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Super problems

Published 17 Mar, 2015 07:22pm

If and when historians sit down to compile a list of seismic moments that have altered the game of cricket, it can be safely assumed that September 24, 2007 will figure prominently in their annals. On that fateful day in Johannesburg, Pakistan’s Misbah-ul-Haq paddle sweeped his side to defeat in the final of inaugural Twenty20 (T20) World Cup, handing India the victory and inadvertently giving birth to the idea of the Indian Premier League.

Launched within six months of India’s lifting of winners’ trophy in South Africa, the Indian Premier League has become the biggest moneymaking tournament in international cricket circuit. Its commercial success has spawned similar leagues in other South Asian countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka over the last couple of years. Having first considered holding a Pakistan Premier League as early as 2008, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), too, eventually unveiled its plan this January to hold a league tournament called Pakistan Super League (PSL). With a lot of fanfare, the logo for the league and its business plan were made public. Comprising five team franchises representing different cities, it was to be a 23-match event played between March 26 and April 7 this year. The PCB had hired Salman Sarwar Butt, a banker-turned-financial consultant, to be the managing director of the PSL, and engaged South African Haroon Lorgat, former head of the International Cricket Council (ICC), as an adviser for the tournament.

All this came to naught — last month PSL was postponed indefinitely. The decision to postpone the league, according to a PCB press release, was made for the “benefit of all stakeholders to allow them enough time to develop their business plan” and to avoid “scheduling conflicts”. According to Butt, many companies interested in working with PSL, for instance, prospective franchise owners, sponsors and broadcasters asked for more time to assess the financial viability of their investments in the tournament. The PSL schedule was also conflicting with the international cricket calendar, he says. “Sri Lanka’s series against Bangladesh was supposed to finish by the third week of March but it has been extended till March 28, leaving us with no choice but to reconsider.”

Since the postponement, Butt has resigned as the league’s managing director, jeopardising the league further even before it could take off the drawing board and creating rumours of his rifts with PCB. Rashid Latif, Pakistan’s cricket team’s former captain, believes that Butt’s resignation shows that PSL is “not viable in present circumstances”.

Butt, however, insists that his resignation has nothing to do with whether PSL is feasible or not and that he has no disagreement with PCB over the issue. “There is no truth in rumours about a falling out between me and PCB. I have resigned purely due to personal reasons since my family is living in Karachi and PSL required me to spend considerable time in Lahore,” he tells the Herald.

In Latif’s opinion, problems with PSL do not stop at Butt’s resignation. He believes that cricket managers in Pakistan had not taken into account all the problems that the league would face before hurrying to announce it. “Every venture needs a thorough study of ground realities before it is launched but it was not done in the case of PSL,” he says.

The foremost problem for PSL is the lack of a secure environment for foreign players to come and play in Pakistan. “In the current scenario, participation of renowned active foreign players doesn’t seem likely,” says Latif.

The Federation of International Cricketer’s Association, indeed, has expressed serious concerns over the current political and security climate in Pakistan and warned players against visiting and playing in the country. But newspaper reports suggest that many foreign players had nevertheless shown interest in PSL. These included Australian fast bowler Shaun Tait, West Indian batsman Shivnarine Chanderpaul, his compatriot Andre Russell and former South African opener Herschelle Gibbs. Responding to a tweet-query by the Herald, Gibbs confirms having submitted necessary documents to PCB making himself available for PSL, before he learnt about the postponement.

In order to allay the players’ security fears, PCB announced that it would provide two million dollars insurance cover for each foreign player, a move which indirectly emphasises the intensity of security threats faced by foreigners in Pakistan. Latif believes that PCB could have handled the security issue differently. “What PCB could have done was to allow the limited induction of a few foreign players in the ongoing domestic events to gradually build a case [that Pakistan is safe for cricket],” he says.

Osman Samiuddin, former Pakistan editor of cricket website Cricinfo, also believes that inducting foreign players in the first edition of PSL was not necessary. “Are foreign players so necessary for the success of such a league? No, at least not initially,” he says and adds that he is “a little sceptical about how many international players PCB could have roped in, especially the relevant, current ones.”

To overcome the players’ security concerns, Samiuddin suggests another model. “In the first season, it would’ve been great to have all the top Pakistani players plus any foreign ones who wanted to play,” he says, pointing out that a safe and solid inaugural edition would have helped the PSL project itself as a “robust and viable product”.

Beyond security and the participation of foreign players, Latif is also worried that PSL may increase corruption in the sport. “T20 leagues have encouraged betting and spot-fixing. More rapid the pace of the game the easier it becomes [to fix the matches].”

Others involved in PSL, however, say that the tournament has bright prospects, financially as well as in projecting Pakistan as a safe destination for international cricketers. Butt, for instance, says “economically and socially PSL is the right solution for Pakistan.” He explains how the league “will provide high visibility to advertisers”. If the tournament can attract even three to five per cent of the overall advertising revenue in Pakistan, it may generate enough money for franchises, sponsors, broadcasters, players and PCB, he says.

Butt claims that PSL has generated a lot of interest both among investors and players. According to him, over 80 overseas players had signed agreements and work on procuring no-objection certificates for them had started. Three ICC match officials also agreed to be part of PSL, he adds. “PSL bid documents for broadcasting, franchises and sponsorship rights were picked up by multinational, regional and local corporate groups; around 30 entities were interested which shows interest levels were very encouraging,” he says.

An official of a corporate entity, having a history of association with PCB, verifies his firm’s interest in PSL and thinks the league is a tangible proposition and something worth considering. Speaking on the condition of anonymity since he is not the spokesman for his firm, he says: “There is an audience for PSL and it makes good economic sense.”

Atif Bajwa, the president and the chief executive officer of Bank Alfalah, also confirms that his company did pick up bidding documents. “We thought PSL was a great initiative which also made commercial sense in the long run,” he says.

All this optimism, nonetheless, now revolves around a single question: When will PSL happen, if at all? Considering the ICC’s upcoming calendar and the Pakistan cricket team’s own engagements later this year, it seems most unlikely that 2013 will see the first ever edition of this ambitious league. There can be no cricket in Pakistan between May and August, due to bad weather conditions, and then the Caribbean Premier League in West Indies will begin, followed by Pakistan’s own test series against South Africa in the United Arab Emirates. “I don’t see PSL launching this year,” a PCB official tells the Herald on the condition of anonymity.

Prospective investors, therefore, have put off their PSL plans. “We can’t say if PSL will take place or not; there are so many variables and conditions which are not in anybody’s control; until those uncertainties are overcome, no one can be sure [about PSL’s future],” says Bajwa. “With the indefinite status of PSL and change of personnel, we are just going to wait and see,” he adds.

What could such uncertainty mean for cricket in Pakistan? Samiuddin says the league is perhaps the only means for PCB to stay afloat in the long run and its postponement may create major financial problems for the board in coming years. “Financially, the board is just about okay for another year or so but after that the crunch caused by no international cricket [taking place in Pakistan] will hit the board and for that reason this league was vital.” Nadeem Sarwar, PCB’s spokesman, readily agrees. “With no international cricket in Pakistan, PCB needs domestic tournaments that can help replenish its coffers,” he says.

But the postponement might well have already killed the goose that could lay golden eggs. “Postponing PSL sends a bad signal out to people who wanted to get involved,” says Samiuddin. “Why would they want to invest in a poorly thought out product which gets cancelled or postponed or rescheduled for any reason ranging from security to the board’s own problems?”

A prematurely announced and ill-conceived PSL is definitely the last thing that the troubled sport needed in Pakistan.