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Kamran Abbasi

Pakistan cricket's renaissance moment

The Pakistan Super League, apart from giving the country's domestic game a shot in the arm, is making a nation feel good about itself again

Kamran Abbasi
Kamran Abbasi
The presence of international stars has given Pakistan's new T20 competition a boost  •  PCB

The presence of international stars has given Pakistan's new T20 competition a boost  •  PCB

A full house in Sharjah thrills in anticipation for a game of domestic cricket. Yes, domestic cricket. Pakistan fans at home and abroad watch on television, YouTube, and any internet feed available. There is a fevered buzz on social media. Ramiz Raja talks about "amping it up". Chris Gayle, Kevin Pietersen and Shahid Afridi are on the menu. There are sixes. There are wickets. Importantly, there are smiles. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the unexpected wonder of the Pakistan Super League.
There are detractors unwilling to embrace this modern world that they've heard about, but in the surreal bubble of the PSL, Ravi Bopara is king, Umar Akmal plays a match-winning innings, and Mohammad Sami bowls straight.
There is more. Viv Richards mentors Ahmed Shehzad. Wasim Akram is the team director of Islamabad United.
This is no twilight zone of our imaginations. This is all real. These and other miracles, dreams we dared not dream, occur each night in the inaugural PSL.
The first rule of Pakistan's domestic cricket was that nobody talked about Pakistan's domestic cricket, except in disparaging, despairing tones. But in its first seven days, the PSL has done more to capture our attention than the seven decades of domestic cricket that preceded it. That is achievement enough. Pakistan cricket will now be separated neatly into two eras. Analysts will ponder the effect of this latest T20 competition on the fortunes of the world's most enigmatic cricket nation.
At one time, the prospect of Pakistan staging a successful domestic tournament seemed as likely as that of gravitational ripples being detected. We now have both. While we struggle to grasp the meaning of billion-year-old waves surging through our space-time continuum, the importance of the fledgling PSL is less obscure. Pakistan cricket, that isolated, penniless, dying creature, is having a renaissance moment.
The PSL is a lifeline, a survival bunker in the blitz of grievous misfortune that has bombarded Pakistan and its cricket
In a sense, franchise-based cricket isn't new to Pakistan. First-class teams traditionally belong to banks and corporations, who sustain domestic cricket and offer employment to players. But the model is an unsatisfactory one, the very definition of worthy but dull, failing to fire the public's imagination or generate worthwhile competition and revenue.
Pakistan's neglect of domestic cricket was exposed following the 2009 attacks on Sri Lanka's players in Lahore. With national teams unwilling to tour Pakistan and international fixtures limited, domestic cricket gained an urgent importance in player development and in simply keeping cricket alive. That largely failed.
The best success was achieved with Pakistan's national T20 tournament, the forerunner to the PSL, which showcased city-based teams and soothed some of the pain of Pakistan's players being excluded from the IPL. But it was a tournament for a local market, missing out on the glamour of international stars and global audiences.
Enter the PSL with franchises based in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta, playing subtly on regional rivalries. There is nothing new here, except for the courageous absence of cheerleaders. The PSL does not boast the glamour of the IPL, the polish of the Big Bash, or the history of England's T20 competition, but it is no less significant. It is a lifeline, a survival bunker in the blitz of grievous misfortune that has bombarded Pakistan and its cricket.
Yes, the PSL has its flaws. The small crowds in Dubai are a worry. Some of the world's top players are missing. There are no Indians. It needs more teams, more franchises, since much of the competition consists of reducing five teams to four.
Crucially, when the time is right, the tournament does need to be held in Pakistan. But as long as security remains a concern, the UAE is a fine enough home. The other flaws are merely minor irritations for there is much that is good about the PSL.
A major coup was recruiting the international stars of T20 cricket. Mercenaries they might be, but no T20 thrash can be legitimate in their absence. Everything else flows from this. By raising standards and offering an opportunity to learn from the best in the trade, from the players, coaches and mentors, the PSL will improve the national team.
Pakistan was strong in T20 cricket at the outset but the game has advanced quickly in the marquee tournaments, leaving them behind. Developments in T20 cricket are influencing the 50-over game again, another format that Pakistan is failing at. Hence, for cricketing reasons, the PSL has arrived just in time.
Now, players of all ranks have incentives. Young players can challenge and emerge. Two of those who created an early impression, Rumman Raees and Mohammad Nawaz, are in the World T20 squad. But there are others - take Usama Mir, Karachi's six-foot legspinner, for example.
We can be reacquainted with past friends like Saeed Ajmal and Junaid Khan, check on their progress, and remind ourselves that there is always a way back through outstanding performance. Current international players can develop their skills too. More cricket at a higher level is essential. Even the journeymen of Pakistan cricket are able to enjoy some scenes in the limelight.
It doesn't matter that the PSL is dominated by Peshawar Zalmi and Quetta Gladiators, although the format does allow for a twist in the tale. It matters less that the traditional powers of Karachi and Lahore are failing to win games. Their struggle seems perfectly fine, even for a Lahori like me whose main man is Umar Akmal. It matters more that people have a team to call their own, to support and enthuse about. Cricket still matters to people in Pakistan, and the PSL has tapped into that passion.
For a country mad on sport, a relatively poor country that has surprisingly excelled in three major sports, squash, hockey and cricket, the decline in sport is alarming. The story of cricket, in particular, has mirrored the rise and fall of a nation. Perhaps the central message of the PSL extends beyond cricket? At least that is my hope, that Pakistan, after years of being on the floor, is finally on its way back as a nation, driven by youth and embracing the modern world in a way that sits comfortably with its sense of being.
These might be foolish hopes to pin on a mere cricket tournament, but the state of Pakistan cricket has always been a bellwether of the country's fortunes. On the evidence of the PSL, Pakistan is finally brushing itself off, ready to play its part in the modern world that we've heard about.
Enjoy it now we can.

Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. @KamranAbbasi