – Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and Rajasthan Royals (RR); these two were no ordinary teams in the IPL pantheon. They have won the championships and were performing well. Even the CSK (led by MS Dhoni and with players like Suresh Raina and R Ashwin) had to be disbanded because of issues related to corruption by the respective team management.
A clean league is also essential from an international perspective. Cricket is the only game outside the Basketball and Football that has a huge attraction from a non European/American continent. For the first time, players from different countries are flocking to South Asia to play in a professional league. Any wrong message will have serious impact on this inward flow.
Third major lesson that the PSL could draw is from the role and importance of foreign players. The mainstream debate on this generally revolves around the fact that the young players from Pakistan would be rubbing shoulders and sharing rooms with the greats like Chris Gayle, Kevin Pietersen, Shane Watson and Kumara Sangakkara.
Undoubtedly, the above are legends in their own respect. But most of them are now retired or on the wrong side of the 30s. The presence of the above should not under estimate the need to get quality but young and contemporary international players of high quality and also repute. In fact, the reputation of the international players have to be borne in mind, if we look at them as role models for our young players. Gayles and Pietersens have a temperament and have been rejected by their respective national boards, not due to lack of talent, but because of their attitude towards institutions, norms and fellow players. The PSL should ensure that the young players avoid imbibing wrong qualities from those heroes.
A related danger that the PSL will also have to take care of is the emerging attitude of some of the international players towards their national teams in their respective countries. Thanks to the money, attention and publicity, the Gayles and Pietersons of the modern day cricket would care less for their national teams. Though it may sound an exaggeration and over simplification – there is an element of truth in IPL playing a role in dismantling West Indies national cricket team.
Given the current issues related to the national cricket team in Pakistan, it is important that the PSL don’t spoil the young players. The Akmals and Shehzads have to be harnessed in the right way. It would be a great loss not only for the team, but also for the sport, if their talents are not positively channelized. The Amirs and Butts should serve as a warning.
Fourth important lesson, a positive one, which the PSL could keep in mind - is the domino effect that the Cricket Leagues could create on other games that are fast losing relevance. Being Cricket crazy, that we are, it is unfortunate that many of the other great sports that we are known for – are being relegated and not getting due attention. Cricket has become the most dominant factor in South Asia’s sporting /gaming activities. However, thanks to the success of the IPL in India, there are similar franchises today on Football, Kabbadi etc. The success of T-20 league, thus is not going to end with Cricket alone, but is likely to have a domino effect and be the trigger of a sporting renaissance in South Asia. So the cleaner the PSL, larger the possibility of it becoming a role model for other leagues.
Perhaps, there is a sociological fallout from these Leagues as well. What was essentially a men’s game, that too attracting primarily the youth, the Cricket Leagues today are cutting across the gender and age divide. (For the first time, my own mother has decided that there are channels worth watching outside the so called family channels with exaggerated inter-personal relationships and individuals drowning in self pity!)
Fifth important issue is related to where the game is played. Though the IPL was also played away from India (in South Africa) for a season, it is important that the PSL gets back to Pakistan as early as possible. For the game to progress, the players, especially those international ones – have to get along not only with the players of their team, but also with the culture/people of respective cities that the franchisees are named after. Devoid of this connection, the players will become nothing more than a mercenary, with no attachment to either the team or the people. Remember the last cricket match between India and South Africa in Bangalore; ABD Villiers’ birthday and his century was celebrated by the local crowd as of their own, as he represents the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB). Such cultural connections are important, as it plays an important role in projecting the soft power of the country to the outside world.
Finally, for the purists of the game, the PSL should ensure that T-20 does not aid the demise of the larger versions of the game – be it the 50 overs, or the classical tests. Besides, the regular domestic tournaments and infrastructures are visibly dying for the lack of patronage and support from the players. The phenomenal success and skill that the Australian team possess is due to this strong basic infrastructure and the ACB would never let the Big Bash to undermine this. It is the success of these ground level structures that gave birth to the legends.
Misbahs and Younis Khans should not become relics and irreplaceable. Young players have to step into their shoes and have the will and talent to stay long and play innings of substance. Imran Khans and Wasim Akrams are loved all over the Cricketing World, because of their ability to play and win the games in all formats. Unless one succeeds in playing across all formats of the game, it is unlikely that he will be able to succeed in all the pitches across the world, whether playing a shorter game or its longer version. The dangers of we becoming sub-continental bullies and overseas kittens loom large. While men in colors are a treat to watch, men in whites are a beauty that everyone could appreciate cutting across political boundaries. And is that not the essential purpose of any Sport?
An edited version of the above was published in the Dawn