November 12, 2013

The ironies of Pakistan cricket's latest farrago

The PCB is at loggerheads with the courts over matters that have grown too convoluted for most people to care about

The one recourse, I suppose, lies in the irony. Few men did more to put Pakistan cricket on its feet in the 1950s than Justice Alvin Robert Cornelius, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court, a head of the cricket board, and, though with his faults, a generally upstanding jurist. Subsequently, few have done as much to bring cricket to its knees than another judge, the considerably less accomplished Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court (IHC). There is nothing else to recommend the festering current legal rumpus, which has become so convoluted people have stopped caring, or treating it as the Pretty Big Deal it is.

In the time and space between Cornelius and men such as Siddiqui is written the story of a vast, sprawling fall of an institution, and maybe, as it feels on really bad days, much more. So much that Pakistan's judiciary has done over the last few years sounds like the statement of an institution that demands that its time has come, as if telling politicians and the army that they've had their turn, now it's that of the courts. Cricket is merely one new battleground.

One of the traits of this burst of judicial activism is that often it hasn't been too difficult to sense some nobility of purpose in the original intent. So when the IHC suspended Zaka Ashraf, taking notice of a petition, for what it called a "polluted" and "dubious" election, it wasn't far off the mark. The election's timing especially - hurried through secretively before a potential change of government, without the involvement of the biggest regional associations - was revealing. The board claimed that a new constitution had brought a new, less politicised, process of appointment for the chairman's post, apparently in line with ICC guidelines. This was doubly disingenuous because, one, the ICC had already downgraded its demand regarding political interference in the functioning of boards. Two, the new constitution didn't really clip the powers of the board patron, the president of Pakistan. All it did was make the use of those powers a little more roundabout: the recommendations for who should be nominated as chairman would come from the patron and the nomination committee itself would also have two patron-appointed men.

But as with other acts of judicial activism, the suspicion has grown that the court has overreached and imagined itself as being on a moral crusade to right every wrong. There should be no doubt about this, not after reading the first major judgement it issued on July 4, after Najam Sethi was made interim chairman. Vast chunks of it are rambling and irrelevant; pages on the history of the game (why are they there in the first place?) have been taken from Wikipedia, before a drifting lecture through a history of the game in Pakistan and its controversies. The 30-page order, which ultimately crippled Sethi and ordered fresh elections, is revealing both of the competence of its authors and their crusading bluster, the low level of the former and high degree of the latter combining to astonishing and dangerous effect.

Since then, Justice Siddiqui has pursued the board with inexplicable zeal. Why else would he repeatedly push for the Election Commission of Pakistan to oversee the election of a chairman of the PCB, when that commission has repeatedly told the court it is not within its mandate to do such a thing? By further foisting its own election methodology - in making the larger general body vote for a chairman, rather than have the smaller, more influential board of governors do so - the court has essentially changed the board's constitution as it deems fit; because the constitution is government-approved, it has meant that the government has also become a party in the case (through the Ministry of Inter-Provincial Coordination, the IPC, which now loosely oversees the PCB in the same way the now disbanded Sports Ministry used to). Demanding also that the chairman be a graduate and a former first-class cricketer is unnecessarily exclusionary and pointless: which chief executive of a cricket board around the world fulfils both requirements?

So much that Pakistan's judiciary has done over the last few years sounds like the statement of an institution that demands that its time has come, as if telling politicians and the army that they've had their turn, now it's that of the courts

In one of his later orders, on the morning that he suspended the ad hoc set-up the board had put in place, Justice Siddiqui made an astonishing, little-commented-upon demand. A former Supreme Court judge would oversee board elections - which, in theory, is fine - but the board would need to pay him Rs2.5 million for it. I'm no jurist, but to specify and put in writing a seemingly arbitrary and pretty exorbitant fee for a fellow judge seems not only unusual but also unbecoming.

This being the PCB, however, ire must be sprinkled equally all over. Their own conduct is far from satisfactory, right from Ashraf's "election" to the way they went about appointing Sethi, to the - admittedly enforced - usurpation of the board by an ad hoc set-up (with a vaguely corporate but vacuous new name, the Interim Management Committee). When they were first asked by the court to provide names as possible replacements for Ashraf, three names were sent by the IPC. None of them were Sethi's, so when he was announced suddenly as the chairman soon after, the court was within its rights to question why he was chosen when he wasn't on the original shortlist.

The board may have a point when it says elections, in the methodology the court has described, are currently difficult, or representative ones at least. Thirty-three out of the 111 regions and districts (and departments) cannot vote because they are involved in their own legal messes; that includes nine of the 15 regional associations, among them Lahore, Sialkot, Faisalabad and Multan. To have any election without them is no election. But to show no interest or urgency in devising an alternative, more representative, way to appoint a chairman - or better yet - to reduce the chairman's powers, as has long been necessary, is wilful negligence.

Let's leave as we began, however, on a note of irony, this one brought to pass by the machinations of the government and board and by the ignorance of the courts; it's better than leaving on a note of despair. This entire farrago began, remember, with Ashraf's move to ostensibly decrease political influence on the board, by changing the role of the president / board patron. In the good justice's July order, however, he argues that the president of the country, because he is now powerless under constitutional changes, should no longer be patron. "The President's status merely is symbolic and authority has to be exercised, if any, through the Prime Minister." With the president as patron, at least it was possible to argue that as he has become theoretically an apolitical being, as such there would be little political interference (in practice this has not been the case, of course, but it could have been possible in future).

But the board and government happily interpreted the order to mean that the prime minister, a stridently political and powerful being, is instead the new patron. Indeed the official announcement of the Interim Management Committee came from the prime minister's office, even though the board's constitution does not reflect this (the 2013 version specifies, as previous ones do, the patron as the president of Pakistan). There was no question the PCB would ever challenge this. The only explanation one board official gave as to why the PCB didn't was not one at all: "We just haven't."

The bottom line is, it can be argued and feared, that political interference is likely to increase with a sitting prime minister as board patron. To get here from where we started? Well, that's a long, pretzelian way to go about screwing yourself over.

Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National