Pakistan’s Cricket League Rises Above the Country’s Troubles

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Pakistan’s Cricket League Rises Above the Country’s Troubles

With the country facing an economic and political crisis, plus a resurgence of terrorism, the Pakistan Super League offers the public a much-needed respite.

Pakistan’s Cricket League Rises Above the Country’s Troubles

A paramilitary soldier patrols next to cutouts of cricket players displaying outside the National Stadium for the Pakistan Super League in Karachi, Pakistan, Jan. 25, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Fareed Khan

As soon as tickets became available for the ongoing season 8 of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) last month, Asjad Khan had only one fixture in mind: Karachi Kings vs Quetta Gladiators. Khan is a fan of Quetta and planned to watch the match at Karachi’s National Bank Cricket Arena on February 18.

The night before the Kings-Gladiators contest, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, launched a terror raid targeting the police headquarters just 9 kilometers from the cricket ground. However, that didn’t stop Khan, and over 30,000 others, from packing the stadium up to the rafters for the much anticipated contest.

“The vulnerable spot probably is the external most checkpoint. So you go a bit early and ensure you’re not queuing up. Once you are in the stadium, it is probably the safest place in the city,” Khan told The Diplomat, with a nonchalance that echoed the public’s generally understated reactions to terror maneuvers. Pakistanis have become somewhat inured to the danger after two decades of nationwide jihadist attacks.

Khan runs the popular online portal “Thak Thak Misbah,” named after former Pakistan captain Misbah-ul-Haq. The page is largely dedicated to cricket commentary, but often incorporates political musings with satire and humor, punctuated by a wide array of memes. Over the past month, the page has been brimming over with posts on the cricket festival that has hogged the focus of the nation.

“Even people who don’t usually watch cricket are interested. Like in the office, or when you got out in the market, you see people talking about the PSL more than any bilateral series,” Khan said. Even as Australia, England, and New Zealand toured the country for the first time in a couple of decades over the past year, the crowds have remained significantly higher for Pakistan’s domestic franchise league.

While the festivity engulfs the country, critics argue that the PSL remains a façade that casts a flimsy shroud over the country’s many predicaments, some of which self-manifest in the league itself. For instance, the volatility that requires presidential-level security for cricket squads has meant that two of the six participating teams, Quetta Gladiators and Peshawar Zalmi, cannot play home games given that Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa remain the provinces worst-hit by militancy.

The decades-old marginalization of Balochistan is also reflected in the Quetta Gladiators’ roster, with Abdul Wahid Bangalzai the sole representative from the province across the squad and management. Bangalzai himself hasn’t fared particularly well and was retained in place of another youngster, Saim Ayub, a product of the Gladiators’ feeder club who is setting the PSL on fire playing for Peshawar Zalmi and has received a call up to the national team.

“If two players are of a similar quality, sure go for the player from Balochistan, but don’t comprise results,” said Khan. “Quetta [Gladiators] shouldn’t have to carry the weight of state policies of the past 75 years. That’s not the job of a private franchise,” he added.

For the millions of cricket aficionados in Pakistan, the PSL is a success story, despite the many problems that the country faces. It has provided much needed respite and cause for celebration across the multipronged divides and ironclad strata. For many, the PSL represents a reconciliation of Pakistan’s multitudinous fault-lines.

Jaint Karmani, a dentistry student and a staunch Karachi Kings fan, for instance, doesn’t have to prove his support to anyone while backing his local cricket team in the PSL – but as a Hindu, his loyalty to the Pakistan national side is often called into question.

“In school, people used to bully [me] a lot, asking me to wear [India’s] blue shirt. Children are more affected by the [anti-Hindu] hate in textbooks. Many Hindus, including me, used to exaggerate our support for Team Green to prove it to the majority. But I support [the side] where I live: Pakistan and Karachi,” he told The Diplomat.

Anti-Hindu bigotry, the unfortunate foundation of Pakistan’s creation, remains institutionalized in the national ethos. In fact, the communalization of cricket in the Indian subcontinent long predates Pakistan, going as far back as late 19th century Bombay. The cricket tournament, reaching its apogee as the Bombay Pentangular in the lead up to the Partition, mirrored the Islamist separatist rhetoric of the Pakistan movement.

More recently, Tableeghi Jamaat-influenced cricketers overtly Islamized Pakistan cricket, which manifested in, among other examples, discrimination against Danish Kaneria, one of only two Hindus to represent Pakistan.

“Danish Kaneria was a better spinner than many of his time, but we all know what they did with him,” said Karmani. He maintained that it is unlikely we will see more Hindu representation in Pakistan cricket anytime soon, owing to a lack of success stories amid the structural challenges facing the marginalized communities. However, Karmani insists that vocal anti-Hinduism is waning in Pakistan, albeit gradually. He added: “With social media, there is more awareness now.”

And more accountability, as legendary cricketer Waqar Younis found out in 2021 when he praised wicket-keeper batter Mohammed Rizwan for offering the Islamic prayer “in the midst of Hindus” during Pakistan’s win over India at the World T20. Younis had to offer an apology for completely sidelining the up to 8 million Pakistani Hindus – albeit with the insistence that the outrage was “overhyped because India lost the match.”

However, the ambition to make PSL a global brand that welcomes everyone has necessitated more inclusive narratives across the league.

With narratives aplenty and festivities galore, it’s easy to forget that the primary reasons the PSL garners a feverish following remain on-pitch. The league has provided Pakistan with superstars in the shapes of Hasan Ali, Fakhar Zaman, Shadab Khan, and Shaheen Afridi, with world-beaters Mohammed Rizwan and Babar Azam also laying the foundation of their global dominance in the PSL. Overseas participants and foreign observers have frequently dubbed it the “second best league in the world” owing to the talent and competitiveness on display. Indeed, it is in providing competition to the Indian Premier League (IPL) and putting Pakistan cricket back on the world map that the PSL exemplifies nationalist fervor.

Both cricketing and geopolitical dynamics saw a regional upheaval in the three-month span between the November 2008 Mumbai attacks and the Lahore terror attack targeting the Sri Lankan cricket team in March 2009. While Indo-Pak bilateral cricket ceased – barring a brief limited-overs tour at the end of 2012 – and the IPL banned Pakistani cricketers, international cricket left Pakistan for the good part of a decade. As a result, the inaugural PSL season in 2016 had to be played entirely in the United Arab Emirates, the adopted home of Pakistan cricket.

It was with the PSL final in 2017, brimming with memorable moments in front of an emotional Lahore crowd, that cricket finally returned to Pakistan. That eventually paved the way for tours by all of the top international sides – barring India.

The 2017 final also reaffirmed that the off-field matters surrounding the PSL trumped anything on the pitch. The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) pushed for the final in Lahore days after a deadly bombing in the city, which meant that the eventual runners-up, the Quetta Gladiators, had to make do without their foreign contingent for the biggest game of the season.

Even though multiple civilian and military leaders have alluded to Pakistan’s role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and Pakistani courts issued punishments in various cases to the jihadist leaders involved, the national security discourse remains centered on a supposed Indian conspiracy to marginalize Pakistan. However, that narrative takes a hit in the aftermath of every security setback, especially those impacting cricket, pushing the entire state machinery towards neutralizing any blowback.

In 2015, when Zimbabwe became the first international side to tour Pakistan after the Sri Lanka attack, a suicide bombing was carried out while the penultimate match was being played in Lahore, but the series was completed two days later. The PCB hosted its scheduled eight PSL matches in Pakistan in 2019 while India and Pakistan were on the brink of full-blown war amid an aerial dogfight across the Line of Control. After New Zealand pulled out of its Pakistan tour in 2021, citing security concerns, then-PCB Chairman Ramiz Raja issued a strongly worded message.

Raja’s successor, Najam Sethi, who inaugurated the PSL in his first stint, reacted to last month’s Karachi attack by issuing a reassurance that the Pakistani Taliban will not attack the league and will “only target [the] state security establishment.”

“Those were extremely distasteful and offensive comments. Unfortunately, it propagates the idea of acceptable targets,” Peshawar-based law enforcement official Adil Kamal told The Diplomat. The narrative that certain targets are acceptable is the bedrock of Pakistan’s “Good and Bad Taliban” security masochism, which has rendered Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa perpetually volatile. A fortnight before the PSL opening ceremony, over 100 were killed in a bombing inside the Police Lines mosque in Peshawar, the worst terror attack in Pakistan for over eight years.

Even so, far from unifying the communities under attack against the disproportionate security enjoyed by a cricket league, the PSL has allowed many to channel their angst. While the Baloch largely distance themselves from Pakistani cricket, owing to the brazen disparity in the realities of Balochistan and the rest of the country, many Pashtun nationalists have found a channel for their expression in Peshawar Zalmi.

“The Pashtuns do have a feeling of exclusion, and they are not alone in that. Identity is the leading factor; the Pashtuns, I believe, have a stronger sense of it. They have a general tendency of aligning their loyalties based on identity,” Kamal asserted.

“The PSL accords that opportunity of representation on a level playing field, and you can see why the support, in the case of Peshawar Zalmi, is so vehement and vociferous – as if to prove a point and say that if you don’t rig the system, you can’t suppress us.”

Kamal, a huge fan of Peshawar Zalmi skipper Babar Azam, likewise, doesn’t see any contradiction between his support for the team and the PSL, and his wholehearted condemnation of the state’s abandonment of his fellow law enforcement officials. And he’s not alone.

Activist and commentator Sania Arif, who writes on women’s rights for numerous publications, is a diehard Islamabad United fan. “I attended both the Aurat March and the PSL matches. It is a shame that the state provides security for cricket matches, but attacks women who march for their fundamental rights,” she said.

While Arif condemns state authorities for their disregard for women’s rights, she appreciated the PCB hosting women’s matches alongside the PSL, paving the way for a women’s franchise cricket league in Pakistan. “The fight for rights and equality in Pakistan is going to be long and arduous – let’s watch some cricket in the meantime! Supporting such ventures will further connect Pakistan with the rest of the world, which will gradually help the country fulfill many of the goals included in the Aurat March manifesto,” she said.

This year’s nationwide Aurat March, or women’s march, also took up inflation as one of its many causes given the fiscal pandemonium in Pakistan with the consumer price index reaching a 50-year high. The economic crisis nearly left the PSL in doldrums as well, after the Punjab government said last month that it did not have money to ensure lighting and security for the matches in Lahore and Rawalpindi. The standoff was resolved following a cost-sharing agreement between the government and the PCB, ensuring that the cricket show goes on and fans continue to gather both inside and outside the stadia.

“I get so many rides in the evening of people going to the stadium or to a restaurant to watch the match,” said Multan-based Muhammad Salman, a cabdriver in Lahore. “So many people are watching the matches on their phones across the city and even during the rides. I also take a break to watch the cricket when Multan Sultans are playing, even though that’s the time I get the best rates!”

Salman thus will be taking a well-deserved break during the evening on Wednesday when the Multan Sultans take on the Lahore Qalandars in the first PSL playoff, with the winner qualifying for Sunday’s final.

“I hope to watch the Multan Sultans play inside the stadium one day when things are a bit better for all of us,” he said.