February 21, 2016

The problem with the PSL

The format hardly makes for compelling cricket, and the fact that people expect the league to bring top-level cricket back to Pakistan is an unnecessary burden

On days other than Fridays, the crowds have been dismal at the PSL © PCB/PSL

To say Najam Sethi at the PCB has been a shade bullish about the Pakistan Super League's prospects would be an understatement. It is understandable, given the PSL was virtually entirely his idea, and it is a mark of his influence at the PCB that the league has come into existence at all. (The public support of Shaharyar Khan, the PCB's chairman, for the project was mystifyingly muted; was it indicative of his thoughts on the whole idea?)

Sethi's delight at the PSL getting underway was irrepressible. "The PSL will be the biggest thing that has hit Pakistan cricket," he said in an interview. He added that, five years down the line, if the PSL were held in Pakistan, it would be far more exciting than any FTP engagement could ever be. "The PSL will be more like the IPL than other leagues," he declared.

Although Sethi's bombastic build-up to the PSL and his eagerness to associate it with the IPL come off as rather transparently insecure, the league has whipped up excitement among Pakistan's cricket-starved fans in a way quite unlike anything else in recent memory. Hopes that the PSL will help bring back Pakistan's glory days, even bring international cricket back to the country, fly unchecked. The extent and variety of raw young Pakistani talent on display is marvelled at. The number of international stars present is pointed to as proof of the tournament's marketability. Anything less than utter and complete admiration of everything PSL risks coming off as churlish in the extreme.

Make no mistake, there is much that the PSL needs to be admired for. It has given Pakistani players the chance to participate in a lucrative T20 league. It has allowed them to gain precious experience sharing dressing rooms with international cricket's biggest names, and financial incentives of the sort that have, unfortunately for Pakistani players, been severely curtailed in the past for a multitude of non-cricketing reasons, from a precarious security situation in Pakistan to an unstable political relationship with India. The PSL has greatly boosted the earning potential of young players on Pakistan's domestic circuit, many of whom have had to hold part-time jobs, and often had to choose between feeding their passions and their families. It has enabled parts of Pakistan rejected by the cricketing establishment to take pride in their city's exploits. The irony of Quetta being joint top at the end of the group stage, the capital city of a province that has never seen a player turn out at ODI or Test level in Pakistan's history, is not lost on anyone who loves a good underdog tale.

But fans and administrators alike seem to be laying a greater burden on the shoulders of the tournament than it can possibly bear. Sethi, Ramiz Raja and Wasim Akram among many others have talked up the possibility of the PSL bringing international cricket back to Pakistan. One cannot help wonder how. Cricket did not move away from Pakistan because the country's appeal went down in cricketing terms - indeed, Pakistan won the T20 World Cup three months after its international isolation began - but because of security issues, which have nothing to do with whether the PSL is a roaring success or a whimpering failure. The PSL could be as successful as the English Premier League and it couldn't bring cricket back to Pakistan as long as the threat of a team bus being ambushed and attacked by bullets and hand grenades on its way to a stadium remained realistic. If that is the yardstick by which the event will be measured, the PSL risks being unfairly set up for failure.

The format is too twisted, allowing losing teams move ahead in the tournament © Chris Whiteoak

Moreover, if the concept and layout of T20 league cricket is designed for entertaining, fast-paced cricket, the PSL's format could not have done more to blunt its sharpness more effectively. Five is an awkward number of teams to play in any league, but stipulating that four go through to the knockout round (which isn't actually a knockout, but that's a different story) makes the group stage almost pointless. That's an unwelcome indictment, given the group stage is more or less the entire tournament. Therefore, all the teams needed to do to stave off elimination was ensure they didn't finish rock bottom, which meant that very soon, Quetta and Peshawar weren't playing for too much at all.

It also, surely, made Karachi Kings the worst team in the short history of T20 cricket to advance to a round where they were three matches away from winning the entire event. Shoaib Malik's (and then, of course, Ravi Bopara's) men were so ordinary by the end of the group stage that they were guaranteed a losing win-loss record, even if they went on to win the tournament. A format that permits this to happen cannot be much more than a work in progress. Surely the only sensible format was the top two teams making the final? Make that a best-of-three if you must. It would be far more exciting to see Quetta and Peshawar play three hard-fought contests between them than the mess that is the current arrangement.

The disappointing crowds at almost every game not held on a Friday, particularly in Dubai, have been a sobering reality check. The huge, lifeless stands that have become an unwelcome hallmark of Pakistan's adopted home have been in full evidence for large parts of the event. A smattering of passionate support in a small part of the ground does not do nearly enough to dispel the impression of indifference to the PSL in the UAE - which Sethi put down on the eve of the tournament to a tight marketing budget. While it seems hardly fair to criticise the PSL for sparse crowds - it was an inevitable consequence of the tournament not being held in the cities whose teams featured in the league - such a strong lack of interest in the event from the people of the cities where it did take place is a solemn reminder of the work that still lies ahead if the PSL is going to last much longer than its debut season.

That will be the greatest challenge of all. For the PSL to have any kind of long-term future, it needs to come back to the country whose name makes up one third of the acronym, and the unlikelihood, at present, of that happening makes its long-term prospects rather bleak.

The PSL has done many things right, but there is room for improvement. (It could take on three more teams and adopt a logical format, for starters.) However, a number of factors in Pakistan cricket simply aren't within the PSL's power to change, and it is crucial the tournament doesn't become a wishing wand for spectators and administrators alike. It may well fill the PCB's coffers, but it cannot fill Pakistan's stadiums.

Danyal Rasool is a freelance sports writer who has been published in the Cricketer, Sport360, New Zealand Herald, and the Daily Times. @Danny61000