Hassan Cheema

Pakistan's soft coup

That the PCB is implementing some of former coach Waqar Younis' recommendations is good news. But will the optimism last?

Hassan Cheema
Hassan Cheema
Inzamam-ul-Haq addresses a press conference, Lahore, May 25, 2016

Inzamam-ul-Haq, appointed as chief selector, seems to have allocated himself a few additional responsibilities - which may not be a bad thing  •  Associated Press

The corporate report - whether produced by Lodha, Woolf, Barriteau, Argus or whoever - is now commonplace across the sporting world. A corporate response in the era of corporate sports, a chance to diagnose ailments you will not really attempt to cure.
And yet - despite their obsession with making committees and "calling inquiries" - Pakistan cricket has not had such a report. For it to happen, the PCB would have to first decide whether it is a corporate body or an old boys' club or a faltering government institution. Right now even the veneer of corporate professionalism seems beyond their grasp, as ex-pros, yes-men and bureaucrats continue to drive the train nowhere.
For the moment, though, they have found an alternative. Former coach Waqar Younis' report after the 2016 World T20 has become the unofficial constitution for the team's immediate future. Since his departure - following a round on the talk-show circuit that would make Donald Trump proud - many of his recommendations have been taken to heart by the PCB. Shahid Afridi, Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad, Waqar's bete noirs, have been ostracised. No one really is sure if that's necessarily a good thing, but the majority think that it's better than the alternative.
Inzamam-ul-Haq is now chairman of selectors, as per another of Waqar's recommendations. And attempts are being made to drag the team into the 21st century with fitness camps and sessions with nutritionists and sports psychologists, where the lack of familiarity of many of the players with the ideas on offer led to several of them proclaiming that it was all an eye-opening experience. Learnings included why nihari in cooking oil isn't an ideal regular meal for sportsmen. The fact that this sort of thing comes as news to players in 2016 is probably not worth fretting about.
However, these personnel changes - and the fact that the appointments of the nutritionists or psychologists are bound to be one-off occurrences - mean that fundamentally there hasn't been any structural change in the way the board operates. One of Waqar's primary recommendations, that there be a director overseeing all cricket operations (much like a general manager in American sports or a director in football), someone who is actually forced to take responsibility in a board where everyone shirks it - has yet to be followed upon, and is unlikely to ever be.
Attempts are being made to drag the team into the 21st century with fitness camps and sessions with nutritionists and sports psychologists, where the lack of familiarity of the players with the ideas on offer led to several of them proclaiming that it was all an eye-opening experience
The fact that three former chief selectors are vying for directorial roles in the board is a reminder of how the musical chairs continue to involve the same old faces. "Old" being the operative word in many matters to do with the PCB nowadays. One wonders why someone like Nadeem Khan (to throw a name out there) hasn't been approached, despite his good work with the United Bank Limited team. But then again, why try the new when the old didn't lead to Armageddon?
And then there's the small matter of the PCB's desire to revive school cricket. On paper, you wouldn't find an easier issue to tackle - it's one of the few things you will find all the ex-pros united behind. It's something that could mobilise and energise the fan base, has been a proven success everywhere, and has a history in the country.
Except, the problem is that since the separation of the sports and education ministries during the reign of General Zia-ul-Haq, schools and sports have taken diverging paths. For the last three decades school administrators have not prioritised sport. And even if they did, the patterns of use of urban space would make their plans difficult to follow up on. The rise of private schools geared towards profit and academics, and the fact that the government schools system is faltering have impacted sports through Pakistan - none more than field hockey, where Pakistan have gone from near invincibility in the late '70s and early '80s to a failure to qualify for the 2016 Olympics.
To think that the PCB can swoop in and reverse the tide of three decades of thinking and development is to know that optimism has no ceiling. Just for juxtaposition, within days of the PCB showing a desire to revive schools cricket, one of the largest private school chains in the country revealed its plan to list its shares on the Pakistan Stock Exchange - not the sort of thing that speaks of imminent infrastructural development in sports.
But I digress. As always, there is hope. Among the aforementioned personnel changes, the appointment of Inzamam might be the most far-reaching. Within a month of taking up the job, he has expanded the role of the chief selector, increasing his domain in such a way that it wouldn't be a surprise if he eventually appoints himself to the role of general manager - a role that Waqar had recommended in the past.
One of the reasons for this might be how easy Inzamam's first squad selection ought to be. Twelve players are bound to be automatic selections for the Test team in England, a stable core, in complete contrast to the limited-overs sides. Thus, he can take his time fretting about all the problems he is aware of from his decades of knowing Pakistan cricket. But even so, the little things he has done - like spending half an hour chatting to Haris Sohail about his rehab and batting - are a contrast to what the players and fans might be used to.
Furthermore, he has supported many of Waqar's recommendations - particularly, and rather ironically, a new-found commitment to fitness. Inzamam has also gone on record in deriding the quality of pitches in the domestic game, perhaps the biggest problem in Pakistan cricket, and something past PCB officials have found ways to defend. And so far he seems to have a coherent vision of what he wants the A team to be, and how he wants to develop the next generation - particularly Babar Azam (a player with more hopes resting on his shoulders than any batsman since Umar Akmal), who is part of the A team for the tour to England.
Nearly all of these, and the two-month programme before the first Test in England, are things the ex-coach and the current captain had previously demanded. But somehow it needed either an Inzamam, who doesn't much care what the media thinks of him, or a board chastened by underperformance in an ICC event, for them to come to fruition. There's also the matter of Inzamam refusing to give preferential treatment to his nephew - a novel, scarcely believable, change from how things are usually done in Pakistan.
And yet, like all things Pakistani, the presence of cause for optimism only makes you question everything a bit more. Because this, essentially, is a soft coup. And Pakistan's history with coups, soft or otherwise, isn't exactly ideal, particularly when it comes to men presented as messiahs who will single-handedly change the course of history.
Once the optimism turns to something darker, perhaps then we can have the corporate report we always wanted.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, commentator, co-manager of the Islamabad United PSL franchise, and co-host of the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @mediagag