Clouds gather ahead of Butt's return
Ijaz Butt will, in a few days, complete his second year as PCB chairman, though amid growing speculation that his time may be up. Butt returns to Lahore from a trip to the UK, on Wednesday morning, and is likely to find domestic pressure mounting on him to step down.
Though criticism has been a constant companion to Butt's tenure, it has sharpened considerably in the wake of the spot-fixing scandal and, in particular, his handling of it; talk over the last two days has focused only on his removal.
The key factor, as one observer said, is that any such decision will be a "domestic political one." The PCB chairman is a direct appointee of the country's president, who is also chief patron of the board. The chairman has increasingly become a political appointment so that his performances become useful capital in politics. So is the case with Butt; in the national assembly on Monday, for example, leader of the opposition Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan devoted considerable time to lamenting the mismanagement of the game under Butt, to generous applause from across the political spectrum.
More significant is a letter written by Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Pakistan's high commissioner to the UK and a vocal presence when the spot-fixing crisis first broke, to the president Asif Ali Zardari. Hasan, who is thought to be close to the president, writes in the letter - seen by ESPNcricinfo - dated September 17, "It seems everything was happening under the nose of PCB officials and they did not bother to take note of it… It will have to be investigated since their critics claim they looked the other way." Hasan also asks that the structure of the PCB hierarchy be looked at and that "young office-bearers" be appointed.
But fuelling much of the speculation was a meeting on Monday between the president and Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, the defence minister, who is Butt's brother-in-law and widely considered to be the reason Butt is chairman. It has been speculated that cricket was discussed, though the presidential spokesperson Farhatullah Babar played down the significance of the meeting as well as the murmurs around Butt.
"There is nothing to all this [speculation about Butt's future], these are just rumours," Babar told ESPNcricinfo. "The president did meet the defence minister but the president meets ministers every day and it was a routine meeting."
One keen presidency-watcher and former cricket official also believes it will amount to nothing. "People are trying to make political capital out of this. As far as I am aware the presidency is in no mood to remove Butt."
But the pressure is building. The national assembly's standing committee on sports has called top board officials for a hearing on October 11. The committee can only make recommendations to parliament or the president, but it has become an increasingly vocal check on the board over the last year. Iqbal Mohammad Ali Khan, the committee chairman, said on a popular TV show on Monday night that his members would consider resigning if some change was not brought in the set-up.
Should a change be implemented, various names have been floating around as possible replacements. Former ICC president Ehsan Mani, Pir Aftab Shah Jillani, the former sports minister, and Zardari associate Tufail Sheikh, are most often touted as names to sit on an ad-hoc committee which might run affairs until the board's constitution is put back in place. Mani is believed to be willing should the opportunity arise and his global experience as an administrator is likely to hold him in good stead, though ESPNcricinfo understands no contact has yet been made.
Further complicating matters - though not, perhaps, decisively affecting them - is Butt's isolation in the global game. He is in the UK effectively to try and repair his relationship with Giles Clarke and the ECB, having astonishingly claimed last month that "there was loud and clear talk in bookie circles that England players had taken enormous amounts of money to lose" an ODI.
The ECB, which has played a lead role in ensuring Pakistan have venues to play, threatened legal action against Butt if he didn't withdraw his remarks. ESPNcricinfo understands that Clarke, having failed to contact Butt, came close to issuing a writ but an intervention by a prominent Pakistani cricket personality and Hasan prevented a legal battle and ultimately pushed Butt to take back the allegations.
However, repairing fully this relationship may take time, as one well-placed observer says. "The ECB will not jump back into it so quickly now. Australia and New Zealand were unhappy with Butt over the [John] Howard issue. The Asian bloc remains upset with him over what happened last year, to the extent that the Bangladesh board refused to meet him recently. In cricket, he has no friends so his position is untenable. But ultimately, his future is a domestic political decision."
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo