MY favourite moment encapsulating why the PSL matters involves a teenager from Mianwali by way of Rawalpindi, pointing at his captain, insisting that he’s dismissed the legendary player of our arch-rivals in an ICC final. Shadab Khan, Yuvraj Singh and that LBW on review.
Just months earlier, Shadab was fielding in a match during his electrifying inaugural PSL, when a batsman from the national team, playing for a rival side, asked him to tie his laces while he was batting. The teenager happily obliged. A few overs later, the batsman asked again. This time, the Australian veteran in Shadab’s side, realising the subtle mind game at play, steamed in from his position to chew out the batsman on his teammate’s behalf.
Shadab was only a toddler when cricket left Pakistan due to terrorism. But unlike the generation before, he began his career among world-class players, in a world-class tournament. The PSL was only in its second season then, but an entire raft of Pakistani youngsters was immediately reaping the benefits of training, playing and learning the game from international stars.
Recall Shadab now once more, insisting Sarfraz Ahmed take a review in the Champions Trophy final. At the core of that belief in himself was his own character, but the ability to not be overawed must have been aided to some extent by the PSL dress rehearsal. This is perhaps the most compelling argument for the PSL. After a decade in which Pakistani cricketers found themselves as pariahs, plying their trade in the soulless stadia of the UAE, the PSL was a form of redemption as well as revival. Once again, our cricketers found themselves playing regularly in a world-class competition, and its results were immediate.
The league has been a form of redemption as well as revival.
There’s another far more obscure moment I am reminded of, one that I can’t find footage of online, perhaps, unsurprisingly, because it is from Balochistan. But I recall friends from Quetta speaking excitedly of fans thronging to Bugti Stadium to watch screenings during the inaugural PSL. Indeed, Quetta and Peshawar’s two final appearances afforded both cities the chance to be spoken of in the mainstream in a context other than violence.
It is a reminder that, despite being one of the world’s most populous nations, our national conversation remains hopelessly tied to major cities. The rest of Pakistan and its concerns barely make the news unless they are to do with disruption of some sort. Cricket, and particularly the PSL, allow for a rare foray into a world outside of KLI (corporate-speak for Karachi-Lahore-Islamabad). Of course, this in no way implies that the Quetta team, or any corporate franchise, is an authentic form of representation. But the PSL does provide us a chance to experience what it’s like outside of our bubbles, and that is invaluable.
The PSL also offers the chance to redress long-held imbalances. In our rigidly stratified country, there are very few legal ways for someone born in lower socioeconomic classes to rise to the top. Cricket, however, represents one of those rare paths, and the PSL opens this opportunity up beyond the national team alone. Besides the chance for more cricketers to change their lives, it also gives fans a chance to create and celebrate local heroes who aren’t martyrs, who haven’t had to give up their lives to be appreciated. For all our talk of national resilience, there is something to be said about being able to enjoy achievements without a life-or-death element to them.
Finally, the PSL matters because it brings more stakeholders to our national obsession. The PCB has understandably struggled to keep cricket afloat in this decade of exile, but its operations and policies still leave a lot to be desired. With new franchise owners bringing their own expertise and concerns, there is a prospect of greater accountability from the board. The much-maligned domestic game has had a drastic and largely undesirable impact on local cricket since the sweeping changes enacted under the Musharraf regime. The domestic game now serves as the feeder for the PSL, and one can expect that franchise owners would demand more from the PCB to ensure that it is developing high-quality cricketers fit for the modern game.
Indeed, to many followers of the sport, the value of a quality domestic T20 league is obvious. It was to Pakistani cricket’s enduring misfortune that it found its players shut out from the most lucrative league and didn’t have one in its own right until most of the world had theirs going. But now that it’s here and has proven its success, the PSL’s value cannot be denied. It has the potential to impact the national side as well as elevate the domestic game, the ability to create narratives and cultural contexts beyond the narrow mainstream, and has shown itself to provide new heroes and celebrations for its fans. Long may the PSL continue to matter.
The writer is a freelance columnist and has previously worked with ESPNcricinfo, Islamabad United and the PSL.
Published in Dawn, February 14th, 2019