October 15, 2013

Pakistan cricket's organisational mess

What are the PCB and the regional cricket associations doing about the near-disastrous state of the game in the country? Next to nothing

With each passing day, the long-term future for Pakistan cricket is looking ever more bleak.

It is bad enough that the national side got whitewashed in South Africa and dropped a Test against Zimbabwe. On both tours, the bowling was lacklustre, the fielding and wicketkeeping unsettled, and there was virtually no batting depth to speak of. Much worse is the fact that there is no relief in sight.

Time was when unknown young men would come out of nowhere to don the Pakistan colours and blossom into the likes of Inzamam-ul-Haq, Wasim Akram, Shahid Afridi, and Mohammad Yousuf, to name a few. Those times are now history. Pakistani fans have always placed great pride in the image of their nation as a fountain of cricketing talent. That image is now shredded.

This undeniable talent drought indicates that the game at the grassroots is not being properly tended to. Much has been said about the ills of cricket governance in Pakistan but the mess, in a nutshell, is simply this: the PCB with its hand-picked chairman is ultimately an unaccountable body, while the regional cricket associations spread across the country operate as personality-dominated fiefdoms. The overall result is gross organisational dysfunction in the form of a neglected vision, lopsided priorities, and lack of sensitivity to key indicators.

It is difficult to accurately measure the scale of the problem, but driving through urban concentrations like Lahore and Karachi can be very revealing. The overwhelming majority of cricket seems to be played in the streets, on rooftops, and in shabby open spaces. The equipment is substandard at best and the facilities non-existent or ramshackle. The batting, bowling and fielding techniques on display would give any coach an ulcer.

It is no use saying that these are the same conditions and this is the same environment from which Pakistan's great legends arose. The situation now is much decayed, confirmed by the stark reality that the talent that used to pour into the national side has dried up.

What is the collective might of the PCB and the regional cricket associations doing about this? The answer is, next to nothing. Yes, there is a constant application year after year of spit and polish to the domestic first-class set-up, but not only is that tinkering largely arbitrary and cosmetic, it lies too far downstream in the talent life cycle.

Something must be done and quick. The heartening news is that a culture of democracy and accountability is taking root in Pakistan, and it has started to create some hope for fundamental change. One key element in this new wave, as Osman Samiuddin has pointed out, is decentralisation of power away from the centre and towards the cities and provinces - a move enshrined through a constitutional amendment.

A fundamental shift is needed, and many cricket insiders are now looking towards Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is known for his love of the game and even has his own ESPNcricinfo player page. He hasn't done much so far, beyond appointing a non-serious character in the form of Najam Sethi as acting PCB chairman. Admittedly Sharif's hands are full of more pressing matters. But there is no escaping cricket. It remains a very important agenda in the Pakistani psyche, and Sharif will have to attend to it with honest intent before too long.

The most important issue following on from devolution of power is the conduct and governance of regional associations. At the moment, 15 such bodies exist in Pakistan, each having its own president and secretary. The regions are further divided into districts, of which there are 92 such entities, with each district having its own president too. The ability and dedication of these office-bearers is questionable, a sad reality that is woefully reflected in Pakistan's grassroots decay. The districts are further sub-divided into zones, and it's a mockery that they aren't population-based. One zone could have 200,000 people, another only 20,000 or even less.

A fundamental shift is needed, and many cricket insiders are now looking towards Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif

It is also a concern that not one president or secretary at the regional or district level is a former national or even first-class cricketer. This is not because of any lack of interest from former cricketers, who are always anxious to find a livelihood after their playing days. Rather it is the result of Machiavellian manoeuvring by people skilled in the political arts. In some instances, as in the case of the Karachi City Cricket Association, these positions have become virtually fossilised, with the same individuals clinging on for decades.

Another confusion is the parallel existence of the so-called "departmental" teams - outfits at the first-class level that are maintained by corporate entities like banks, airlines and railways - which remain conjoined with the regional associations in a dysfunctional Siamese relationship. And on top of everything else, governance roadmaps in the form of constitutions and bylaws remain shifting targets throughout this pyramid, up to and including the PCB.

The mess, undeniably, is enormous. Still, Sharif has been disappointing. His decision to appoint Sethi was hasty, and it has all the markings of a badly mistimed stroke. This was, in any case, a consolation prize for Sethi, who is rumoured to have coveted most an ambassadorship to the United States. It is hard to take Sethi seriously, because he always looks and sounds like he's pulling your leg. His most prevalent persona is as a clever and calculating political commentator on Geo, Pakistan's wildly popular TV channel.

The few times he has agreed to be interviewed on cricket, he has sounded no different from your average Pakistani elder relative who happens to be an armchair follower of the game. It doesn't help his credibility that, in a conflict of interest writ large, the TV rights for Pakistan's upcoming series against Sri Lanka have been sold to Geo Super, a subsidiary of Sethi's employer.

At the moment, the Islamabad High Court has an injunction on the PCB to produce a comprehensive constitution that has been properly conceived from all angles, including those of decentralisation and regionalisation. Sethi inspires zero confidence in his ability to deliver on this mandate, which means that the legal stalemate is likely to continue for a while.

There is no shortage of capable individuals to replace Najam Sethi, if only Sharif would be willing to look beyond his cronies. Sethi's appointment has not only backfired, it didn't even buy much time, and the ball is now firmly back in Sharif's hand. It's your over, Mr Prime Minister. We are waiting for your next delivery.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi. His latest book is Breath of Death, a medical thriller