One of the biggest problems with media coverage of cricket in Pakistan is that it is almost entirely fuelled by supposed controversies. To follow the news this last Monday was to be greeted by a cavalcade of dismay – from snubbed cricketers to ignored ones – all as part of the reaction to the launch of the Pakistan Super League (PSL).
In a transitional society like Pakistan’s, the response to change is often met by outcry over the loss of tradition, and the outrage over the PSL’s launch – both among journalists and players – was the response of those who expected to be greeted by the same old same old.
The fact is that T20 is the sport’s newest format, and the organisation of glamorous and lucrative domestic T20 leagues isn’t just a fad but a rapidly growing opportunity for those running the sport. A part of me definitely understands the balking at the celebrity-fuelled PSL launch – and the event was far from being perfect – but judging by the reactions, few people seemed to understand why exactly this event was the way it was.
Let’s begin by addressing the dynamics of the launch and why they were so. When T20 was first officially launched in England, it was created as a way to involve more people in the game. As I’ve written before, this format is the fairest to the modern spectator – as the sort who can regularly afford the luxury of attending matches lasting the full work day are either comfortably well-off or worryingly irresponsible. This was why the focus of the marketing for T20 in England, and later in Australia and other countries, was on getting families and kids to attend, and this approach was hugely successful. Closer to home, the IPL revolutionised the approach by seeking out the least interested segments of a saturated local market and appealing to their interests – a fun and safe day out, a chance to be entertained by things beyond cricket, the intrigue of celebrity and implied hedonism. Soon enough, all sorts of cricket agnostics in India found themselves enthralled by the IPL’s attraction.
The point here isn’t to extol the virtues of marketing but to underline how closely related this style of marketing is to this code of cricket.
Cricket has long been played in a way where the top layer of the competition involves international teams playing each other. Yet this is built upon a vast network of domestic cricket, and as the sport modernises, it is essential to have sustainable domestic systems. Many of the old domestic events and tournaments that existed in every cricket country have now given way, often because of changing trends and lifestyles. Given that T20 was precisely invented to save England’s domestic game, it makes sense that domestic T20 leagues have quickly become a significant source of revenue for many boards. The onus on these leagues is to provide a product that offers what previous domestic tournaments didn’t, and this usually boils down to star players and a heavy dose of marketing and, in the South Asian case, celebrity.
The promise of such revenue is of particular importance to the PCB. The domestic system in the country was set up to ensure employment for athletes, in a rather socialist-state sort of manner. This, in part, prevented it from generating any sort of organic interest among fans, which is why the board has a separate T20 tournament for city-based teams. Moreover, the crippling loss of home cricket has been huge for the country; it can be argued that a fully resourced PCB could have otherwise been making enough to have come out a whole lot better in the aftermath of the Big Three restructure. While it would be foolish to imagine that the PSL will immediately signal a cash bonanza for the PCB, it does represent a necessary product that is needed to sustain the board in the long term.
The ubiquity of these T20 leagues has also affected the quality of the reserves of international teams. The experience of regularly facing international players in pressure situations has had a huge impact on the confidence and attitude of younger players, who arrive much better prepared for their international debuts. The lack of such exposure for Pakistan’s players has been seen in how few of their batsmen over the last few years have been able to play the “modern” style of cricket that has taken hold of the game.
But perhaps the most important value of the PSL is the fact that it was so long overdue. The lack of a Pakistani T20 league is like a world with many futsal leagues, but none in Brazil. This is not to say that Pakistan invented the T20 format or made it their own, but it can be argued that this style of compressed-cricket was more prestigious here than anywhere else. The format found a natural home in street cricket and the culture of night matches during Ramzan, and these were hugely popular in Pakistan’s cities from the ’70s onwards, and later caught the imagination of the rural population too. In a way, Pakistan had a T20 culture at least 30 years before the format was invented. The fact, then, that the country has still not had a proper international-class tournament since is nothing less than a tragedy.
Disappointingly discussion of the PSL in Pakistan’s cricket media has largely ignored these pertinent realities. I don’t mean to detract from the very real complaints expressed by many, but it does seem strange that at the start of something so crucial to the future of Pakistani cricket, these are the only issues considered worth discussing.