Ahmer Naqvi

What my time with the PSL taught me

Watching a cricket tournament from behind the scenes can teach you a lot about the sport and players you spend all your time obsessing about

Ahmer Naqvi
Ahmer Naqvi
Peshawar Zalmi's local flavour made them a popular PSL team  •  Chris Whiteoak

Peshawar Zalmi's local flavour made them a popular PSL team  •  Chris Whiteoak

Last week I returned from then incredible experience of working for the first edition of the PSL. I wanted to write about it without serving as a propagandist, and felt the best way to do so would be to discuss my own experiences.
Like many cricket writers who I consider my peers, I came to this profession largely via my couch and computer screen. Rather than being a journalist used to travelling on tours and visiting practice sessions, I was a fan who commented on what he saw on TV and in press conferences and the like. In many ways then, my experience of heading digital media for the PSL was one where I learnt a lot of things that journalists might already know of.
For starters, I was introduced to the "lobby culture", which might be common to all sports tours but seems to have evolved into a carnival when it involves Pakistani cricket. The lobby of the hotel the teams stayed in was constantly thronged by friends, fans, hangers-on, journalists, freeloaders and everyone in between. Anytime you walked outside, the large sofas would be abuzz with people involved in cricket. There were goosebump moments when a few big names ran into each other and shared some words. Mostly though, there were lots of selfies and requests for tickets, and old uncle types keeping an eye out for who was seen leaving or arriving with whom.
Various friends or acquaintances arrived every evening to take away players - particularly the Pakistani ones - for a night out, and everyone had an eye out for what kind of car arrived to pick them up. The emerging stars made do with a shiny saloon while the top internationals had snarling, brand-name vehicles awaiting them.
The fact that the PSL staff, teams and related personnel were staying in one hotel took the interactions to, at times, an uncomfortably intimate level. I was taking the lift down to breakfast one morning when the doors opened and I saw Kevin Pietersen in the flesh for the first time. His worried, side-glancing reaction made me realise that, in my sleep-deprived stupor, I had just stood there staring at him with my mouth gaping. Needless to say, KP avoided eye contact and waited for the next lift to show up.
No amount of PSL wins can undo the decades of damage and neglect faced by Quetta, but surely the residents of that lovely city must have enjoyed their countrymen taking their name for once not because of tragedy but as an acknowledgment of superiority
The best ice-breakers in such situations are children, who are blissfully unaware of the conceits and insecurities of adults and usually just start pulling faces at you or asking their parents if they are there yet. One seasoned pro's two precocious infant daughters only needed a short ride in the lift to tell me what class they studied in, the role their dad would play in his team, and to ask what I was doing at the PSL.
I also got a chance to see how often the players poked fun at each other and remembered their past battles. In the shared net sessions batsmen teased bowlers on their bad matches and poor choice of sunglasses; the latter retorted by quoting the number of times they had got the batsman out by or pointing out his terrible taste in music. Players were making jokes of the sort you read in YouTube comments, but without the accompanying hysteria.
And in those moments, I was given a valuable lesson in humanising cricketers. We become so used to watching them and venting at them that we forget they too are normal people. Watching the underperforming batsman play with his kids or the beleaguered captain get a delighted hug from his wife reminds you of the burdens these people carry, and how much of an impact our love and hate must have on them.
There is no real way of measuring such an impact, and before this event, I hadn't given it much thought. But it became clear as the tournament progressed that intangibles matter far more than we realise. Perhaps the most important of these is identity for a team, an aspect that's both spurious and crucial.
Shahid Afridi doesn't boast a great record as a captain in T20s, yet Peshawar Zalmi started as a juggernaut thanks to, it seemed, their intrinsically local name and design, their decision to host students of the Army Public School, Peshawar for the tournament, their sharp branding, and of course, their core of Pashtun players. There were many cricketing reasons for their success, but the ones mentioned above seemed more applicable when even their virtual second-string side bossed Karachi Kings in one game.
Speaking of Karachi Kings, who knows how their dressing room full of stars would have coalesced had they won the two consecutive tight matches they lost. Instead, they ended the tournament marred by accusations of infighting and discontent as well as with the worst record, with no team identity worth celebrating.
The most heartening story of the value of identity was that of Quetta Gladiators. Owned by a beloved cricket philanthropist and staffed by less-heralded players, Gladiators struck gold with an extremely generous Pietersen, and the feel-good story of the year: Viv Richards mentoring in the dugout. Those two giants of the game, particularly King Viv, made a big show of playing down their aura and pumping the team with belief. It wasn't until the final was done that people began to see the weaknesses in a side that had come to be unlikely favourites as the tournament progressed.
But the best thing about Gladiators' success was the city they represented. No amount of PSL wins can undo the decades of damage and neglect faced by Quetta, but surely the residents of that lovely city will have enjoyed their countrymen taking their name for once not because of tragedy but in acknowledgment of their superiority. It was one of those rare moments where you see how the power of narrative in sports can subsume larger social and political ones for a brief while.
In the end, the narrative of the trophy also seemed pre-destined. More than a decade ago, Pakistan held its first domestic T20 competition, and Misbah-ul-Haq, then an unknown, led a Faisalabad side to the title. The same team then went on to win the first, and only, edition of a proto-Champions League trophy called the International 20:20 Club Championship. Misbah's life has gone through many changes since then, with Tests largely defining his zenith and ODIs his nadir. Yet there he was, defining the end of a remarkable career by once again being the first to lift a trophy in a new chapter for T20 cricket. Few deserved it more.

Ahmer Naqvi writes on cricket, music, film and pop culture. He appears on Journoeyes and Pace is Pace Yaar. @karachikhatmal