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Najam Sethi: Bringing cricket back home from exile

Updated 21 Aug, 2018 06:33am
Illustration by Aziza Ahmad
Illustration by Aziza Ahmad

At the entrance to the headquarters of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), beneath a slate-coloured winter sky, a technicolor yellow board nailed to a brick wall says: “Every team needs a hero. Every hero needs a team.” Inside, framed headshots of Pakistan’s most beloved cricketers line the hallowed halls that lead to PCB Chairman Najam Sethi’s office.

Sethi does not need an introduction. Not if you are one of the millions who have watched Aapas ki Baat, a political talk show on Geo News; he was both its anchor and analyst. Not if you are one of the thousands who have read The Friday Times, an independent national weekly paper; he is its editor-in-chief and writes its weekly editorial.

Not if you were Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s, or General Ziaul Haq in the 1980s, or Nawaz Sharif in the 1990s. Sethi had run-ins with each of them for his activism, his publishing and his journalism. And certainly not if you are Imran Khan, who has accused Sethi of “35 punctures” – or electoral rigging in 35 constituencies of Punjab – in the 2013 general elections. Sethi was the interim chief minister of the province at the time.

If one did not know him then, one knows him now. He has been one of the most talked-about figures at the PCB since 2013. Appointed interim chairman by Nawaz Sharif, prime minister and patron of the PCB at the time, Sethi was in line to be full-time chairman but was knocked off by the superior courts in 2014 in a battle of musical chairs with former PCB chairman Muhammad Zaka Ashraf. Sethi was then made the chief of the cricket board’s executive committee while his family friend Shaharyar Khan was appointed as chairman.

This past year, his career as the sport’s manager reached a tipping point. In spring, Pakistan’s first franchise-based cricket league, Pakistan Super League (PSL), which he has been heading for more than two years now, staged the final match of its second edition in Lahore. In August, he was appointed as the PCB chairman. A month later, a World XI, put together by the International Cricket Council (ICC), played three Twenty20 internationals against Pakistan — also in Lahore. Towards the end of the year, Sri Lanka’s national team returned to play in the same city, putting behind them a terrorist attack they had suffered here back in 2009 — one that had forced Pakistan to play all its international cricket abroad since then. It was the year of Pakistani cricket’s almost decade-long circumambulation home.

“This was an egg we had to break in order to make the omelette,” says Sethi as he talks about the return of international cricket to Pakistan.

The decline in terrorism over the preceding two-and-a-half years gave him the confidence to initiate his efforts. It was the Army Public School attack in Peshawar in December 2014 – in which 144 people, mostly schoolchildren, lost their lives – that convinced him that a fight against militancy would finally begin in earnest. “If that [fight] had not happened, I would have found [cricket’s return] difficult,” he says. Even then, he adds, “it was difficult to convince the prime minister and the paramilitary forces to hold the PSL final in Lahore.”

Secondly, he says, the PSL franchises needed to agree to the idea because they then had to convince their foreign players. “[Initially], the franchises themselves weren’t convinced due to the security risk.” During the series, three of Quetta Gladiators’ first-choice foreign players refused to play in Pakistan.

Punjab’s administration also took a long time in finalising the security arrangements. As a result, the tickets could not be sold, television teams could not cover the match on time and the facilities in Dubai had to be kept on standby in case the administration said no at the last minute. And security had to be a multi-institutional, three-tiered effort. “It was a mind-boggling security plan,” says Sethi. “It was a national effort by all institutions. Nobody thought of it as just a cricket match.”

That was, according to him, only one of the many steps required to bring international cricket back to Pakistan. Step one was launching the PSL in 2016, step two was bringing its final to Lahore last year, step three was asking the ICC to send a team to Lahore and step four was bringing Sri Lanka back. Other teams said they would not return unless the Sri Lankans first said it was okay to play in Pakistan again, he recalls. “So it was critical to persuade Sri Lanka.”

Najam Sethi with singer Farida Khanum | M Arif, White Star
Najam Sethi with singer Farida Khanum | M Arif, White Star

They were swayed after Sethi invited the Sri Lankan cricket board’s management to the ICC World XI series.

The run-up to a successful 2017 has not been a walk in the park for him for some other reasons too. Sethi had to reimagine the PCB’s sources of income. It once received four million US dollars for a Pakistan-India match but Narendra Modi’s government put a lid on that by refusing to play with Pakistan. Other sources of income have been money from the ICC fixtures and home series, but home series have been taking place in the United Arab Emirates where profits are slim because of high costs and low gate money. He thought of holding the PSL. It proved to be an instant moneymaker.

Organisationally, too, the PCB has been a hydra-headed beast in need of taming. “I saw what happened there and was appalled. It was a den of political activity rather than cricket — and of corruption.” He says his job at the PCB is making sure money is spent where it ought to be. His economics degree from the University of Cambridge might have come in handy. “The PCB has to compete with the world. So you can’t have your standards; you need world standards. And the world is ruthless.”

Sethi’s family was not initially enthused by his cricketing responsibilities. “When he took on [this responsibility], we were not for it,” says Jugnu Mohsin, his wife and an award-winning journalist. “But because he views his life and his work politically, he said, ‘You do not understand how important this is for the self-expression of the people of Pakistan. You don’t understand what a big battle it is against extremism. This game has the capacity to enchant young people. This will entice them away from extremism.’”

Ever the analyst, Sethi sees cricket as a dimension of our nationhood. “Pakistanis are so involved in the nationalism of cricket that I would say their [cricketing] sentiment is as strong as their national identity,” he says. When it comes to cricket, “everyone is a Pakistani first and foremost”.

While he seems to have convinced his family, he did not have the same success with his peers in the media. “They could have really helped us but they chose to create stumbling blocks,” he says. Imran Khan has been another naysayer. The PCB’s chairmanship is politicised because it is a post usually ‘gifted’ by the head of the state or the government to a hand-picked favourite. Imran Khan alleged that Nawaz Sharif appointed Sethi to the post as a reward for his role in election rigging.

Sethi is no shrinking violet. “All of the drawing rooms are full of chatter. Jealousies – personal and professional – sneak into the drawing rooms but outside there is none of that. If people see something they like, they say, ‘This man has done something.’”

Sitting in his office with an expansive view of Gaddafi Stadium, Sethi says, “My most memorable moment is from this stadium. A man tapped me on the shoulder; a little boy, six or seven years old, was holding on to him. He picked the boy and said, ‘My son has never seen a stadium before … He is so struck by it. We grew up with full stadiums but a whole generation has grown up without any of this. You have opened something up for our children. This is what you have done.’”

This article was published in the Herald's January 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a freelance journalist and founding CEO of Pershe Saeeda