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Pakistan cricket rises in the shadow of strife

Sports2017-09-12

Storms carry their own logic. Inside of one, the outside world seems slow moving and uneventful, as if it is missing some vital point. Inside, you can be blind to the destruction it is causing, and even the inevitability of the destruction it will cause. There's no time when you're moving that fast and in no particular direction except, broadly speaking, down. The luxury of those outside is that it is clear where this is going. I was outside of Pakistan the day terrorists attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. From there the inevitability of the attack numbed the actuality of it. As I was ticking off a great and happy life event at the time, that also affected my reaction but the inevitability was far clearer than if I had been on that unlit, creaking carousel going round at breakneck speed that is Pakistan. The two preceding years had all but foretold the events of March 3, 2009, and the flight of top-class cricket from the country. Militancy was reaching a frenzied, blood-crazed peak - on average more than one suicide attack a week in the two years (and in 2009 itself, well over). In 2008, Lahore, where the bulk of international cricket was being played, was targeted. It was a decisive expansion of the terms of a not-quite war, but an unending cascade of self-harm: Karachi and the northwest are half-known by their violence, but Lahore, the heartland? It was on. Australia pulled out of a tour that year. The Champions Trophy went as well. The Mumbai attacks in November ensured India would stop touring - India, who not so long before had paved the way for teams to return to Pakistan. Has history ever sounded so improbable? Pakistan's military troops guard the Gaddafi Stadium Cricket had not been targeted until then, and not many inside the storm stopped to ask why. So many public institutions and activities had and cricket was, helpfully, big and soft as target. What else could judder Pakistanis? So it happened and so it made sense sitting outside of Pakistan. The last Test, the last international cricket, I watched in Pakistan was a couple of days of the Karachi Test that preceded Lahore. Without looking at a scorecard, I can only remember that Younis Khan hit a triple hundred. For the first bit of Test cricket in the country in 16 months, it had nothing to recommend the format. It was unattended. The death of Test cricket is an overwrought fret, but it is true that a Test has not looked as pointless as it did then. It was of a piece with the era. Pakistan played zero Tests in 2008. Crowds had long deserted the five-day game in the bigger centres. Limited-overs games still pulled them in, but even those had been, of late, desultory affairs - in 2008, Pakistan hosted soporific limited-overs series against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe to sparse crowds. The - get this - highlight was the Asia Cup, in which even Pakistan-India games lacked bite and crowds. Pakistan were sin squared: dull and uncompetitive. In administration, every day dawned for the buffoon. Cricket was there, a fixture, yes, but like an old couch is a fixture. Familiar, grooved to your shape and movements. But the springs had gone. Peshawar Zalmi celebrate their victory over Quetta Gladiators in the 2017 PSL Final Younis, never known to have underplayed a statement or sentiment, did not disappoint. A day after the attacks, he framed a dramatic and morbid equation: don't take cricket away because kids will become terrorists and then cricket will die. It was a very Pakistani formulation, reminiscent in passing of what was once said, infamously, of their foreign policy (here they come: begging bowl in one hand, gun to their own head in the other). That fatality stuck to Pakistan, like some accidental but incurable tagline. Wherever they went, the cricketers became nomads or exiles, and the game in Pakistan perched a few degrees from death. In a sport paranoid about its demise while simultaneously in the throes of a grand evolution, Pakistan fit right in. How does a sport die? It is not whimsy or alarmist to think that it can, especially in Pakistan where hockey and squash to sports are the scare images put on cigarette packs. The finances of the PCB, charged with not allowing cricket to die, don't necessarily provide a direct measure of the game's health but they should be instructive. After all, if the organising body has no money, there is eventually nothing to organise. And what do we see here? In eight years, according to the PCB's own annual reports, its total income has increased nearly three-fold (from PKR 1.48 billion for the year 2008-09 to PKR 4.14 billion in 2015-16). Total revenues in 2014-15 and 2015-16 have been among the highest ever; in 2015-16 revenues went past even the anomalously large returns of 2010-11, which were based in part on hosting revenues from the 2011 World Cup. In 2008-09 and then 2009-10, the years worst affected by the terror attacks, the board was bleeding, with losses of PKR 336 million and PKR 208 million respectively. Yet every year since then they have turned a profit. In the three years to June 2016, the board's profits have tripled: PKR 504.7 million in 2013-14, PKR 759.5 million in 2014-15 and PKR 1.54 billion in 2015-16. They've caught a bit of luck in that every year from 2009 has had an ICC event, which has brought a handy payout. But a board unable to host India or any international cricket at home needs all the luck it can get. It has secured US$128 million over the next eight years from the ICC. The value of its last TV deal was approximately US$150 million for five years (though they will end up getting around $90 million, without India touring). It has also set up the PSL in that time, which at least two previous administrations in the last decade had been unable to. Six franchises are already in, and the PCB want, and could probably bring in more, which, even if you don't look at what money the league is or isn't making, is an indication that businesses still think of cricket not as dead but as, in fact, good business. These are not granular measures of anything other than an institution's ability to make money though. There are enough anecdotal tales of parks no longer being used for impromptu games or nets for clubs. In Sialkot, the hub of sports-goods manufacturing in Pakistan, one well-established company says domestic sales of cricket equipment have fallen 70-80% since 2009, attributing it to a decline in the amount of club cricket. If the PCB has ever measured participation, it has never made it public. So we have no idea whether more or less people are playing the game. It has taken two decades for the state to get it together for a census, so don't expect the PCB to get there anytime soon. And it won't be as easy to measure as it is elsewhere - cricket is not an organised and documented part of the public life of most youth in Pakistan, even as one can argue it is an intrinsic one. The domestic system, a continuing and tremendous financial drain, is not a good look right now either. But when has it ever been? And when has it, except perhaps in the 1960s, really been an accurate barometer for the health of the national team? Instead, a supplementary, maybe alternative, new ecosystem might be emerging with the PSL. And if you do want to gladden your heart, scroll down franchise timelines for videos of the turnouts at their open trials not just in the metros but in smaller cities and towns all around. You won't regret it. Perhaps these franchises might decentralize cricket control in Pakistan in a way that regional associations and departments never did - less control from Gaddafi Stadium, more oversight. It is bracing because who knows what that future holds, and also scary because, with this season's spot-fixing trials still fresh, who knows what that future holds. None of this is a definitive assessment of the nation's cricketing health. But where and how else to know whether cricket is dying, thriving or not doing anything other than what it has always been doing? Performances and results are never a great indicator of Pakistan's health. They come, they go. For what it's worth, the eight-year period before the attacks and the eight since give no clear answer: they've won more Tests but also lost more Tests; they've won fewer ODIs and lost more; they do have two global trophies to show since. Ask yourself instead whether the essence remains, of what it is to be the Pakistan team, of what it is to follow it, and what it is to be an observer helpless to its charm. Here, a joyous affirmative. The essence has been further distilled. The wins from nothing, sudden moments of unexpected euphoria, the equally sudden appearance of dark clouds and calamities, the fast bowling spells, the leggies, the sprinkle of great batting, unlikely heroes, unheard of heroes, talent spurned, talent discovered - the great rickety wheel has continued to go round. Sometimes, in all of it, I am sure cricket has come to mean even more than it did before. It is perfectly legitimate to question, as some will ask, whether international cricket should be returning to Pakistan when the storm has not died out. Lahore itself suffered terribly earlier this year. And there was, remember, an attempted attack during the Zimbabwe series, and a less consequential but embarrassing breach at the PSL final. Also one can wonder when and whether the return will extend beyond Lahore. Could there be a Test at some point? Nobody would have imagined at the time, but it turned out that as well as everything else, a Twenty20 is the perfect format for Pakistan's plight - three-and-a-half hours, in, out. One can question and wonder. But one must also hope, for an incident-free series and also that this series will begin to dissipate some of the longing for cricket at home, because what can one do with longing but endure it? By far the worst thing about longing is that it cannot be measured. It is real, very real, yet not tangible. We measure almost every sense we have in some way. We articulate so many of our desires in some numeric form. Data is deep into our existence now. But longing? How do you measure how much you yearn for something? How can we ever know how much the Pakistani fan longed to see England whitewashed in Pakistan? Or a chase in the dusk as dazzling and beautiful as the one that eventually took place in Sharjah and not, say, Faisalabad? Or Misbah Ul Haq's 56-ball hundred? Or the sweetness of seeing Australia beat? The growth of Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq? The return of Amir? Younis? The ascent to No. 1? What has been the cost of that longing? We're not sure what it does to us. For some, longing can be what depletes them, because the more they long for something, the further away it seems. How many kids in 2009 longed to see cricket, to become cricketers, only to think cricket was so distant that they longed and longed for it until they didn't? But for some, longing is fuel. In 2009, one kid longed to be a cricketer. He never went to a stadium to watch an international game, but he watched Steven Smith on TV. He longed to be him. He met him in a lift once. He became a cricketer and will it not be amazing that Shadab Khan will now be an international cricketer for the first time in front of his home crowd? (ESPN)

Storms carry their own logic. Inside of one, the outside world seems slow moving and uneventful, as if it is missing some vital point. Inside, you can be blind to the destruction it is causing, and even the inevitability of the destruction it will cause. There's no time when you're moving that fast and in no particular direction except, broadly speaking, down.

The luxury of those outside is that it is clear where this is going. I was outside of Pakistan the day terrorists attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. From there the inevitability of the attack numbed the actuality of it. As I was ticking off a great and happy life event at the time, that also affected my reaction but the inevitability was far clearer than if I had been on that unlit, creaking carousel going round at breakneck speed that is Pakistan.

The two preceding years had all but foretold the events of March 3, 2009, and the flight of top-class cricket from the country. Militancy was reaching a frenzied, blood-crazed peak - on average more than one suicide attack a week in the two years (and in 2009 itself, well over).

In 2008, Lahore, where the bulk of international cricket was being played, was targeted. It was a decisive expansion of the terms of a not-quite war, but an unending cascade of self-harm: Karachi and the northwest are half-known by their violence, but Lahore, the heartland? It was on. Australia pulled out of a tour that year. The Champions Trophy went as well. The Mumbai attacks in November ensured India would stop touring - India, who not so long before had paved the way for teams to return to Pakistan. Has history ever sounded so improbable?

Pakistan's military troops guard the Gaddafi Stadium

Pakistan's military troops guard the Gaddafi Stadium

Cricket had not been targeted until then, and not many inside the storm stopped to ask why. So many public institutions and activities had and cricket was, helpfully, big and soft as target. What else could judder Pakistanis? So it happened and so it made sense sitting outside of Pakistan.

The last Test, the last international cricket, I watched in Pakistan was a couple of days of the Karachi Test that preceded Lahore. Without looking at a scorecard, I can only remember that Younis Khan hit a triple hundred. For the first bit of Test cricket in the country in 16 months, it had nothing to recommend the format. It was unattended. The death of Test cricket is an overwrought fret, but it is true that a Test has not looked as pointless as it did then.

It was of a piece with the era. Pakistan played zero Tests in 2008. Crowds had long deserted the five-day game in the bigger centres. Limited-overs games still pulled them in, but even those had been, of late, desultory affairs - in 2008, Pakistan hosted soporific limited-overs series against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe to sparse crowds. The - get this - highlight was the Asia Cup, in which even Pakistan-India games lacked bite and crowds. Pakistan were sin squared: dull and uncompetitive. In administration, every day dawned for the buffoon.

Cricket was there, a fixture, yes, but like an old couch is a fixture. Familiar, grooved to your shape and movements. But the springs had gone.


Peshawar Zalmi celebrate their victory over Quetta Gladiators in the 2017 PSL Final

Peshawar Zalmi celebrate their victory over Quetta Gladiators in the 2017 PSL Final

Younis, never known to have underplayed a statement or sentiment, did not disappoint. A day after the attacks, he framed a dramatic and morbid equation: don't take cricket away because kids will become terrorists and then cricket will die. It was a very Pakistani formulation, reminiscent in passing of what was once said, infamously, of their foreign policy (here they come: begging bowl in one hand, gun to their own head in the other).

That fatality stuck to Pakistan, like some accidental but incurable tagline. Wherever they went, the cricketers became nomads or exiles, and the game in Pakistan perched a few degrees from death. In a sport paranoid about its demise while simultaneously in the throes of a grand evolution, Pakistan fit right in.

How does a sport die? It is not whimsy or alarmist to think that it can, especially in Pakistan where hockey and squash to sports are the scare images put on cigarette packs. The finances of the PCB, charged with not allowing cricket to die, don't necessarily provide a direct measure of the game's health but they should be instructive. After all, if the organising body has no money, there is eventually nothing to organise.

And what do we see here? In eight years, according to the PCB's own annual reports, its total income has increased nearly three-fold (from PKR 1.48 billion for the year 2008-09 to PKR 4.14 billion in 2015-16). Total revenues in 2014-15 and 2015-16 have been among the highest ever; in 2015-16 revenues went past even the anomalously large returns of 2010-11, which were based in part on hosting revenues from the 2011 World Cup.

In 2008-09 and then 2009-10, the years worst affected by the terror attacks, the board was bleeding, with losses of PKR 336 million and PKR 208 million respectively. Yet every year since then they have turned a profit. In the three years to June 2016, the board's profits have tripled: PKR 504.7 million in 2013-14, PKR 759.5 million in 2014-15 and PKR 1.54 billion in 2015-16.

They've caught a bit of luck in that every year from 2009 has had an ICC event, which has brought a handy payout. But a board unable to host India or any international cricket at home needs all the luck it can get.

It has secured US$128 million over the next eight years from the ICC. The value of its last TV deal was approximately US$150 million for five years (though they will end up getting around $90 million, without India touring). It has also set up the PSL in that time, which at least two previous administrations in the last decade had been unable to. Six franchises are already in, and the PCB want, and could probably bring in more, which, even if you don't look at what money the league is or isn't making, is an indication that businesses still think of cricket not as dead but as, in fact, good business.

These are not granular measures of anything other than an institution's ability to make money though. There are enough anecdotal tales of parks no longer being used for impromptu games or nets for clubs. In Sialkot, the hub of sports-goods manufacturing in Pakistan, one well-established company says domestic sales of cricket equipment have fallen 70-80% since 2009, attributing it to a decline in the amount of club cricket.

If the PCB has ever measured participation, it has never made it public. So we have no idea whether more or less people are playing the game. It has taken two decades for the state to get it together for a census, so don't expect the PCB to get there anytime soon. And it won't be as easy to measure as it is elsewhere - cricket is not an organised and documented part of the public life of most youth in Pakistan, even as one can argue it is an intrinsic one.

The domestic system, a continuing and tremendous financial drain, is not a good look right now either. But when has it ever been? And when has it, except perhaps in the 1960s, really been an accurate barometer for the health of the national team? Instead, a supplementary, maybe alternative, new ecosystem might be emerging with the PSL. And if you do want to gladden your heart, scroll down franchise timelines for videos of the turnouts at their open trials not just in the metros but in smaller cities and towns all around. You won't regret it.

Perhaps these franchises might decentralize cricket control in Pakistan in a way that regional associations and departments never did - less control from Gaddafi Stadium, more oversight. It is bracing because who knows what that future holds, and also scary because, with this season's spot-fixing trials still fresh, who knows what that future holds.

None of this is a definitive assessment of the nation's cricketing health. But where and how else to know whether cricket is dying, thriving or not doing anything other than what it has always been doing?

Performances and results are never a great indicator of Pakistan's health. They come, they go. For what it's worth, the eight-year period before the attacks and the eight since give no clear answer: they've won more Tests but also lost more Tests; they've won fewer ODIs and lost more; they do have two global trophies to show since.

Ask yourself instead whether the essence remains, of what it is to be the Pakistan team, of what it is to follow it, and what it is to be an observer helpless to its charm. Here, a joyous affirmative. The essence has been further distilled. The wins from nothing, sudden moments of unexpected euphoria, the equally sudden appearance of dark clouds and calamities, the fast bowling spells, the leggies, the sprinkle of great batting, unlikely heroes, unheard of heroes, talent spurned, talent discovered - the great rickety wheel has continued to go round. Sometimes, in all of it, I am sure cricket has come to mean even more than it did before.


It is perfectly legitimate to question, as some will ask, whether international cricket should be returning to Pakistan when the storm has not died out. Lahore itself suffered terribly earlier this year. And there was, remember, an attempted attack during the Zimbabwe series, and a less consequential but embarrassing breach at the PSL final. Also one can wonder when and whether the return will extend beyond Lahore. Could there be a Test at some point? Nobody would have imagined at the time, but it turned out that as well as everything else, a Twenty20 is the perfect format for Pakistan's plight - three-and-a-half hours, in, out.

One can question and wonder. But one must also hope, for an incident-free series and also that this series will begin to dissipate some of the longing for cricket at home, because what can one do with longing but endure it? By far the worst thing about longing is that it cannot be measured. It is real, very real, yet not tangible. We measure almost every sense we have in some way. We articulate so many of our desires in some numeric form. Data is deep into our existence now. But longing? How do you measure how much you yearn for something?

How can we ever know how much the Pakistani fan longed to see England whitewashed in Pakistan? Or a chase in the dusk as dazzling and beautiful as the one that eventually took place in Sharjah and not, say, Faisalabad? Or Misbah Ul Haq's 56-ball hundred? Or the sweetness of seeing Australia beat? The growth of Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq? The return of Amir? Younis? The ascent to No. 1?

What has been the cost of that longing? We're not sure what it does to us. For some, longing can be what depletes them, because the more they long for something, the further away it seems. How many kids in 2009 longed to see cricket, to become cricketers, only to think cricket was so distant that they longed and longed for it until they didn't?

But for some, longing is fuel. In 2009, one kid longed to be a cricketer. He never went to a stadium to watch an international game, but he watched Steven Smith on TV. He longed to be him. He met him in a lift once. He became a cricketer and will it not be amazing that Shadab Khan will now be an international cricketer for the first time in front of his home crowd?

(ESPN)

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