Cricket in Crisis

Cricket in Crisis
Fawad Chaudhry, the federal information minister, has made a shocking announcement. He says that forthcoming cricket series between Pakistan and visiting international teams will not be shown on Pakistan television channels as a matter of government policy. Hundreds of millions cricket fans at home and abroad are outraged by the government’s logic for such an unpopular decision.

The government has decided to not allow Pakistan Television to buy broadcast rights for cricket matches between Pakistan and international teams from the Indian company that holds these rights because this would demoralize Kashmiris under the yoke of Indian oppression. Current government policy is against any trade and contacts with India until Article 370 guaranteeing autonomy to Occupied Jammu & Kashmir is restored by the Narendra Modi regime. Earlier, the government did not to allow the import of cotton or sugar from India even though both commodities were desperately needed to shore up domestic supplies and curb rising prices.

This is Topi Drama.

Despite the continuing bloodshed and repression in occupied J&K, both Pakistan Cricket Board and Pakistan Television have been doing business with Indian companies and professionals for decades, including during the current regime’s tenure, and all PSL and international matches have been shown on Pakistan TV. As we speak, the PSL matches in Abu Dhabi are being produced by Indian professionals contracted to the Pakistan Cricket Board, the same who have been provided special visas and security clearances to come to Pakistan and cover matches in the last five years! Indeed, it has been a long held position of both the PCB and successive Pakistan governments that sport and politics should not mix and the Indian government must not ban sporting links between the two countries regardless of hostile relations between them. In fact, the term “cricket diplomacy” was coined by both sides in the late 1980s when the two countries were on the brink of armed conflict and bilateral cricket matches were used to cool down temperatures. So what’s going on?

PTV is negotiating with Sony for broadcast rights in Pakistan. Sony’s majority ownership rests with Indian nationals and it holds South Asian rights to all international cricket matches held under the aegis of the International Cricket Council. In the past, PTV and Geo Sports would join hands with one of several international bidders for Pakistan rights. But since Sony gobbled up some of the competitors and acquired a monopoly, it is demanding its asking price. Cash strapped PTV is therefore in a bind. If it doesn’t cough up, it won’t be able to show cricket matches to hungry Pakistani audiences. It will also forsake tons of money from commercial advertising. So Fawad Chaudhry, who lords it over PTV, has come up with a cunning scheme to kill more than two birds with one stone. He has linked cricketing business with Indian companies to the situation in Occupied J&K in a bid to earn brownie political points. He has also strengthened his hand in negotiating terms with Sony by implying a middle way to resolve the crisis by signing the contract with Sony UK ( a British Company) or via an intermediary company owned by a Pakistani in the UAE. The latter option is a more expensive proposition because the intermediary will demand a commission for providing this service. Whether such commissions will be “shared” or not and with whom we cannot say for sure. But we can be sure that international cricket matches will definitely be broadcast on Pakistani television screens, Indian professionals will man the cameras and the repression in occupied J&K will continue unabated.

Since the PTI government imported a high cost management team to run PCB, doubling administrative costs without improving efficiency, Pakistan’s cricket world has reeled from one crisis to another. The democratic 2014 PCB constitution drafted by two ex-Supreme Court judges and approved by the Supreme Court of Pakistan has been knocked out of the ground. In its place, a fully nominated Board is now running the affairs of PCB. The core cricketing government “Departments” that funded, nurtured and trained domestic cricketers for seventy years with combined budgets in excess of PKR 1.5 billion every year have been abolished and replaced by Regional  Associations manned by PCB officials, funded by PCB but controlled by provincial bureaucrats who cannot even efficiently run the provincial sports boards. The PSL international brand has been significantly devalued by senseless tournament interruptions in 2020 and 2021, resulting in a decline of viewership (therefore commercial value) by over 40 percent. This year the situation is worse because many double-headers in Abu Dhabi will be shown in the dead of night in Pakistan when the viewership is only 1 per cent of prime time. The PSL franchises are livid over losses resulting from payments of Licence Fees to PCB and players’ fees in US Dollars after a 40% devaluation, coupled with little gate money owing to the Covid crisis. But PCB is in no serious mood to resolve the crisis. Commercial contracts with a host of vendors are in trouble and business partners are seeking litigation. Lack of transparency has reached such heights that PCB is not ready to show accounts even to parliamentary sports committees tasked with oversight of sports boards. Worse, there is a steady stream of sifarshis in PCB administration, security, selection committees and national coaching departments, resulting in the abysmal performance of the national cricket team. Memories are fast fading of when Pakistan was ranked Number One in Tests, One Days and T20s, including winning the Champions Trophy, from 2015-2018 under the previous management that launched PSL and opened the gate for the return of international cricket to Pakistan.

The cruel irony in this decline of cricket in Pakistan relates to the fact that Kaptaan Imran Khan, our cricketing hero of 1992, is the new Patron of PCB. It is Imran Khan who has dictated the new model of domestic cricket that isn’t working. It is Imran Khan who has appointed the clueless bigwigs in the PCB. And it is Imran Khan who will ultimately be held responsible for the decline of the golden game in Pakistan.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.