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Pitch Perfect

by Hassan Hussein Qureshi

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Pakistan Super League scores a ton.

On March 5, Peshawar Zalmi beat the Quetta Gladiators by 58 runs to win the second Pakistan Super League cricket series. The final played to a nearly full Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore, after the previous matches, and the inaugural edition last year, in the U.A.E.

Eight years after the attack in Lahore on the Sri Lanka team and after the May 2015 suicide attack at a checkpoint near the stadium when Zimbabwe played here, the decision to host the final at home was a controversial one, but it worked out—and this success will contribute meaningfully to return international cricket to Pakistan.

The PSL, run by the Pakistan Cricket Board and Najam Sethi, garnered strong support as soon as it was launched. It has played to a fiercely loyal fan base both seasons, with high turnouts from expats in the Gulf and featuring star performances from Pakistani and foreign cricketers. Of course, fans and players wanted the PSL to happen across Pakistan even though the stadiums in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah easily eclipse facilities in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad.

Everyone now views the successful conclusion of the PSL final as a miracle. There were many naysayers, including former captain and opposition politician Imran Khan who said the security situation was too risky to host the game at home. “No one wants [international] cricket to return to Pak more than me,” he tweeted on Feb. 28. “But staging the PSL final in Lahore carries huge risks with no benefit at all. A match played under a tight security ring around the stadium will exaggerate Pak’s security issue And, God forbid, if any mishap happens we can say goodbye to [international] cricket in Pak for the next decade.” Hours ahead of the match, clearly impressed by the summit-level security arrangements, he posted: “Really appreciate the public’s participation. May Allah keep everyone safe.”

Many shared Khan’s view. The foreign players with Quetta Gladiators, including explosive batsman Kevin Pietersen who was instrumental in their route to the final, bailed. Quetta found replacements but this was essentially a new team, one that lacked cohesion and momentum. So the Gladiators lost their second PSL final. Zalmi didn’t have the same problem. Their foreign cricketers flew into and out of Lahore on the same day. Some have pointed out that highly paid foreign players coming into town for a few hours to play a one-day event, secured at a reported cost of $5 million, hardly means teams will be lining up for Pakistan tours. Still, it’s a start.

Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif personally oversaw all aspects of the security arrangements across the city for the match, said Lahore was honored to be hosting it, and believed it would serve as a message of unreserved resilience. The local, provincial, and national governments promised, and delivered, foolproof security working with the Punjab Police, Rangers, and Pakistan Army. The success of the PSL final should be reassuring for both the Federation of International Cricketers’ Association, which represents the interests of players globally and had urged members not to tour Pakistan for security reasons, and the International Cricket Council, which had criticized Pakistan after the dramatic Sri Lanka team attack.

Once upon a time, Pakistan regularly hosted international teams and tournaments, including the Cricket World Cup in 1987 and 1996. Pakistan’s security became a situation after the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan commenced in 2001. The following year, the New Zealand tour was aborted midway after an attack outside their hotel in Karachi. During the 2000s, Pakistan did host the Asia Cup and saw tours from India, England, the West Indies, South Africa, and Bangladesh. India’s enthusiasm to play in Pakistan waned after the 2009 Mumbai attacks.

The flight of international cricket from Pakistan, and the exile of the PSL to the U.A.E., has caused Pakistani cricket plenty of pain. A generation of players has grown up without playing a single match on home turf; some careers have started and ended without a single appearance in front of their own fans. Expats in England, Australia, and the U.A.E. deserve nothing but praise for their support to Team Pakistan but matches abroad do not have the same impact on the players as full stadiums in Lahore or Karachi. Pakistan captain Misbah-ul-Haq has also lamented about playing “home” matches abroad, requiring the team to be away from family for months and living out of suitcases in hotels.

The PSL is a boon to Pakistan’s sporting culture. Despite being in its early stages, it has attracted a strong fan following across the country. Social media is awash with fans engaging with each other after their teams play and win. Quetta, so often the ignored capital of Pakistan’s largest province in terms of size, has a team that has neutrals enthralled. Peshawar named their team “Zalmi” (Pashto for youth) in homage to the children who died in the Army Public School terror attack of December 2014 and have a strong following in the U.A.E., where many expats are from the city and its neighboring areas.

Both these teams alongside the cosmopolitan Islamabad United side have been far more successful than the traditional cricketing powerhouses of Karachi and Lahore, who finished with the wooden spoon in both editions of the tournament. The PSL has attracted top players and coaches from around the world, as well as millions in sponsorship money.

All five franchises are owned by Pakistanis who are passionate about the game and its revival. The PSL can usher in a new culture of modernity and innovation to the game but for its effects to be fully felt it will need to be accessible to all Pakistanis not just the few thousands working in the Gulf and the few hundreds who can afford to go to Dubai to watch the games. So it was imperative that the final on Sunday between Quetta and Peshawar passed without incident or event. We all know there’s no place better than Pakistan for the PSL. Sunday night proved it.

From our March 11 – 18, 2017, issue.

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2 comments

Rai Ahmed March 14, 2017 - 6:37 pm

Finally a good sports article, well done Newsweek.

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Abdullah T. March 14, 2017 - 11:11 pm

A good read.

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