August 8, 2009

Anyone but Butt

Why the Pakistan board's chief must be replaced before he erodes the good that came from the World Twenty20

It is difficult to remember a time in the post-Imran Khan era when the affairs of Pakistan cricket were well managed. Until 2003, when there were still superstar players around, it was clear where the power lay, and the PCB was a reactionary body desperately trying to keep the lunatics from taking over the asylum. In the decade that followed Pakistan's World Cup win, anyone with a modicum of experience had a go as captain, except, tellingly, Inzamam-ul-Haq. It wasn't until the cull in the wake of Pakistan's horrendous 2003 World Cup that the PCB was able to take firm control of things.

The then PCB chairman, Tauqir Zia, and his hot-headed chief selector Aamer Sohail were brave enough to spell it out for Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Saeed Anwar. Saqlain Mushtaq and Azhar Mahmood could never again re-establish themselves in the team, and Inzamam, Shoaib Akhtar and Shahid Afridi were only welcomed back once they had spent enough time away to no longer take their spots for granted. On balance, this was mostly positive, but then the PCB got too cute with selections and nearly lost a Test to Bangladesh. Worse was the selection of the boss' undercooked son, Junaid Zia, for some ODIs. His credibility shot, Zia had no choice but to resign as chairman of the board.

Much was hoped for from Shahryar Khan. Refined and respected, the former diplomat was a surprising disaster as PCB chairman. His tenure coincided with a tours programme that seemed to only be concerned about how many times Pakistan played India - the folly of which was clear at the outset. It was never explained why he was forever seen at cricket grounds around the world with the national team, rather than minding the shop at home. Although he deserves credit for bringing in Bob Woolmer as coach, Pakistan cricket generally seemed directionless with Shahryar in charge. His handling of the Inzamam-Hair fiasco, coupled with a clash with stand-in skipper Younis Khan ahead of the 2006 Champions Trophy, saw his tenure come to an end two months before his contract expired.

Nasim Ashraf immediately had a mess on his hands with Shoaib's and Mohammad Asif's failed dope tests. To be fair, Ashraf presided over what was the bleakest period of Pakistan's cricket history till then, with Bob Woolmer's death and Pakistan's elimination from the first round of the 2007 World Cup. Ashraf was willing to be the fall guy and offered his resignation, which was refused by the President. He served on, but relations with the players remained sour. He traded veiled punches with the captain, Inzamam, over the issue of religion in the team, but the ugliest illustration of the state of his relationship with the players was when he sued Shoaib for defamation. It was unclear how Pakistan cricket would come out of the mire, but for better or worse Ashraf resigned as PCB chairman when the man who appointed him, Pervez Musharraf, resigned as President of the country.

As bad as all of this was, any of Zia, Shahryar and Ashraf are preferable to the utter ineptitude of Ijaz Butt. Things could hardly have started worse than when he announced that Pakistan had "no utility" for the national team coach, Geoff Lawson, before he even met him. Shortly thereafter, Butt divulged the private contents of a meeting with the ICC, where it was revealed that the ICC's position against the Indian Cricket League was not legally very strong. Mere days in the job and it was clear that Butt was opinionated, unfair and indiscreet.

While Butt did well in principle to get former players involved, his choices have ranged from questionable to downright wrong. Abdul Qadir, lovable eccentric that he is, was a good choice as a selector, but not as chief selector - he would have thrown up some good picks from left field and then a strong chief selector could have taken a chance on some of them. Drafting Ahmad Shahzad into the Test squad to face Sri Lanka on the basis of a good side match smacked of impulsiveness, and Qadir further showed his lack of judgment when, upon resigning from his post in the middle of this year's World Twenty20, he went public with his views that Younis Khan should not be the captain of the Twenty20 team. Besides Qadir, Butt has fallen out with Javed Mianadad and Aamer Sohail. While both were always committed cricketers and no one doubts their sincerity towards Pakistan cricket, they are also known for their volatile personalities. Appointing them to any post was always going to be risky.

The worst appointment of a former player has to be that of Ijaz Ahmed, who was made a selector. Whispers about his involvement in match-fixing never quite went away and the former middle-order batsman is currently embroiled in legal proceedings in a case of fraud. He may well be innocent of it all, but surely the PCB can find candidates who aren't controversial to staff its positions? Another such, Saleem Malik, was reportedly almost appointed head of the cricket academy before the outcry led to some furious back-pedalling.

The lowest point of Butt's brief reign has been his handling of the aftermath of the attack on the Sri Lankans in Lahore.

The least the chairman could have done in the wake of the Lahore attack was call a press conference immediately, express condolences for the victims and clarify the PCB's sphere of responsibility. Instead, Butt alternated between being bullish, defensive and occasionally outrageous, as when he called for a life ban on Chris Broad

The least the chairman could have done was call a press conference immediately, express condolences for the victims and clarify the PCB's sphere of responsibility. Instead, Butt alternated between being bullish, defensive and occasionally outrageous, as when he called for a life ban on the match referee, Chris Broad, for speaking about what he perceived as inadequate security.

The cricket world, already squeamish when it came to Pakistan, saw its remaining confidence in the PCB evaporate. Turned into a pariah in the boardroom, Pakistan was stripped by the ICC of its World Cup matches - without being informed that the matter was even on the table. Butt's response, to threaten futile legal action, only hardened positions.

While it is a positive step that the PCB welcomed back its prodigal sons from the ICL, the situation has been mismanaged. It appears of no consequence that these players turned their backs on Pakistan cricket to make a quick buck. Two years ago Abdul Razzaq was dropped from the squad for the inaugural World Twenty20 because he was increasingly irrelevant in limited-overs cricket. Where once he was a sharp first-change bowler and top-order batsman, he had turned into no more than a bits-and-pieces player - not good enough to merit a place in the team as a bowler or batsman, but somehow holding on because he could bowl five overs in the middle and bat five overs at the end. Such was Razzaq's outrage at being dropped that he retired from international cricket and joined the ICL, with no reflection on how far he had fallen as a cricketer. His comeback is being viewed through rose-tinted glasses, and while his experience is important to the current team, Razzaq still can't be trusted with 10 overs or a top-order batting slot. In such circumstances a Category A contract is nothing short of absurd.

Rana Naved too has waltzed into a central contract despite being a yesterday's man and without first having proved himself on the field. Meanwhile the PCB has twice had to deal with the embarrassment of having awarded central contracts after the media pointed out omissions - first Abdur Rauf in January, and then Mohammad Aamer after Pakistan's success at the World Twenty20.

Pakistan's senate remains unimpressed with Ijaz Butt; the standing committee on sports has moved a resolution calling for a change in the PCB set-up. That needs to happen, and soon, before the chairman and his PCB erode the good and goodwill that came from Pakistan's World Twenty20 win. So low has the PCB fallen that almost anyone would be better than Ijaz Butt.

Faraz Sarwat is the cricket columnist for the Toronto Star and the author of The Cricket World Cup: History, Highlights, Facts and Figures