PSL – Great Leap Forward | Najam Sethi

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The second edition of Pakistan Super League (PSL) has kicked off to a magnificent start. It is time to take stock.

The idea of a T20 league for Pakistan, in line with various such leagues in the top cricketing nations of the world, was born many years ago. But a combination of inertia, incompetence, corruption and lack of vision in the leadership of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) stopped it from materializing despite exploratory expenditures of crores of rupees. But a change of command at the PCB in 2013 has made it a throbbing reality that has brought joy to tens of millions of Pakistanis at home and abroad. How did that happen?

They said there was no point in having such a league until international cricketers were ready to come and play in Pakistan. But the League kicked off in the UAE to the tumultuous roar of a packed stadium in Dubai and unprecedented eyeball ratings at home and abroad.

They said franchisees and sponsors would not be forthcoming for such a risky enterprise. But the franchisees forked over $9m to fuel the game and the sponsors lined up gamely behind them.

They said PCB would lose a lot of money. But the PSL turned a profit of $2.6m in the first year.

They said the top foreign players would scoff at the idea of PSL. But the best and brightest are already on board.

They said it would be marred by scandals and discredited. But Team PSL is alert and security is tight.

Looking ahead, Team PSL is now gearing up to achieve two new milestones. First, to float PSL as a 100 per cent PCB owned subsidiary with institutionalized professional and autonomous management. Second, play the Final match in Lahore next month with foreign players and open a window to facilitate the return of international cricket to Pakistan.

Unfortunately, the naysayers are still bent on blocking the way forward.

Mischievous petitions have been launched in the courts, complaints lodged in the office of the prime minister and angry questions asked in parliament – all based on a deliberate distortion of facts – alleging that the plan to launch a separate PSL company is somehow sinister and ill-informed.

Now they are saying that the Final should not be played in Lahore because foreign players are not ready to take the risk. This demeans the heroic efforts of Team PSL to convince foreign cricket associations and players that Lahore is the safest city in Pakistan because the Pakistan army and government have uprooted terrorist cells and undertaken to provide foolproof security for the match.

Media and party political rivalries are threatening to derail a great project that promises to be an unprecedented showcase of a vibrant, safe and secure Pakistan.

However, one pertinent question remains. What if there is a terrorist incident somewhere in Pakistan in the run-up to the Final in Lahore? Should the naysayers clutch at it in glee and say, “we told you so, now cancel the Lahore event and eat humble pie”? Or should patriotic Pakistanis and passionate cricket fans line up behind Team PSL to convince the foreign players that it is still safe to play in Lahore?

Recently, Mr Giles Clark, who heads the ICC Pakistan Task Force, and Bob Nicholls, an ICC security expert, visited Pakistan to take stock of the security situation in Lahore. Both were briefed by the Punjab government and PCB officials and are reported to be favourably inclined. But the naysayers continue to sow doubts in the minds of foreign players even as Team PSL is making determined efforts to assuage their fears and prepare plans for any eventuality.

Think of it. If Team PSL can bring a clutch of foreign players to Lahore to participate in the Final in a choked Gaddafi Stadium roaring with pleasure, it will send a more vibrant message of a peaceful Pakistan to the world than all the well-meaning statements of the civil-military brass about the decline of terrorism in the country. It will also open the door to the revival of international cricket in the country. We know that at least two ICC full members are ready to tour Pakistan later this year if the PSL Final is safely played in Lahore next month.

The Punjab government’s Safe City project in association with a British security company is very impressive. The administration has geared up to provide VVIP security to the two Finalist Teams normally reserved for visiting Heads of State. The Pakistan Rangers will work closely with the Punjab police to provide several layers of security. Under the circumstances, should Team PSL hunker down before the naysayers and abandon the Lahore project or should it clench its fist and move ahead regardless because much more than cricket is at stake?

The answer is flying in the wind. Nothing risked, nothing gained. A small step for cricket can become a great leap for Pakistan.