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