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Pakistan cricket deserves, and must demand, respect

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THE cricket boards of Australia, England, and India practice a particular kind of honour – and it is honour among thieves. Since the Big Three asserted their dominance, international cricket is a game for the elite nations and the rest are dispensable. Their rule is based on financial might, on shared economic interests, looting the game of its dignity and sucking every penny of value from a sport that once chased the highest ideals.

Cricket no longer chases high ideals. Cricket boards chase money; England’s ‘The Hundred’ competition being the latest example of a money spinning enterprise dignified by a disingenuous rationale to attract new viewers. In all of this cricketing, at The Hundred and the IPL and the Big Bash, in all of the many tours between the Big Three, player welfare or the state of mind of players or the physical exhaustion of players are barely considered.

The purpose of the other countries is to fill the gaps in contests between the Big Three. When players are invited from other countries to England, as Pakistan were for example to safeguard ECB’s financial health in the middle of a raging pandemic, there was little consideration for the mental and physical effects of Covid bubbles on Pakistan’s players.

Pakistan were otherwise greeted well and loved. But anybody with any experience of Anglo-Pakistan relations, of the rudeness towards Pakistan of past England tourists, of the disrespect shown to Pakistan tourists to England, knew that Pakistan’s gesture would not be reciprocated.

When push comes to shove, English cricket doesn’t care for Pakistan cricket. When England’s players come to Pakistan they are paid ‘hardship’ bonuses or sympathised with for suffering ‘cabin fever’. The colonial game is to pretend to love and care and nurture, and under this guise to extract wealth and assets. Once a country no longer serves a purpose it is discarded behind a veneer of falsehoods about good relations and positive intentions.

Thus, Pakistan cricket serves no purpose to England. The money and the excitement lies with India, Australia, domestic T20s and Hundreds, and world tournaments. Cricket, as re-imagined by The Big Three, is a sport that increases the wealth and the dominance of the Big Three. Every cricket board that supported this disastrous restructuring of international cricket, every cricket board that was ‘bribed’ and sweet talked into going along with the plans of the Big Three, Pakistan included, is now paying the price of its short-sightedness.

England’s decision to cancel its tours of Pakistan is a disgrace. The well-being of players is important, but England could have sent players who aren’t fatigued or mentally tired. The question, then, revolves around security. New Zealand are yet to provide a full explanation about what changed in terms of security assessment. Indeed, England did not cite any specific change in security assessment for their decision. Clearly, if a genuine threat exists then New Zealand’s players had to be protected, but is this the standard of transparency that international cricket should accept?

International cricket is in a bad place, but so is the Pakistan Cricket Board. Its new chairman, Ramiz Raja, was on the front foot in his inaugural press conference, talking freely about the aggressive approach the Pakistan team needs to take. But this double blow is an immediate test of his leadership, as well as being something of a personal humiliation for Wasim Khan, who had worked so hard to organise the return of major tours to Pakistan.

Ramiz remains in a combative mood, vowing to build the economic might and magnetism of Pakistan cricket and urging his players to seek revenge on England and New Zealand in the World T20. Ramiz’s new job was difficult enough, it just got harder, but it also gives him an opportunity to get the public behind him.

“Give a man a reputation as an early riser,” said Mark Twain, “and he can sleep ‘til noon.” Reputation is the root of the problem, and the first that Ramiz must address. With an explosion outside the New Zealand team hotel, and the attack on Sri Lanka’s players in 2009, Pakistan became known for safety incidents. With that reputation, countries will always judge Pakistan differently from other countries, as hypocritical or as unfair as this sounds, or however safe Pakistan might be.

The PCB has done good work in ensuring the safety of visiting players, and those efforts must not be discarded or diluted by the current crisis. The first job for Ramiz is to remake the reputation of his country’s cricket — and for that purpose he needs the support and positive impact of his country’s prime minister on society more broadly. Cricket does not exist in a vacuum.

Second, the financial health of Pakistan cricket must become paramount. All cricket boards have money, but some are more dependent on other cricketing nations than others. Pakistan cricket is one of those that relies on income from major tours for its financial survival.

But the answer isn’t to run around the globe accepting every invitation. The answer is to build a financially secure and thriving cricket infrastructure that is perfectly viable with domestic cricket, the PSL, and tours by countries that are willing. The second job of Ramiz is to end the perception that Pakistan cricket has a begging bowl that needs filling. In this regard, as ever, financial independence is strength.

Thirdly, Ramiz must reinvigorate the playing fortunes of the national teams. It’s far easier to sideline a country that is middle ranking than it is to ignore a country that is challenging for the top. Pakistan cricket acquired a reputation for magical cricketers, box office entertainers, playing an exciting brand of aggressive cricket.

Much of that aura was lost over the past decades despite successes, and even though the green shoots of something more formidable are beginning to emerge, the depth of world class talent has not been developed. Pakistan must be a team to be reckoned with in any format.

Above all, Ramiz must channel his front foot play to demand compensation, to demand parity, to demand an end to colonial mindsets, to demand that cricket breaks the destructive cartel of the Big Three, to demand a reckoning with the ICC. The Big Three may be ‘big’ but they are a minority, and that is exactly how India outmanoeuvred Australia and England in a past age. It can and will happen again.

Yes, Pakistan cricket is imperfect. Pakistan cricket is flawed. Pakistan cricket does not deserve special sympathy. But Pakistan cricket represents a nation’s pride and honour. It needs to become a worthy representation of that pride and honour, both domestically and internationally, through building its reputation, financial strength, and cricketing prowess. Pakistan cricket deserves respect and needs to begin demanding it.

Published in Dawn, September 22nd, 2021

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