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Misbah’s new cast transform Pakistan’s dramatic cricket soap opera – Andy Bull, The Guardian, UK 15 January 2012

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Misbah’s new cast transform Pakistan’s dramatic cricket soap opera
Pakistan have been dogged by controversy in recent years but changes in the regime have sparked a positive transformation
Andy Bull
Andy BullThe Guardian, 15 January 2012

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Pakistan’s manager Naveed Akram Cheema, left, alongside the captain Misbah-ul-Haq. Photograph: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Here’s the pitch. This is a story about a cricket team. It starts in 2006 when they forfeit a Test match because they have been accused of cheating. The next year their coach dies during the World Cup. A murder investigation ensues. For 12 months the team are ostracised and do not play a single Test match. In 2009 Test cricket returns to their country, but gunmen attack their opposition, injuring six players and killing six policemen and two civilians. The team are forced into playing in exile, on a never-ending tour. In Australia in 2010 a cabal of their players are accused of deliberately underperforming because they dislike the captain. So their board bans the team’s two best batsmen for life, though both decisions are overturned soon after. Later that year their new captain and two best bowlers are caught spot-fixing in a sting by the News of the World. Then their new wicketkeeper abandons the team and goes on the run because, he says, his life is under threat from match-fixers.

That is just the broad-brush outline of the Pakistan story. The little details are rich with intrigue, too. Mohammad Asif was arrested after he was caught in possession of opium. Shoaib Akhtar was given a five‑year suspension, overturned in court, for criticising the board. The board got its revenge on Akhtar by announcing he had been dropped from the team because he had genital warts. Then there was the incident when the star all-rounder, Shahid Afridi, was caught on camera biting a cricket ball. Soon after Afridi became the Test captain, one of seven the team appointed in five years, and then quit after a single match.

This is a script so unlikely that even fans of the ropiest soaps would struggle to suspend their disbelief. In October 2010, when the International Cricket Council met in Dubai, the cricket community had had just about enough. There were ominous noises about kicking them out of the 2011 World Cup and suspending the ICC directorship of the Pakistan Cricket Board’s chairman, Ijaz Butt.

Looking back now it seems like that nadir was also a kind of high-water mark, the place where the wave finally broke and started to roll back. Things have been getting better for Pakistan. But then they could not get much worse. Three men have been at the heart of the healing process. In October 2010 Subhan Ahmad, a highly regarded administrator, was appointed the chief operating officer of the Pakistan Cricket Board. Last October a new, more conciliatory chairman, Zaka Ashraf, replaced Butt. And on the field Misbah-ul-Haq succeeded the disgraced Salman Butt as captain.

Misbah has now been in charge for 12 Test matches, a longer run than anybody has managed since Inzamam-ul-Haq retired. Since he took over his team have been unbeaten in six Test series, and have won more one-day internationals than any other side. Under Misbah’s captaincy Pakistan have adopted an avowedly pragmatic approach. It is not winning him fans, but nor is it losing him matches. His first series in charge was a 0-0 draw against South Africa. It was, he reckoned, a triumph for the team. After Pakistan beat New Zealand in the first Test in Hamilton last January, Misbah refused to chase a fifth day target of 274 in the second Test, preferring to settle for a series win rather than risk defeat trying to go 2-0 up.

“Cricket these days should be taken up with a balanced approach,” Misbah said before this series. “It’s better to win by playing defensively, instead of losing by playing aggressively.” The boom-boom or bust approach of Afridi that had typified the team’s play in recent years is not Misbah’s style.

A team cannot be consistently successful without a stable administrative set-up and a well-run board. England’s success has been proof of that truth. Giles Clarke, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, was also the head of the ICC’s Pakistan Task Team (PTT). He “absolutely agrees that there has been a gradual improvement on and off the field” in Pakistani cricket, and believes the two things are linked. Clarke’s first impressions of the new PCB chairman are good. “Ashraf has made a careful, thoughtful, considered start. He has not rushed into anything. He is playing himself in very carefully, not playing many strokes, and certainly not in public.”

Ashraf, like all PCB chairmen, was appointed by the country’s president. In Pakistan there is understandable cynicism about this – Ashraf was a school-mate of President Asif Ali Zardari’s at Cadet College Petaro in the early 1970s. He is a banker not a cricketer but, crucially, he delegates much of the day-to-day running to his staff.

This is where Ahmad, the COO, comes in. Clarke describes him as “a very competent individual with a very low profile”. While Ashraf’s predecessor, Butt, was blundering around burning bridges, Ahmad was working in his wake, building them back up again. Ahmad arranged for the final of Pakistan’s domestic Quaid‑e‑Azam tournament to be played under lights with a pink ball as a trial for the ICC. That diplomatic gesture helped Ahmad secure 88 Tests for Pakistan in the next Future Tours Programme. Only India, England and Australia have more. It also gave him bargaining power when he had to negotiate with the ICC about its plans to force an end to political interference in running of the national boards.

Ashraf’s appointment as chairman is in direct contravention of that principle. But while the PCB is getting its house in order, the ICC is unlikely to push the point too hard. “We have had a detailed meeting last month with the ICC in terms of how we can change our constitution to bring it in line with the democratic set-ups that the ICC want,” Ahmad says. “Very soon we will be carrying out a detailed review of our constitution, and then we will start to make amendments.”

The PCB essentially asked the ICC for 12 months to get its house in order. Clarke says the board has “cherry-picked the best things out of the PTT report and implemented them in their own style to suit their needs as they see them”.

“The PCB was perhaps the first board to implement an anti-corruption code in its domestic cricket,” Ahmad says. “That was one of the PTT’s major recommendations and it was the first major step that we took. We have ensured that any player who gets an opportunity to represent Pakistan at any level, even at the under‑16s, has to sign a form acknowledging that they have received anti-corruption education and that they will abide by the PCB’s code.”

Around 800 Pakistani players and officials have received anti-corruption education lectures, in English and Urdu, since the start of this season. Ahmad believes the lack of such education was to blame for the wicketkeeper Zulqarnain Haider’s erratic behaviour at the end of 2010, when he fled to England after being tapped up by a bookmaker. “At the time we didn’t have any systems or education in place, so Zulqarnain didn’t know what the procedure was,” Ahmad says. “Those are some of the things that have now been written in our code as to what the players are required to when they are approached by a bookie.”

This month a delegation from the Bangladeshi government will visit Pakistan to assess security conditions. If they are satisfied with what they find – a big if, given the doubts being voiced by some of the Bangladesh players – then the team will tour the country in April. They would be the first Test side to visit since the attack on the Sri Lankans.

Ahmad is confident that the tour will happen, with matches likely to be played in Lahore, Karachi and Faisalabad. “I am quite optimistic, frankly, because if you look at the stats of the security conditions in Pakistan compared with 2010 and 2009 you will notice that there is a drastic reduction in the number of attacks,” he says. “Things are improving. We have had long discussions with our interior minister and the government is very keen and very serious about ensuring this tour goes ahead.”

“There is,” Ahmad says, “a real optimism in Pakistan among all stakeholders, including media. Everyone feels that there has been a change both on the field and off the field for Pakistan cricket.” The transformation Pakistan cricket needed is far from complete, but at least it is under way.

The changing face of Pakistani cricket

Misbah-ul-Haq, captain

Misbah became a professional cricketer late in his career, after completing an MBA degree aged 25. He was always considered to be one of the smartest men in the team, but only secured a permanent place when the selectors were looking for someone to take over from Salman Butt. A shrewd and pragmatic captain, the only trouble is that at 37 he may be too old to lead the side for long.

Saeed Ajmal, bowler

The off-spinner with a bamboozling doosra has been around for a while, but has blossomed under Misbah’s astute captaincy. He was the leading Test wicket-taker in the world in 2011, with 50 in eight matches at an average of 23. His partnership with the more defensive slow left-armer Abdur Rehman, who took 36 wickets in eight Tests in 2011, has been key to the team’s success.

Junaid Khan, bowler

A regular team‑mate of Mohammad Amir’s in junior cricket, Junaid emerged as one of Pakistan’s brightest prospects as the spot-fixing scandal was unfolding. A 22-year-old left-arm fast bowler, he has taken 13 wickets in his first four Tests. Just as Pakistan’s fans were mourning the loss of one great young talent in Amir, they had the consolation of discovering another one in Junaid.

Mohammad Hafeez, all-rounder

Another player who has started to thrive since Misbah took control of the team. Hafeez, so inconsistent for so long, scored two centuries in Tests and three in ODIs in 2011. He won 10 man-of-the-match awards in internationals last year. Together with Taufeeq Umar he is part of a stable opening partnership and he also bowls tidy off-spin.

Subhan Ahmad, COO

Reluctantly took on the role of the Pakistan Cricket Board’s chief operating officer in October 2010, and has since been the key man in the administration. Has won many admirers in the ICC with his intelligent, low-key approach to tackling the innumerable problems he faces. His diplomacy effectively ensured Ijaz Butt’s disastrous tenure as chairman did not cut off Pakistan from world cricket.


Misbah-ul-Haq, Gareth Getty Images.jpg
 Courtesy: Reference

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