A revered sport walking the corridor of uncertainty?

When Pakistan lifted the ICC World Cup in 1992, a vibrant nation united in euphoria at the triumph. Now, the future of cricket in the country is facing a murky road

Image Credit: Corbis
Imran Khan proudly captained Pakistan to victory in the 1992 ICC World Cup

Ever since 1952 when Abdul Kardar led the first-ever Pakistan national team onto a dusty pitch in Delhi the Islamic Republic has been willingly engulfed by cricket. From one generation to the next Pakistanis live, eat, sleep and breathe the sport: leather and willow courses through their veins from the moment they’re born.

Sadly, the current Pakistan team is undergoing a phase of rebuilding and reconciliation. The shocking spot-fixing scandal that materialised in the infamous English summer of discontent two years ago resulted in jail sentences for Salman Butt, Mohammed Ameer and Mohammed Asif. The incident has left an irremediable smear of shame on the Pakistani insignia.

Furthermore, the manifest security risks in Pakistan, with tribal insurgencies besieging the country’s streets all too regularly, means no international fixtures are scheduled to be hosted in the country for some time.

Legendary former Pakistan fast bowler Wasim Akram, who was Pakistan’s star player in the ’92 World Cup, feels that cricket in Pakistan is at a critical but murky crossroads, and the path forward is uncertain.

“With no international fixtures in Pakistan at the moment, the game is struggling a bit. But I’m hopeful that after the elections we can get things sorted in the next couple of years and bring the international game back home. And though Pakistan did well against England in the UAE recently, they haven’t been consistent after this. We simply can’t afford to stay behind the rest of the world: we have an expectant public,” says Akram in an exclusive interview with GN Focus.

A new home
In a homeless interim Pakistan has found an alacritous shelter in the UAE. Their newfound home-away-from-home has been a vital solution in maintaining Pakistan’s status as a major player on the international stage. “What has been important has been the ability of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), supported by the ICC and other members, to ensure the Pakistan team had a home ground and willing opposition so they were able to fulfil their Future Tours Programme (FTP) commitments,” says David Richardson, CEO, International Cricket Council (ICC). The ICC has been instrumental in supporting Pakistan throughout her prolonged era of adversity.

And speaking from the coaching perspective he has adopted since taking on the role as Kolkata Knight Riders coach in the Indian Premier League (IPL), Akram says it’s crucial for the future of the game in Pakistan to develop the domestic level while there are no international fixtures scheduled.

“Essentially it doesn’t matter if there are no international matches in the immediate future. Pakistan must focus on the domestic level: the first-class standard has deteriorated. And if the first-class level doesn’t improve in the next three to four years, it will reflect in the standard of the international performance. The BCCI is investing a lot of time and money in the Indian domestic game, which is paying dividends for their national side. So Pakistan needs to do the same. The talent is always there; it just has to be channelled properly,” the Kolkata Knight Riders coach says.

“Pakistan cricket has taken the opportunity, in the absence of home international cricket, to focus on the domestic game. This focus has been aided by the work of the Pakistan Task Team, set up by the ICC in the wake of the Lahore attack in March 2009,” says Richardson.

The attack by 12 Pakistani gunmen on the Sri Lankan tour bus three years ago is a vivid reminder of the precipitous edge on which foreign cultures stand when they visit the troubled subcontinent country, let alone a lurid example of how the sport can become disconcertingly politicised. But traditionally, cricket has been the defining glory of Pakistan’s embryonic history, building stable bridges across unstable social divides and bringing pride into a house of political despair.

Mohammed Saif, a Pakistan-born Dubai resident and life-long Pakistan cricket fan, says his childhood memories of cricket stand out for him. “Everyday when I was a child I would play cricket with my friends. We didn’t have proper equipment, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying the game. We played with no shoes on, in a dusty park and we used sticks that were long enough to be used as wickets.”

Huge potential

The ‘green shirts’ are one of the most passionately supported teams in any sport in the world, and Pakistanis place a huge amount of importance on the success and image of their national team. “There is a real flair about Pakistan cricket and always has been. They have always produced exciting bowlers, as well as elegant and thrilling batsmen,” says Richardson.

And for those who say sport and politics don’t mix, they should consider the Pakistan and India example. The 2011 ICC World Cup semi-final: India versus Pakistan in Mohali.

Two proud leaders — Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — at the invitation of the Indian premier, sat together to watch a game of cricket. Nowhere else will you see political agendas sidelined so willingly for the sake of sport. “Anyone who was in Mohali will have no doubts about the reach, influence and power of cricket in both Pakistan and India,” says Richardson, reflecting on one of the most significant achievements of the modern game in
the subcontinent.

The 2011 semi-final clash turned out to be one of the most watched sporting       events ever. More than one billion people were reported to have watched the game. In Dubai, 75 per cent of the work force took the day off work. Catching a taxi was virtually impossible.

Whether it was the political significance, the sporting allure, or the combination of both that enticed a sixth of the world’s population to a television screen is uncertain. But the unifying quality of the game is a bona fide certainty; especially when Pakistan plays India.

And good news recently emerged that Pakistan is set to resume cricket fixtures in India by December this year: another example of the sport’s remarkable ability to overcome political adversity and build uniting bridges over the greatest of social abysses. The societal reach of cricket is also important for Akram. Besides the self-expression the cricket pitch affords Pakistanis on the field, the off the field conduct of the nation’s players is just as crucial.

“Millions watch your every move, so each player has a huge social responsibility. Cricket should develop the individual into someone who can represent their country with pride and grace on and off the field,” he says.

Need for role models

As Pakistan breeds a more polarised, politically disillusioned populace, with youth unemployment hovering around the 8 per cent mark, role models have never been more important.
“Young Pakistanis need models in any walk of life, whether that’s sport, music or film. But with cricket, you had Waqar, Miandad and Khan who gave the youth hope and something to aspire to when they went to watch a match. “The problem with the Pakistan team now is that they don’t have similar role models. There are no big stars to inspire the younger generations,” Akram says.

The tapestry of Pakistani cricket is a rich, historical and complex one. Many players have woven their magic, adding beauty and colour. And some have left ugly, dark stains, rendering the artefact difficult to explain in few words. However, one thing is clear when you look at it: cricket needs Pakistan just as much as Pakistan needs cricket.