August 5, 2013

Who is to blame for Pakistan's lack of Test fixtures?

Pointing fingers at the boards of India, England and Australia is useless. Administrators of the smaller nations are the ones who okay lop-sided scheduling

Pakistan's next away series against a major opposition is scheduled for December 2015, by when many of their current stars may have retired © Getty Images

Across the ocean from the all-consuming Ashes, Pakistan and West Indies played in a rather unique venture - a bilateral ODI series that proved entertaining. Of course, like all recent Pakistani encounters it had its dollops of mediocrity and mind-numbing nothingness; but it did provide evidence of why entertaining sport is usually provided either by sustained excellence or performing equivalence.

But Pakistani eyes are also focused on England, where a big enough series win for the home side would propel Pakistan above Australia to fourth in the ICC Test rankings. The rankings take into account performances in the previous four years, with the latter two counting for more - and while Pakistan only have the fifth-best win-loss ratio over the last four years, they are second only to South Africa in the last two. Of course, fourth place is nothing to be celebrated, despite all evidence to contrary provided in English football every May, but it does provide something for Pakistan to hold on to. The reason for that is the 2017 World Test Championship - where, however, the presence of Pakistan may not be economically beneficial to the cabal of three.

Thus Pakistan have something to defend, except they have nowhere to defend it. Pakistan's prize for clean-sweeping the No. 1 team in the world was a grand total of three Tests over the following 12 months (and three more in next six). It is a state of affairs that several members of the Pakistani team object to. In their words, the last thing a team in form, especially one with most of its players in the latter halves of their career, needs is a sustained period, or two, of inactivity.

A reading of the Future Tours Programme doesn't bode well for Pakistan; their next away series against anyone other than Zimbabwe or Bangladesh is in New Zealand, scheduled for December 2015! So Pakistan will go 34 months without a single Test that will test their adaptability. And this in an era when we are told there is non-stop international cricket. By the time that series against New Zealand starts, the stars of the current team (Misbah, Younis, Ajmal, and maybe Irfan) would almost certainly have retired - which means Pakistan will replace them and blood a new generation without ever knowing how good they really are.

The FTP was announced as far back as 2011, and under it each of India, Australia and England will play 90 or more Tests over its eight-year span, and Pakistan 66. This is something that should have set off alarm bells, but it got hardly any traction.

Perhaps Pakistan could have an off-season Test series away to Australia 12 months from now, but that would demand communication skills and planning from the PCB of the sort that they have never had the inclination to attempt.

This is a new sensation for Pakistan, who for most of the past three and a half decades were considered "attractive" option by other boards. Maybe Pakistan need to learn from Sri Lanka, who didn't get any respect despite winning a world championship (cricket might be the only sport where such a thing occurs). A glance at the career of Kumar Sangakkara, for example, is proof of the esteem that Sri Lanka are held in. Despite having played in 14 Tests outside Asia that were second matches of series, Sangakkara has only ever played five third Tests, and never a fourth. Sri Lanka epitomised the rise of the two-match Test series, because hosting them is apparently not economically beneficial.

This is not a tirade against the BCCI or the other two - there are enough of those as it is. The debates over BCCI matters has become like any religious debate: believers on one side, non-believers on the other, neither willing to give an inch regardless of how sagacious the other party's points are. The truth is that while the bigger boards are condescendingly cruel to the other nations (especially the teams outside the top eight), the smaller boards have an inclination towards death too, as Munir Niazi so nearly said.

Nothing better encapsulates this than the goings-on of the past few months. This summer was supposed to provide two riveting Test series. South Africa were to start their Asian odyssey in Sri Lanka, where they haven't won a series since 1993; to prove that they could succeed in Asian conditions, and pass the test of greatness. On the other side of the world, Pakistan were to travel to West Indies, hoping to win their first Test series there. Both home nations would have used these series to continue being competitive in Test cricket - which they weren't as recently as two years ago. Instead what we had was the postponement/cancellation of the two series to accommodate an economically beneficial tri-series involving West Indies, Sri Lanka and India that no one outside of Dhoni diehards will remember six months from now.

You can't really blame the boards for this; the finances of many of the smaller boards just aren't in shape to afford them the chance to turn down a possible series against India, never mind the romantic ideals of Test cricket. The questions that need to be asked are of the ICC and the watching public. There was no hue and cry, no effigies burnt, no op-eds about the death of Test cricket, nothing from the defenders of the English game; just a shrug of the shoulder from those few who actually heard - or cared - about the story. Welcome to the world outside of the cabal.

And it's a lesson to the players and fans involved in all these countries. The next time Sangakkara complains about not having home Tests, the next time Misbah complains about not playing enough Test cricket, the next time fans from these countries put the blame at the feet of the BCCI, one should remind them all that their boards are to be blamed - these men in air-conditioned offices who put on the garb of impecuniousness that allows them to not care for the game in their countries while remaining irreproachable. It is also the ICC that has allowed this imbalance in cricket to flourish.

These men who treat the players in their unique ways (SL, WI and Pak have all had board-player disputes in the last five years), who create systems that produce players who are unfit for international competition, who market cricket in such a way that they get sparse crowds for international matches in countries where cricket is the foremost sport (not that they are the only ones plagued by this lack); it is these men who must be blamed. After all, it is because of the Sri Lankan board that Sri Lanka will only play two Tests in England next summer; and Mahela and Sangakkara will continue to be under-appreciated because of their "away records", which are prisoners to the whims of their board.

Blaming the cabal of three ignores that if the one-eyed rules the kingdom of the blind, questions must be asked of those who pretend to be blind.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here

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