It’s that time of year: the Pakistan Super League (PSL) is around the corner. Cricket lovers are happy because, for the first time, all fixtures of the fifth edition of the league will be staged in Pakistan.
Things have been looking up for international cricket here as well. Sri Lanka arrived in Pakistan in December 2019 to play a two-Test series to end the 10-year-old drought of international cricket on our soil. Then Bangladesh agreed to play a series.
However, Hyderabad’s cricket fans’ agonising wait to see international cricket returning to the only international Test stadium in Sindh after Karachi –– Niaz Stadium –– remains unrealised for want of the required infrastructural development at this ground.
Established by a former commissioner Niaz Ahmed in 1959, Niaz Stadium will not be hosting a single PSL fixture, despite an earlier announcement by Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah that it would also host matches. The CM had met with Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) Chairman Ehsan Mani last year before announcing that PSL 2020 matches would also be staged at Niaz Stadium Hyderabad in addition to the National Stadium Karachi (NSK).
The CM had even ordered Divisional Commissioner Hyderabad Mohammad Abbas Baloch on March 26, 2019 to initiate necessary measures for the repair and maintenance of Niaz Stadium in order to develop it into a national-level arena where PSL cricket events could be played in 2020.
As the excitement for Pakistan Super League rises to a fever pitch, with its matches to take place at most of the cricket centres of the country, Hyderabad and its historic Niaz Stadium are once again overlooked
Sindh is Pakistan’s second largest province and it has only two international cricket stadiums –- NSK and Niaz Stadium –- where the Pakistan cricket team has set historic records. Given its importance, the PCB secured the ground’s administrative control in July 2007 under a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the local municipal committee, which is its custodian. The ground remained with it for 11 years until the municipal committee revoked the MoU arbitrarily on April 2, 2018 and seized control of it.
The MoU revocation was understandable only to some extent. The local municipal leadership had the grievance that, while the ground remained with the PCB for 11 long years, the board didn’t honour its commitments made in the MoU, leading to its revocation. The PCB, meanwhile, had its own axe to grind as it explained that the board is not in a position to make heavy investment at any centre due to its own weak financial position.
Pakistan had to pay a heavy price for the deadly terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team bus in Lahore in 2009. The country was stripped of the 2011 World Cup hosting rights. Pakistan played Tests and ODI series at neutral venues for the next decade and, during this period, the PCB avoided investing in cricket infrastructure at home.
The PCB’s flagship project of PSL then rekindled hopes of reopening the doors of international cricket in Pakistan. International cricket celebrities agreed to play matches in Lahore and Karachi. Now all PSL contests are to be staged in Pakistan, causing greater excitement among cricket lovers. It was after NSK hosted the PSL 2018 final that the Sindh CM hinted at holding more PSL matches in Karachi and Hyderabad. Then came 2019 when another encouraging announcement from the Sindh government was made about the holding of PSL matches in 2020. And yet, Hyderabad’s cricket isolation hasn’t ended.
“Had the ground been with PCB it would have been doing something for it in view of the successful PSL event,” the former Regional Cricket Association (RCA) Hyderabad president, Mir Haider Ali Talpur says. “Did the Qasimabad municipal committee make any noteworthy development at the ground? The answer is an emphatic ‘no’. While it was with the PCB the ground [at least] hosted first class matches regularly. Players such as Salman Butt and Kamran Akmal enjoyed high-scoring matches here,” he says.
It was after NSK hosted the PSL 2018 final that the Sindh CM hinted at holding more PSL matches in Karachi and Hyderabad. Then came 2019 when another encouraging announcement from the Sindh government was made about the holding of PSL matches in 2020. And yet, Hyderabad’s cricket isolation hasn’t ended.
He adds that everyone knew that since Pakistan was hosting its home series on neutral venues abroad, the board hadn’t maintained even NSK and Lahore’s Gaddafi stadiums due to the serious financial crunch, and that had only changed when the PSL came here. “It’s time the Sindh government should approach the PCB seriously and hand over the ground to it if it is to be developed as desired,” he says, regretting that Niaz Stadium’s MoU was revoked at a time when chances of holding matches here had improved.
Meanwhile, the CM’s directives issued last year for repair of Niaz Stadium seem not have reached anyone at the ground. The Hyderabad DC in Sept 2019 put up a note for the CM’s principal secretary mentioning that the sports department had not undertaken any major repair work at Niaz Stadium after the CM’s directives. “The ground is under the administrative control of the municipal committee Qasimabad, which is not in a position to maintain an international ground,” the commissioner’s note for CM read.
Since the local municipal council revoked its MoU with the PCB, the board is in no hurry either to do anything for Niaz Stadium, although the DC has almost regularly been pursuing the matter with the PCB. For its part, the PCB has its hands full with its home series and putting together the fifth PSL.
“We are told that the PCB will be sending its representative to visit the stadium,” says Commissioner Abbas Baloch while referring to his correspondence with the PCB. “The municipal council cannot organise international cricket matches as it is not in its mandate, therefore the PCB will have to come forward to handle the situation and we will help the PCB in this regard.”
The PCB was also approached by the Sindh sports department. But the way the sports department approached the PCB tells us a lot about the lack of professionalism involved. A deputy secretary of the department Mohammad Zia Abbas addressed a letter to the PCB chairman directly on March 21, 2019, stating the “CM Sindh has been pleased to desire that Niaz Stadium Hyderabad may be readied for international matches.” The language of the letter suggests that the PCB was under an obligation to do this. The bureaucrat who penned the letter didn’t even know if the PCB was headquartered in Lahore or Islamabad. He also didn’t know that, after the revocation of the MoU, Niaz Stadium is not the PCB’s liability and that the local municipal administration is squarely responsible to ensure its upkeep.
PCB official Lt Col (rtd) Ashfaq Ahmed, on April 3, 2019 simply responded to the March 21 communication by mentioning that the “stadium which was forcefully taken over by the municipal committee on April 2, 2018 is, therefore, no longer under PCB’s control. The Sindh government may undertake necessary renovation and upgradation of the stadium being under its administrative control.”
Col Ashfaq Ahmed tells Eos over the phone from Lahore that he had briefed the PCB chairman about his conversations and correspondence with the divisional commissioner regarding the stadium. “The PCB chairman has asked me to visit the ground personally before the board takes any decision. I will soon be visiting Hyderabad,” he says. He, however, hasn’t visited the stadium since then.
Niaz Stadium was the ground where the current Prime Minister and former Pakistan skipper Imran Khan played several matches in front of a packed-to-capacity crowd. He seemed to have a somewhat personal attachment to it too. When he started his political career, he had walked up to the stadium from the hotel he was staying at across the road from it. The ground at the time was being used for a wedding ceremony of an influential family. He inspected the outfield and regretted how a quality stadium had being destroyed.
Still, everything is not lost. It is apparent that the Sindh government realises it need to hand over the stadium to the PCB. Cricket lovers here also expect PM Khan to put his foot down to save the historic Niaz Stadium and make sure that the PCB undertakes serious efforts in not only agreeing to get back control of the ground from the municipal administration but also upgrade it in line with its past commitments.
The writer is a member of staff
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 2nd, 2020