December 28, 2015

Pakistani cricket ads: what we remember

One of the best ways to gauge the evolution of the relationship of the fan with the national team is to look at the history of the country's cricket ads

From smartphones to baby food, Shahid Afridi has endorsed them all © Getty Images

For an insider the PSL draft (disclosure: I'm an analyst for Islamabad United, one of the franchises) was a confirmation of certain fears: sure, you could build a competent T20 team with a Pakistani backbone, but trying to market that will be a challenge. Beyond Shahid Afridi and Shoaib Malik 2.0, there are no universal stars in the list of active Pakistani players. Those that have led the successful Test side - the likes of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan - may be respected, but they aren't the sort to put bums in seats or make the consumer grab his wallet.

Some of the active players have previously complained about the changing media landscape - they talk about growing up in the '80s and '90s, of fawning journalists and a state channel built to embellish accomplishments; and then finding out by the time it was their turn that the 24/7 cable-news networks were the new narrative builders. Pakistani cricket in the 21st century is one where a successful long-form team is taken for granted, and where only masala and controversy sell.

There is one other factor that is often ignored. The rise of private TV channels has coincided not only with the decline of the fortunes of the national team in the 50-over game but also with a lack of ads that are truly universal. Obviously when there is only one TV channel (as was the case till the turn of the century), every ad is bound to reach its full audience. Furthermore, beyond ICC events, it seems advertisers are happy with the boring, generic and immediately forgettable. That, quite frankly, is a disgrace to the rich history of Pakistani cricket-based ads.

Pakistani cricketers selling products (and themselves) might have begun with Fazal Mahmood, forever to be remembered as the Brylcreem boy. But it wasn't until the '80s that Pakistani cricketers came into their own as saleable products. A state that wished to create heroes, a country that was falling in love with consumerism, and a team that competed with the best in the world, all came together. And in the middle of it all was the marketing man's dream - a proud Pathan, an Oxford- educated brown sahib, Adonis reborn, the leader of a triumphant team who just happened to be a world-class sportsman. In the world of the marketing men Imran Khan was a dream come true - someone who ticked all the boxes and then some. And the ads featuring Imran were representative of that - whether he was selling tea or a soft drink, his ads scream of the 1980s - he's the role model for you to follow, even if he's accompanied by godawful music and is wearing multicoloured headbands. All those that have followed have been mere cheap imitations.

The most influential ad in Pakistani cricket history had nothing to do with beverages or any other consumer product - it was, in fact, a public-service message against smoking

Within a few years Imran would give way to the next generation, the two Ws. And more than any match, it was an ad that would define the passing of the torch. Imran remained the boss, but for how much longer, it asked. He wasn't running in and bowling anymore; he was reduced to just batting, the sexier discipline left to the youngsters.

In fact, if you were to try to understand the evolution of the fan's relationship with the national team, you could do worse than look at the history of what Pepsi has done - perhaps the longest-term partner Pakistan cricket has had this side of Intikhab Alam.

By the early '90s Wasim and Waqar had become their go-to guys, doing their best cow impressions in Pepsi's worldwide campaign before the 1996 World Cup, following the true passing of the torch, when Wasim took over the wiping-your-brow-with-a -bottle duties from Imran.

But soon the love affair would begin to sour. The rise of the rumours surrounding Pakistan cricket in the middle of the decade, the perception they were underachieving, and the constant infighting meant that the ads from the mid-'90s onwards were a little different in tone. No longer was the cricketer an infallible hero children looked up to, he was an entertainer who could often be ridiculed. There were the two openers fighting over a bottle of pop, the offspinner doing tricks for the same prize, the fast bowler endangering everything in his obsession with speed, and perhaps the zenith of the era, an ad where the implication is that the only thing Inzamam-ul-Haq could truly bust a gut for was a bottle of soft drink. Long gone were the days when Imran just staring back at the viewer was enough to sell a product.

The cynicism gave way to acceptance, the realisation that your lot was no longer the best; by the early noughties cricketers not from these lands were starring in Pakistani ads. Also, much like the team, the creativity in the ads seemed to die. The safe option of just having Afridi slog a couple of times and smile at the camera became the go-to move. Within a few years Afridi would be selling everything from soap to baby food, his superstardom the only thing impervious to the fortunes of the national team. And if he wasn't available, nostalgia was the next-best option. Second only to Afridi's presence has been that of Akram - the salesman for everything from tablet computers to detergent. Pepsi, too, went the safe route. And if there was an attempt to move away from that, it took the form of either just copying what had been done before (Pepsi's commercial for the 2011 World Cup was a rip off of Nike's airport ad in the late '90s) or worse, just straight-up racism.

Thankfully there has been an attempt to move on. The last few years have seen Misbah and Afridi fight over the only thing left after a shipwreck (the message being less subtle than a hammer to the head), and Junaid Khan and Mohammad Irfan trying to graduate to the big leagues but realising that Pakistan cricket is now dominated by batsmen and spinners. In fact, nothing better captures the viewpoint of the fan and advertisers towards the long form or what succeeds there than the fact that Yasir Shah doesn't have any major endorsements deals yet.

I was reminded of all this over the course of the two days of the PSL draft. As he sat at a table, Akram was referred to by the same term by just about everyone present, regardless of age, and it struck me that the most significant and influential ad in Pakistani cricket history had nothing to do with beverages or any other consumer product - it was, in fact, a public-service message against smoking. It would run for a decade, and become the only memory a generation had of the Nehru Cup final and one of his hat-tricks. From that point on, he would always be referred to a Wasim bhai.

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

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