November 12, 2010

Haider's Disappearance - a Wake-up Call for World Cricket?

I would not want to be a cricket fan in these turbulent times. More specifically, I wouldn’t want to be a Pakistan cricket fan, for every time a small ray of light seems to be afoot something happens that sets it back by cricket’s equivalent of light-years. We thought that the comedy of errors involving the bans, re-bans, lifting of the bans and re-lifting of the bans was the worst that could happen to cricket in a country that has been more or less ravaged by political turmoil ever since I was old enough to have an indelible memory.

Then came the winless tour to Australia where one can safely say – even without attempting to be deliberately rude – that the Pakistan cricket team threw away the Sydney test after being utterly dominant for the better part. Kamran Akmal’s wicket-keeping – which led no less a man than Wasim Akram to ask Akmal about his goal-keeping – was particularly picked on but apart from Salman Butt who made a hundred in the series nobody deserved to speak a word. As if the team performance was not demoralising enough, coach Aaqib Javed’s comments rubbed salt into the wounds but can probably be in hindsight appreciated as a foreboding to the eruption over spot-fixing that followed quickly like night follows day.

If the (had-to-be-easy-but-became-difficult-yet-well-deserved) win against Australia on neutral territory at Headingley (Leeds, England) seemed like just the facelift Pakistan cricket required, the spot-fixing controversy that ensued during the test series versus England made short work of any points of inspiration to be garnered from there. In between Shahid Afridi decided, once again, and one hopes once and for all (given the PCB's seemingly sacrosanct right to call people from retirements if not their graves!), that the longer version was not up his alley. What was most devastating about the match-fixing chaos was two of Pakistan’s most promising cricketers, heralded by everyone who saw them as the country’s future – Mohammads, Asif and Amir, the latter all of nineteen summers – along with their captain Salman Butt were implicated by the News of the World. All through the tempestuous waters, the PCB chairman Ijaz Butt far from trying to appear even remotely like a responsible captain of the ship has (forgive me the profanity) emerged the butt of jokes from cricket-haters and Pakistan cricket detractors alike courtesy his general lack of commonsense  and control over his tongue in especial. To think that the latter almost led the one friend Pakistan cricket has had in ECB (and its chief Charles Clarke, who also (the last time I heard) leads the ICC Review Committee in charge of reviewing the possibility cricket resumption in Pakistan) to turn hostile speaks volumes about the precariousness and daftness surrounding Pakistan cricket and Butt’s administration (strictly in that order of priority) today.

Yet somewhere along the line a non-partisan cricket lover, a pure-minded Pakistan cricket fan or a young cricketer who has worked his life to break into the national squad would have felt hopeful. After all clouds brought in by human avarice and vulnerability will clear as they do not have any finality about them; nor do human predilections. But Zulqarnain Haider’s disappearance from the the Pakistan cricket team in Dubai last week and reappearance in London earlier this week has almost put paid to that innocent feeling of hope. Unless of course what is happening in Pakistan cricket is the enactment of a page-turning novel about the underworld, cricket, Pakistan and match-fixing; or contemporary Pakistan cricket is just an attempt to take reality television to a different plane; or Zulqarnain Haider is a mor(t)ally disturbed dreamer or fidgety attention-seeker with the recent melodrama being in extremely poor taste especially considering the condition Pakistan cricket is already in. The first two possibilities are just jokes and the last seems far from true given that Haider since the fighting 88 in his first test – half of the match fee from which he dedicated to Imran Khan’s cancer hospital – has struck everyone as a gritty and committed young man with his heart in the right place.

The writing is on the wall and not merely on some crappy walls in boardrooms in the buildings where the PCB sits but across the world where administrators holding a stake in the game’s welfare meet to discuss cricket’s biggest challenges. If Haider’s revelation about the death threats against him and his family is any true, it then puts the ICC, (a body corporate which most people tend to think is a sitting duck anyway in front of perversely powerful cricket boards like the BCCI,) which has had a hot-and-cold relationship with the PCB (or perhaps it should be said that the PCB has had an iffy relationship with the ICC!) in a peculiar and not very enviable position. Spot-fixing, match fixing or fixing an entire series is one thing; it might make the larger unenlightened audience look at the sport as cheap and as another source of easy money and those who have played the game with utmost integrity look at themselves as geese. But if playing the game involves keeping one eye around for strange people at strange places all the time, ones who may go to any extent to not leave you and your family in peace, it is a challenge of a different magnitude and one the game has not hitherto thankfully come face to face with. Most importantly, problem of life and death based on the ‘supposedly’ fleeting fortunes on the cricket field should not be brushed aside Haider’s problem or Pakistan cricket’s problem. It is at once the problem of the entire cricket-playing fraternity and therefore the ICC.

Over the next few weeks, or more likely months, the merits of Haider’s first press conference after the Dubai disappearance will assume extraordinary significance. For the sake of cricket, and that of an impressive young man with a young family, one hopes that the people in high places see this conundrum through to its logical conclusion. Haider’s own life in this period albeit he has thus far, expectedly, played safe in not implicating any fellow cricketer in Pakistan, is going to be lived on the tenterhooks of questioning and the internal battle to choose between being loyal to (Pakistan) cricket and reveal whatever he knows – so nobody else goes through such torment – or consider his and his family’s safety as the end alls (or balance both). One thing is for sure: you would not want to be in Haider’s shoes at the moment. I also agree with Kamran Abbasi when he says that what Haider  needs at the moment is understanding. Over time, the important task of trying to get at the truth can be pursued for whatever it is worth.

In the larger context, I sometimes wonder if the events we are witnessing today with a sense of pallor are the product of too much professionalisation of sport, which should before and after everything remain a source of entertainment to those who play and those who watch it. Spectators swarm in numbers to watch a Sehwag, a Muralidharan, a Shane Warne or a Brian Lara even though each of these modern greats has had human vulnerabilities or sporting flaws because these are entertainers who play the game only in the spirit of sport, no more, no less. But the goings-on in Pakistan cricket, the maddening love for high-scoring thrillers and therefore flat pitches – which is fed by and feeds into T20 cricket – the devaluation of 50+ averages and the unremitting foray of businessmen into cricket positions with the unabashed view to get pole position for their businesses have left a sour taste in my mouth. Perhaps, the madness is inevitable; perhaps grandstanding is the new mantra for success; perhaps illegit money, so long as you don’t get caught as writer Sujatha might say, isn’t different from legally earned money; perhaps the pandemonium in the game today is an extension of the general pandemonium surrounding our lives which is a product of our time. Be that as it may, it is a shame that one of Pakistan’s brightest stars in the recent troubled times is coerced to stay away due to dangerous circumstances. To be sure, the game will overcome those who try to devalue and sell it through the backdoor. But then, even if Haider returns to it, it may never feel the same again for life is, and has to be, admittedly larger than this game many of us love.

Click here for cricinfo's coverage of the controversy as it has unfolded thus far.

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