Today millions of Pakistanis are relishing the prospect of watching the Pakistan Super League’s much-delayed cricket final. For those who don’t understand the country’s cricket craze, or the game itself, they can create a mental equivalent of football in Brazil or tennis in Europe to understand the passion that the colonial sport generates in the sub-continent. This year’s Super League, which allows foreign players to participate in a nail-biting, high-intensity, short format called T20, is particularly special.
It was moving smoothly till towards the final stages earlier this year when COVID-19 surged, and the tournament had to be abandoned. Since then, there has been much debate about whether this year’s League should be completed or be considered closed. The vying teams backed by big financiers who lock in considerable advertisements and spend vast amounts to bid for the best players and create winning combinations insisted that leaving the League undecided would ruin them.
The Pakistan Cricket Board that runs cricketing affairs was sympathetic to the plea, but couldn’t commit till it got the go-ahead on the COVID-19 situation and also commitments from the foreign players to fly in and play in Pakistan. The second wave of COVID-19 almost dampened the hopes that the League would ever see its culmination, but then it finally happened. Today is the final match.
The League is about branding the country’s sports talent and drawing positive eyeballs on a happier, more normal side of national life.
The PSL is more than just a cricket tournament for Pakistan and holding its matches is not just about generating revenue either. Like most cricket-playing nations (India, Bangladesh, England, Sri Lanka, the West Indies, New Zealand and Australia), the League is about branding the country’s sports talent and drawing positive eyeballs on a happier, more normal side of national life. Even when played in empty stadiums, the game gets maximum viewership and ensures public engagement at an unprecedented scale. Foreign players playing with the local lads is a rare sight and produces unique opportunities for the national talent to make statements on their skills and to learn from the players that they in the normal course of their careers can only watch on screens.
That is why all big leagues across the world have cricket legends as their mentors who sit in the players’ boxes alongside the ground and exhibit an emotional involvement that parallels Copal del Rey’s field-side highs and lows. That is the icing on the cake which cannot be seen in regular cricket tournaments, not even the World Cup.
How foreign players add value
For Pakistan, foreign players playing in the PSL on home grounds have an additional value since the unfortunate attack on the Sri Lankan team in 2009 after which international cricket left the country. Since the attack, inviting back foreign teams into Pakistan has been an uphill struggle, and apart from rare successes like the recent Zimbabwe tour, the international reluctance to fully accept Pakistan’s security guarantees has been a stumbling block in reviving the game to the fullest.
Foreign players seen cheek-by-jowl with the local players in national stadiums during the PSL makes a strong statement about how far Pakistan had come since the terrible incident 11 years ago. Most players also come in with personal endorsements of the quality of the game and the home-like comforts they enjoy here. Darren Sammy of the West Indies has been nativised so much that he has been given an honorary nationality.
Pakistani officials hope that they will be able to overcome the last bit objections of the big teams like England and Australia to visit Pakistan on the back of the success of PSL. And it is not a vain hope since some of the world’s top players are already part of the League after overcoming travel warnings and their boards’ recommendations to the contrary. This takes the PSL beyond being just a multi-million dollar sports gala and places it high on the list of policy initiatives that redefine the country’s image and cascade into other areas like tourism. No wonder then from Prime Minister Imran Khan, himself a celebrated cricketer, to the Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa, an avid cricketer in his youthful days, everyone has thrown their full weight behind the League, which evokes rare joys of unity in celebrations.
The media feeds this frenzy, not the least because two of the most known media outlets actually own or back two teams and thus bring their viewership competitiveness to the League. Today both these teams are facing each other in the final game. You can only imagine how the TV screens of the two channels will look. Politicians are also part of it and one of the qualifying team for the final rounds this year is owned by the son of the ruling party’s erstwhile political heavy hitter. This throws in a lot of diverse emotion into the green field under bright lights. Billionaires cheer, jeer, boo and wow along-side paupers during the games.
With a partial lockdown creeping back into the national life, this year’s PSL final holds a special attraction for the nation’s cricket-lovers, who will be able to take momentary leave from the usual dose of debate about the nation’s challenges and channelise their pent up energies into a heart-warming, enriching experience.
— Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. Twitter: @TalatHussain12