April 3, 2008

Big across the border

The ICL is being lapped up in Pakistan. It helps that they have a team of their own to root for



Hasan Raza currently tops the ICL batting averages, with over 50, at a strike-rate of 147 © ICL

"You and your Lahore Badshahs," said this friend of mine recently after I sent an SMS asking her to switch on the television and tune in to the right channel. Indifferent to the game herself, she duly passed the message on to her husband, and thereafter, as she describes it, time stood still.

It was the night when Hasan Raza was blazing his way to 98 not out from 52 balls in Chandigarh. Coming in against the Mumbai Champs at 28 for 2, with two golden ducks behind him, he conjured up an innings from nothing almost. Perfectly pitched balls headed straight for the wicket were carved over square leg for six. Yorkers aimed at off stump were deflected for a boundary past wide third man. Replays showed Raza twisting the face of his bat, adjusting his footwork, even changing his mind, in the split-second after the ball left the bowler's hand.

Let's be honest about it. You would never see such a rabbit-out-of-the-hat innings in Test cricket, and even in ODI cricket you would have to go months, at least, before one came along. In Twenty20 cricket, by contrast, such magic tricks abound. There are rumblings that this is the dominant future of international cricket, and these rumblings are threatening to become an avalanche. The configuration of this game - skill and conflict compressed to the point where risk-taking simply overflows - is forcing it to happen.

Take a league competition enhanced by the addition of regional pride, a generous sprinkling of international stars, a top commentary team, and shapely cheerleaders dancing to music, and you've got a concept that goes from zero to water-cooler talk in the space of just a few matches.

The Indian Cricket League also has the extra charm of being forbidden fruit. It has not been a priority for the major news outlets and wire services. India's BCCI, the most powerful cricket board in the known universe, has declared it "unauthorised". Luckily for the ICL, everybody loves an underdog who stands his ground and fights, and the controversy has become its own best advertisement. And since the competition has its genesis in discontent over television rights, the one thing you can trust the league's owners to be good at is television coverage.

In Pakistan, fans have been switching allegiances fast. Like a Mughal cavalry cutting a swath across the horizon, the ICL's sole Pakistani entry has lit up the sky and commandeered a passionate following. They have had some natural advantages. The fans, already cheerless and disenchanted with an underperforming national team, have been smarting from the snub of Australia's refusal to tour their country. Distractions such as the latest Shoaib Akhtar-PCB saga only compound the weariness.

Into this emptiness of the heart, the Lahore Badshahs have settled easily. The only team in the tournament where all the players are of the same nationality, they are mentored by a coach (Moin Khan) and a captain (Inzamam-ul Haq) who played a role in Pakistan's 1992 World Cup victory and today sit comfortably as icons of the Pakistani game. These two have the credentials to guide and inspire any team in the world. The players under their charge have gone flat out, giving their best, and at the same time displayed an enviable camaraderie and a cowboy coolness that any cricket outfit would kill for.

 
 
Like a Mughal cavalry cutting a swath across the horizon, the ICL's sole Pakistani entry has lit up the sky and commandeered a passionate following. They have had some natural advantages. The fans, already cheerless and disenchanted with an underperforming national team, have been smarting from the snub of Australia's refusal to tour their country. Distractions such as the latest Shoaib Akhtar-PCB saga only compound the weariness
 

Most of all, it is their skill and verve that has made them the terror of the tournament. Pakistani players' traditional weaknesses - short attention span, needless innovation, bravado, and recklessness - have emerged as formidable strengths in Twenty20 cricket, carrying the Lahore team to within touching distance of the title and the winner's cash prize of nearly US$625,000.

Even when they were most strenuously tested - defending 151 against Ahmedabad Rockets in Hyderabad - they showed scant respect for the textbook, and got out of jail with medium-pacers Rana Naved-ul-Hasan and Azhar Mahmood bowling back-of-the-hand wrist-spin at the death. Not for these lads the conventional theory of bowling fast and furious into the blockhole. Instead, they used slower balls with loopy topspin to extinguish their opponents' final embers of hope.

"Badshah" is a fitting label for a winning club. In Urdu the word means "king", yet the term's first syllable also resonates in English, casting the team in a menacing light. Most appropriately, the name honors both Lahore, which has known glory as an imperial Mughal capital, and its greatest patron, the Emperor Akbar, who is a celebrated ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity and remains the most revered of the Mughal kings.

In the semi-final, the Badshahs will hope they continue living up to the memory of Akbar. They are up against the Kolkata Tigers, a team representing another imperial capital. Captained by New Zealander Craig McMillan and coached by South African Daryll Cullinan, it is a formidable side with several international stars, including Lance Klusener, Upul Chandana and Andre Adams. Whatever happens in the endgame, the Lahore Badshahs will depart the tournament with a reputation. Before the competition, the organisers had expressed hope this team would add a new dimension to the league. They certainly have, by a distance.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi