October 14, 2011

Ashraf's chance

The new PCB chairman couldn't have taken over a board more in disarray, but he needs to look at it as an opportunity to be seized

Any incoming chief of the Pakistan Cricket Board has to confront certain chronic ills. By now a familiar litany, these include the perpetual ulcers of player politics, media controversies, international cricket ties (especially with India), and the state of the domestic game and its declining talent pool.

Muhammad Zaka Ashraf, the unknown outsider named by President Asif Ali Zardari to succeed outgoing PCB chief Ijaz Butt, confronts a great deal more. There is an incendiary spot-fixing scandal unravelling in the UK courts. There is the avoidance of Pakistan as an international cricket destination, following the terror attacks of March 2009. There is the crisis of confidence in the PCB, reduced to a ridiculed and maligned institution. And then there are the chronic ills.

Whether Ashraf is sincere and competent only time will tell, but the available evidence is not encouraging. Unknown in cricket circles, he has spent his adult life as a sugar baron, industrialist and, most recently, banking chief executive. The head of the PCB is considered the fourth-most-coveted public assignment in Pakistan (after president, prime minister and army chief), and Ashraf's primary qualification for it seems to have been his old friendship with President Zardari, which goes back to college days.

Still, in keeping with cricket tradition, fans are willing to give him the benefit of doubt. This is partly because Butt has left such a mess that any change brings hope. But there is also a positive expectation, that a man without prior cricket baggage might be the need of the hour. Who better than a cricket novice free of prior agendas to begin picking up the pieces and uniting a fractured and dispirited fraternity?

Ashraf's media utterances so far have been bland, though welcome. He has acknowledged the twin crises of scandal and international isolation and promised to tackle them head on. He has also assured Pakistan's leading cricket figures that their feedback and advice will be heard and acted upon - one of the areas where Butt failed miserably.

Unsurprisingly Ashraf has so far been silent on the big elephant in the room - the PCB itself. There is a dire need to create and streamline a truly democratic PCB constitution. This has long been a screaming demand from players and fans alike, to which lately even the ICC has added its voice. While Ashraf can hardly be expected to sever the cricket body's umbilical cord to its patron, the president of Pakistan, he can at least revise the structures and procedures related to the board of governors and relationships with associate bodies. That could pave the way, eventually, for a democratically chosen chairman in the future, who comes with the support of regional associations and the private corporations that maintain first-class teams in Pakistan.

Even more than an enduring constitution, perhaps Ashraf's biggest challenge is to bring some common sense back to the PCB. After Butt's ruinous tenure, the body is more or less a laughing stock - not just in Pakistan but around the world. Like some bad-tempered ogre ticked off by god knows what, Butt went around smashing heads, alienating friends, and demonising his best performers. He dragged top players through arbitrary inquiries and disciplinary commissions, sidelining icons like Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf and Shahid Afridi. This time around, fans are not asking for much. If Ashraf can simply display a cooler head, that will go a long way.

He will also have to quickly learn his way around the spot-fixing cases, which are threatening to blow up like a nuclear warhead, unleashing a magnitude of collateral damage that can only be imagined. These cases represent the extension of the game into the worlds of law enforcement and crime, which - even by the infamous standards of Pakistan cricket - is an unprecedented turn of events. Ashraf needs a top, and preferably fresh, legal team to advise him on all the evolving possibilities, and he needs efficient liaison with entities like Interpol, Scotland Yard, and local law enforcement. Nobody yet knows where this scandal will end, and Ashraf's decisions here have the potential to make or break Pakistan cricket. It will demand intense focus, dedication and thoughtfulness from him to remain ahead of the curve.

If Ashraf can maintain Pakistan's spots in the international schedule and organise marquee series, albeit at offshore locations, that will be a job well done

A key strategy for him will be to start mending fences with other boards around the world, most notably India. His goal should be to develop such durable relations with the BCCI that they are no longer hostage to the perpetually turbulent political climate between India and Pakistan. While unlikely to be achieved, this must certainly be his aim. In practical terms this means an international series between the two countries in the next 12 months, with the possibility of more exchanges, including perhaps Pakistanis in the IPL. There is an improved tenor in that the BCCI has stopped rebuffing Pakistan. Ashraf is well placed to seize the moment.

As for hosting international teams once again on Pakistani soil, Ashraf needs to be realistic. He can promise all the best security measures, but these assurances will remain hollow unless peace returns to the country. That requires geopolitical breakthroughs, for which the PCB is at the mercy of events far beyond its influence. Ashraf's goal should be to ensure that the situation does not get worse. If he can maintain Pakistan's spots in the international schedule and organise marquee series, albeit at offshore locations, that will be a job well done.

It is a measure of the complexities facing Ashraf that he has to wade through all these issues before finally coming to the cricket itself. Pakistan has managed reasonable success in the recent past, yet there are a number of critical issues demanding urgent attention. A new coach must be appointed to replace the vacuum left by Waqar Younis. The captain, Misbah-ul-Haq, is near retirement with no credible replacement in sight. The batting skills of Pakistani batsmen have disappeared. And of course player morale is abysmal.

Even casual followers can spout at least a dozen names more deserving of the chairmanship. Is Zaka Ashraf equal to the task? If this were a cricket match, he is walking in when the game hangs in the balance, while better batsmen have not been selected. This is his chance to become a hero.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi