Wings to fly | Najam Sethi

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From the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore in 2009 to the wondrous win at the Oval in 2017, it has been a long and often painful journey for cricket in Pakistan. Shunned by big-item foreign cricketers fearful of safety, domestic cricket became a drab affair, stadiums fell into disrepair, training academies were starved of funds, game development and talent hunt projects were abandoned and the wellspring of talent began to dry up. The most exciting and lucrative cricket contest of all – India-Pakistan series – also fell prey to politics when India refused to play Pakistan even in a neutral country. In the event, Pakistan’s “home away from home” – Dubai and Sharjah – was like an arid wasteland, with empty stadiums, dead pitches and high costs. Worse, the world had discovered an exciting new 20/20 cricket format and set up domestic leagues to excel in it but the Pakistan Cricket Board was woefully inadequate to meet the challenge. Indeed, unlike other Cricketing Boards run by professional managers and accountants, the PCB was mismanaged by grubby politicians and sifarshi bureaucrats. In 2013, the PCB was laid low by undue court cases and vested-interest conspiracies by elements of the ancien regime.

Thankfully, a new beginning was made in 2014 when a new constitution was unfurled, elections to the BoG and chairman were transparently held, efforts were made to induct professionals in management and imbue the organization with best international practices. The result is palpable. Against the odds, Pakistan achieved Number One Test Team ranking in the World earlier this year and last week became the OD Champions of the World without a single super star in its lineup.

This journey began with the onset of the Pakistan Super League in 2016. For many years, the PCB had toyed with the idea of forming its own Super League in line with that of England, Australia, the Caribbean and, above all, India. But a combination of incompetence, bureaucratic lethargy and corruption had stayed the project. The PCB could not outsource it because of lack of marketing expertise and didn’t know how to run such a League itself. It was also confused about how such a League would fare if it had to be held in the UAE instead of at home. Indeed, when the new PCB BoG finally gave the green light for the project, there were many Doubting Thomases who secretly hoped it would be a Waterloo for the new management. But the PSL has grown to provide a competitive and challenging environment for Pakistan’s budding talent. The youngsters who clinched the Champions Trophy are all PSL products. Along with the rest of the team, they came of age rubbing shoulders with mentors like Viv Richards, Brendon McCallum, Wasim Akram, Kevin Peterson, Chris Jordan, Darren Sammy, Kumar Sangakhara, and learning to cope with pressure to excel in a fiercely competitive environment.

But the journey isn’t over yet. The next step is to bring PSL home and fill Pakistan’s stadiums. Holding the Final in Lahore this year was a magnificent achievement. Selling a sixth franchise at double the value of the most expensive franchise in 2016 is a sign of remarkable financial success. That also means more top foreign players, more matches in the tournament (eight or nine are planned in Karachi and Lahore in 2018) and greater opportunities for youngsters to showcase their talent and gain valuable experience. The icing on the cake is a planned trip to Lahore in September by an ICC World Team comprising top international players.

Slowly but surely, step by step, the stage is being set for the full-fledged revival of cricket in Pakistan. The PCB is readying centers of excellence for training in Multan and Karachi. Budgets for renovating and upgrading stadiums in Karachi and Lahore have been sanctioned. Programs for the development of club and school cricket have kicked off. Regional cricket associations are being nudged to find sponsors to invest in the game with matching grants from PCB. Domestic cricket tournaments are being restructured with fewer teams for quality competition. The PSL draft model is being replicated in the domestic T20 and One Day formats to achieve better results. Foreign curators are being contracted to supervise the laying of international-level wickets. In short, more money, more professionalism, more energy is being put into game development so that cricketers can live up to the expectations of a cricket-hungry nation.

Of course, there will be ups and downs in this journey. Pakistan is still way down the pecking order in the shorter formats of the game. The great stars of test cricket like Misbahul Haq and Younas Khan have faded away and there aren’t many ready to step into their shoes. But no matter. A new crop of street smart cricketers with a ferocious appetite to excel in the game is waiting. The PCB must give them wings to fly.