Why has Zaka Ashraf been given an extension by the caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar Ul Haq Kakar of three months to lord over the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) when, by all accounts, his four-month tenure has been marked by serious illegalities and international embarrassments? Here is the inside story.
In April 2022, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government determined, on the basis of hundreds of cricketers’ public feedback, that the domestic cricket structure imposed by the former prime minister and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan in 2019 – which abolished departmental cricket that had sustained the livelihoods and ambitions of thousands of budding cricketers since the 1960s and reduced domestic tournaments fielding 16 first-class teams to six -- was ill-suited to the requirements of the time. Consequently, it restored Department cricket with a stroke of the pen and embarked on restoring the 2014 PCB constitution that was tailor-made for this enterprise.
The first step envisaged was to wrap up Imran Khan’s 2019 PCB Constitution and the Board of Governors chaired by cricketer Ramiz Raja affiliated with it. But an unexpected hurdle stopped the government in its tracks. The then-army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, succumbed to sifarish and “advised” PM Shehbaz Sharif to retain Raja and not change the status quo. For the next eight months until Bajwa’s exit, the cricketing fortunes of PCB and the national cricket team plummeted amid Bajwa’s interference and Raja’s cavalier ways and “experiments”.
Finally, on December 22, 2022, the PDM government wound up the Raja-led cricket establishment by notifying the 2014 constitution and setting up a Management Committee headed by Najam Sethi – the former chairman of PCB who set up the Pakistan Super League (PSL) and brought international cricket back to Pakistan – to revive departmental cricket and private clubs, hold over 100 district and 16 regional elections for office bearers to constitute a democratic Board of Governors and elect a Chairman from among a 10-member BoG.
Unfortunately, another political hurdle now barred the way forward. Former president Asif Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) held the Inter-Provincial Coordination (IPC) ministry -- that controlled all federal sports matters in the country -- in the coalition government and wanted its nominee, Zaka Ashraf – a central committee member of the PPP and a “sugar baron” contributing to the coffers of the PPP -- to head the new PCB establishment instead of Najam Sethi.
A tug of war ensued over the next few months, with Shehbaz Sharif finally throwing in the towel and consenting to the nomination of Zaka Ashraf instead of Najam Sethi as the proposed new chairman of the PCB.
Zaka Ashraf was first appointed as the chairman of PCB in 2011 for three years by Asif Zardari when he was the President of Pakistan and a Patron of PCB. In 2013, just before Zardari exited the Presidency, and fearing that the elected Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government may oust him, Zaka persuaded Zardari to notify a new PCB constitution whereby Zaka could be “elected” chairman for another four years. But his “election” under his handmade constitution was successfully challenged in the Islamabad High Court (IHC) by his opponents, and he was thrown out with an order for the new government to appoint an interim chairman and task him with making a democratic constitution and hold elections to all bodies associated with PCB.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the new Patron of PCB, appointed Sethi for the job at hand. But Zaka successfully challenged the IHC decision before a Division Bench and bounced back into office. Using its inherent powers under the law governing sports, the PML-N government sacked Ashraf and reappointed Sethi. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the government’s position and approved in 2014 the new Constitution made by two ex-Supreme Court judges nominated earlier.
Subsequently, a Board of Governors was established as per the 2014 Constitution, Sheharyar Mohammad Khan, former foreign secretary and an ex-chairman of PCB, was elected as chairman and Sethi, a member of the new BoG. In 2017, Sethi was elected as the chairman of the PCB, but resigned in 2018 when Imran Khan became the prime minister. Imran Khan made Ehsan Mani the new chairman, wrapped up the 2014 Constitutional setup, gave a new constitution in 2019 and followed up in 2021 by nominating Ramiz Raja as chairman.
Sethi’s Management Committee (MC), after Raja’s ouster, lasted six months. During this time, it fulfilled the task at hand by holding elections at all tiers of the domestic cricket structure and reviving Department cricket. On June 20, 2023, a day before its tenure came to an end, it notified a 10-member constitutional BoG of four elected regional presidents and four department heads. All that remained to be done was the inclusion of two nominees of the PM Patron for the chairman’s election to take place.
That is when everything began to go horribly wrong.
Fearing that the new BoG might not elect him Chairman, Zaka leaned on the IPC ministry, headed by PPP minister Ahsan Mazari, to declare the Sethi management committee BoG null and void by illegally mis-declaring the end of the tenure of the Sethi MC, as June 20, instead of June 21. The IPC also dismissed the independent Election Commissioner of PCB, an advocate of the Supreme Court, and replaced him with a handpicked lawyer to facilitate Zaka’s proposed nomination and election. It then nominated Zaka Ashraf as head of a new MC to make a new BoG and conduct elections for the post of chairman within four months.
Unfortunately for Zaka and the IPC, these decisions were challenged by various aggrieved stakeholders in the High Courts of Lahore, Quetta and Peshawar. In one case, a stay was obtained, stopping Zaka from consolidating himself. In another, his hurried appointments to over 70 high-end jobs in PCB were challenged because the notification of his MC only allowed him to conduct 'day-to-day' affairs of the Board. In another, various IPC notifications in this matter have been challenged as being illegal. Meanwhile, the IPC has continued to exhort Zaka to make a BoG and hold elections after the stay was vacated by the Peshawar High Court.
But Zaka has shied away from making a BoG and holding elections for the chairman for one main reason: he does not hold a Bachelors Degree at the least, a constitutional precondition for election to the post of PCB chairman. The interesting thing is that the IPC ministry, the PDM government and now the caretaker government have all along known this fact but have persisted with their decision to make him chairman of the PCB.
Meanwhile, Zaka has been his own worst enemy. His decisions smack of illegality and arbitrariness. His personal conduct is most unbecoming of a chairman of the PCB. The domestic and international media have hauled him over the coals as an embarrassment for Pakistan, especially during the World Cup fixtures in India. His appointment of Inzimamul Haq as Chief Selector has exposed his limitations after revelations that Haq is a business partner with several players and their agent. His inability to motivate the cricket team players during the World Cup is also attributed as a cause of their failure on the field.
In the latest twist to this sordid saga of misplaced political interference by the PDM and Caretaker governments, it now transpires that Zaka has been given another three-month lease of life. The caretaker prime minister, Anwar ul Haque Kakar, told a television channel that Zaka’s fate would be decided after the World Cup was over. However, a day later, the PM notified an extension for three months for Zaka. But then the notification contradicted its intent by restricting Zaka to day-to-day matters and expressly forbade him from longer-term decisions, including those related to PSL in February 2024 – several billion rupees worth of international bids for various PCB rights are overdue -- and high-end hirings. Significantly, it noted that there would be no further extension of his MC beyond the three-month period during which he would have to make a new BoG and hold elections to the post of chairman.
The three-month period will end on February 4, 2024, before the general elections and a new, elected government takes office. This raises obvious questions: If this caretaker government wants to effect change in PCB, it may do so immediately instead of holding on for three months. If it wants to let an elected government take that decision, it should have granted Zaka an extension of at least four months. If it wants to hold him in check, why not get rid of him as soon as possible? Why give him three months without power when important strategic decisions are due in the next three months, like tendering for ticketing and production services for two years and selling PSL and PCB media and commercial rights for two years, etc., all together worth several billion rupees? The attitude and approach of the IPC and Prime Minister's Office (PMO) defy logical or sensible calculations, unless they mean to remove him immediately after the World Cup but don’t want to create ripples right now.
The IPC and Patron PM know that Zaka is not qualified to be elected as chairman because he doesn’t possess a graduate degree. They know he is incompetent and faces allegations of corruption. They know that whichever BoG he makes to rig his election will be successfully challenged in the courts. Yet they appear to remain willing partners in aiding and abetting his illegal actions. Now, they have decided to retain him but stop him from making important decisions. The confusion is compounded by the inefficiency and laxity of the courts in the last four months to redress the problem according to the law and the PCB constitution.