May 16, 2012

A Pakistan Premier League?

If attempts at one fail, it won't be for a lack of ideas but of intent

The IPL isn't exactly water cooler talk in Pakistan, but it does trigger a certain amount of envy. The matches can be watched live on a local sports channel, and a popular private pastime is to spot Pakistan in the game in as many ways as you can. Though Pakistani players have been systematically excluded from the tournament, Azhar Mahmood has broken through, aided by his newly acquired British citizenship. There is also Ramiz Raja in the commentator's chair, and Asad Rauf and Aleem Dar officiating as umpires. Obsessives can even spot a Pakistani bat or two in the middle, such as an Ihsan Inferno 950 in the hands of Chris Gayle, or a CA Plus 12000 being wielded by James Franklin.

Inevitably, far from gladdening their hearts, these traces of Pakistan only deepen the fans' sense of rejection. The mind wanders, and seeks to console itself with thoughts of Pakistani players pulling off daring exploits in the IPL - Shahid Afridi clearing the ropes, Saeed Ajmal clipping the off bail with his doosra, Umar Gul yorking each delivery of a death over - to deafening cheers from overflowing Indian crowds. Before long comes the ultimate question: why can't we have a glamorous T20 league of our own?

To be sure, there are substantial barriers to Pakistan putting up a tournament in the manner and scope of the IPL. Even if the PCB could somehow conjure up the sizeable cash and requisite marketing muscle, it will still need to find some breathing room in the international calendar. With commercial leagues proliferating on top of an already busy ICC itinerary, this is becoming nearly impossible. The crowded calendar also means compromising on the tournament's celebrity cricketer content, since a fair few elite internationals are bound to be ruled out from participating, no matter when the league is scheduled.

Let us consider the positives, though. For one, packed arenas for a glitzy Pakistan T20 league are virtually guaranteed. Until a few years ago, spectators for Pakistan's domestic matches were unheard of, but the knockout stage of Pakistan's current local T20 tournament has been drawing capacity crowds year after year. Also noteworthy is Pakistan's increasingly permissive media culture and the availability of aggressive marketing tools, collectively providing favourable circumstances for launching a commercial cricket venture. Admittedly security remains a wildcard, though not if the state puts its mind to it. Enough money on offer could counter the security perception too.

If you ask cricket authorities in Pakistan what has kept them from producing their own T20 extravaganza, they will list the usual adversities of terrorism, controversy, and political and economic uncertainty. The reality, though, is that an internationally viable commercial sports league, with its intricate marriage of business and entertainment, represents entirely new territory for the PCB. It requires a competent and experienced management team that is capable of complex organisation, has mastery over financing and marketing, and is motivated by a vision that goes beyond simply IPL envy or the broken-record mantra of restoring international cricket to Pakistan.

If you ask cricket authorities in Pakistan what has kept them from producing their own T20 extravaganza, they will list the usual adversities of terrorism and political and economic uncertainty. The reality, though, is that such a league represents entirely new territory for the PCB

The PCB may be late coming to the party, but one area where they could make a genuine impact is in coming up with an innovative format. They might consider, for example, dispensing with the typical layout of city-based franchises and instead go regional. You could start by dividing the country into major regions - the four provinces, plus the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Gilgit-Baltistan, and even Pakistan-controlled Kashmir - and raising teams dominated by local players from each area. Add in Afghanistan and the UAE, both ODI nations, along with Nepal, which is an Associate member of the ICC, and you have an intriguing ten-team roster that would command a huge potential following and could get highly competitive.

The biggest roadblock, of course, is in raising the kind of money that will attract top players from elite nations like Australia, England, South Africa, and India. In the absence of Bollywood star power or its equivalent, the presence of these players will be the most important determinant of a Pakistani tournament's glamour quotient. When the IPL was initially launched, wealthy Indians forked over nearly a hundred million dollars each to buy franchises and generate internationally competitive player salaries. This is comparable to European or North American sport, but by Pakistani standards these figures are astronomical.

An excellent potential option for the PCB is to involve China as a strategic investor. They have more spare cash than anyone else in the world, possess an unlimited sporting appetite, and are on record about their ambitions for cricket in particular. They may also sense opportunities in this venture that go beyond sport, into the sphere of geopolitics, regional diplomacy and foreign policy. As with any private sports league, a major revenue stream for franchise teams will be their share of tournament or title sponsorships. If the PCB coordinates with the Pakistan government and plays it cards right, Chinese money could foot this bill.

As always with the PCB, though, ultimately governance will be its Achilles heel. Even if it somehow manages to assemble a crackerjack organisational outfit, conceive of an innovative regional format, secure hefty Chinese financing, attract the world's best players, ensure airtight security, and carve out a slice in the international calendar, the job of Pakistan's cricket bosses will only be half done. The remaining half will be to sit back, resist the temptation to interfere, and keep corrupt hands away from the money pot. They will also be required to protect the enterprise from tinkering by influential politicians and other heavyweights.

None of this has ever been a strong point for the PCB, an undemocratic body whose chairman is always a hand-picked political appointee. If Pakistan's attempts at a dazzling T20 league eventually fall short, it won't be because of a lack of ideas. It will be because of a lack of intent.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Anneeq on May 19, 2012, 16:41 GMT

    I LOVE T20 cricket but iv never really liked the IPL, the whole event just seems really fake. It seems to more of an international circus than an event with Indian heritage. It lacks the local passion and appeal that the Football league structure has here in England.

    I think the best way to go for Pakistan is to avoid internationalizing it like the IPL have tried to do and stay local. We should make this a proper Pakistani event, with urdu commentary and urdu interviews as well as English Football Premier League style cities facing each other and proper grass roots appeal. Itl have a more home grown natural appeal to it, and im sure itl attract the everyday person rather than the upper middle and rich that the IPL attracts. Id rather watch that than an unnatural stage managed event where the whole thing is run in a foreign language (ie English) and have foreign culturally sensitive forms of entertainment (those cringeworthy cheer leaders)!!!!!!

  • Dummy4 on May 19, 2012, 7:09 GMT

    Well idea of chinese money flowing in is indeed a innovative thought, however, on the other hand I do feel Zardari alone can sponsor atleast 3-4 teams on his own *tongue in cheek*. Jokes apart I really liked the article, Mr. Shafqat has highlighted all the hiccups and possibilities really well.

  • Dummy4 on May 19, 2012, 0:11 GMT

    Well said,I like the idea of adding UAE,Afghanistan and Nepal,hope for the best :)

  • Santosh on May 18, 2012, 9:04 GMT

    I strongly believe Imran Khan is the guy who change fortune for Pakistan...League can get busted in present scenario of Pakistani politics...Pakistan needs peace...Bring back cricket to their home first...PCB should be autonomous apart from politics...Its heavy schedule for big star foreign players...More of the cricket for viewers...Putting money is completely based on profit theory...But i would love to watch league if they present in organized manner...PCB have to start from level 0 to compete with level 5...But i would love to see associate country playing...All the best to Pakistan...

  • Dummy4 on May 18, 2012, 5:32 GMT

    Get real guys, please. It won't happen.

  • Dummy4 on May 17, 2012, 21:59 GMT

    Anikat < Pakistan Administrated kashmir is Much rich than any other region of pakistan due to the lot of immigration to uk after Mangladam, almost 1/3 of the population is settled in uk which have strong connection to back home, Even the the literacy rate is much higher than other parts of pakistan, so cant underestimate this region

  • Dummy4 on May 17, 2012, 5:39 GMT

    Indian millionaires didnt fork up the money for the love of the game! It was a business decision that took into account the spending power of the Middle class in India. Pakistani urban regions may have that infrastructure and spending power. But Gilgit-Baltistan, tribal areas and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir?? I seriously doubt that!

  • niyas on May 16, 2012, 23:34 GMT

    Intersting idea... agree with the auther... the inclusion of associate countries like Nepal, Afganistan n Uae will increase the fan base of PPL .... I don knw when BCCI will include associate players in IPL ..

  • Imran on May 16, 2012, 21:36 GMT

    They should make domestic t20 more exciting and colourfull... but i agree last few tournament been very exciting and full of crowed.. i hope coditions will get better after these general elections by the end of this year... but i yeah i we really miss cricket in pakistan.

  • shahid on May 16, 2012, 19:08 GMT

    You mean, matches should be played in Pakistan, Shanghai and UAE? I am not even sure that people will come in pakistani stadiums to watch cricket. Domestic T20 might have shown some promise but I don't believe that craze for watching cricket in stadiums is as much as in India. Can they get Bolywood involved in PPL too? Can they have cheer leaders? Can they bring in big names? No, no and no. I had prefered that IPL had developed their product further to include 4 pakistani regions or cirties and had made it a subcontinental league.

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