It is now three years since Imran Khan came into power with his famous ‘Naya [New] Pakistan’ slogan. Having a prime minister who is regarded among the finest all-rounders the world has ever produced and who has played cricket at the highest level, is commonly perceived as a blessing for the sport itself.
Unfortunately, as far as cricket is concerned in Pakistan, not much new has happened; the performances of the national team have continued to be patchy and the usual revolving door at the top continues unabated.
Before he became prime minister, Imran Khan used to lay the problems of Pakistan cricket at the feet of the Pakistan Cricket Board’s (PCB) being dictated to by its patron-in-chief, the PM. Now he himself has dictated a second change at the top of the board. Out goes chairman Ehsan Mani, appointed by Imran in 2018, and the newest blue-eyed at the top is the Prime Minister’s former teammate Ramiz Raja.
The return of topflight international cricket to Pakistan had, undoubtedly, been board chairman Ehsan Mani’s greatest achievement — although it can be argued that the groundwork for it had been put in place by former chairman Najam Sethi — but a spate of poor results in recent times ostensibly left the PCB patron-in-chief with no other option but to replace him. Mani didn’t get the extension he had hoped for, to complete some ‘unfinished’ business. He was shown the door upon completion of his three-year tenure.
The UK-based chartered accountant’s ascension in the PCB had come about in the background of his longstanding association with the International Cricket Council (ICC), where he had served as the president from 2003 to 2006. He is still a part of several committees in the game’s governing body. Mani had also been PCB’s representative between 1989 and 1996. So, he had a fair idea of the peculiar system in which the board operates.
Mani’s successor Ramiz Raja is also very much familiar with the administrative set-up of the board he will soon start heading as its 35th chairman/president. After all, he had been a part of the advisory council during the early phase of the Gen Tauqir Zia era, and was then elevated as the PCB’s chief executive officer in April 2003, when the witty cricket commentator Chishty Mujahid quit his position as a director due to domestic reasons. Unfortunately, Ramiz could only last for about 15 months and his tenure then was rather unremarkable.
Former cricketer-turned-commentator Ramiz Raja has been nominated as the new chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board. Can he deliver?
The cricketer-turned-commentator is quite close to the Prime Minister from his playing days. In the annals of Pakistan cricket, perhaps the most celebrated description in any scorecard occurred on that balmy March 25 evening of 1992, when Ramiz held the catch at mid-off to give his skipper his last international wicket, and an appropriate send-off at the Melbourne Cricket Ground with the Waterford crystal World Cup trophy.
But if winning that final against England was chiefly due to a combination of sheer luck and self-belief in their ranks, Imran is bent upon taking a big gamble with Ramiz.
On the plus side, being much younger than any of the recent PCB chairmen, Ramiz — at 59 — has the energy to concentrate on carrying forward the already restructured domestic system executed by his predecessor. And as a widely followed cricket commentator, he may be able to bank on some goodwill at some international forums.
Having backpacked around the globe year after year as a broadcaster, Ramiz has closely monitored the existing systems in other cricket-playing countries, and hopefully he can impart that knowledge to benefit Pakistan cricket in general.
But if Ramiz claims to have a roadmap for the overall improvement of Pakistan cricket, it is easier said than done, especially for someone lacking in administrative or management experience. Even during his previous stint as CEO, Ramiz seemed more interested in his commentary gigs and modern-day sports administrators deal with a lot more financials than sports.
It won’t be easy for the former captain also because of opposition from various quarters. One of those sources of opposition, Imran Khan’s former pace bowling partner Sarfraz Nawaz, has already tried to tarnish Ramiz’s image the week before his nomination was confirmed. Nawaz has a history of hostility against Ramiz and has tried to suggest to Imran that Majid Khan or Zaheer Abbas would have been more suitable to take over from Mani.
By his own admission, the new chairman’s biggest priority will be the misfortunes afflicting the men’s national side across all formats. The team is currently ranked behind New Zealand, India, England and Australia in Test cricket. They are languishing in the sixth spot on the ICC ODI Championship table. And they have plummeted from their perch at the summit of Twenty20 rankings, when Sarfaraz Ahmed was the team leader and Mickey Arthur the head coach, to fourth under the all-format Pakistan captain Babar Azam.
The first worry for Ramiz will definitely be Pakistan’s dwindling white-ball cricket fortunes in the post-Sarfaraz Ahmed period. Winning the 50-over Champions Trophy title — just one of three global trophies won by the men in green shirts — in June 2017, sadly seems like a distant memory now. The 2009 Twenty20 world champions haven’t managed even to make it to the semi-finals in this format since qualifying for the knock-out stage in 2012.
And with barely six weeks left before the delayed T20 World Cup, Ramiz’s pessimism about Pakistan is loud and clear. He believes the T20 side not to be good enough this year to challenge the top sides, since the current bunch of players just doesn’t know how to win crunch matches. They would be very lucky even to progress beyond the Super Eight phase, he feels.
“Pakistan has been extremely inconsistent,” Ramiz assessed during a brief chat with ESPNcricinfo after meeting the Prime Minister. “And let us be fair that the ranking in each format reflects that we cannot make it into the final of tournaments. The only chance they have is to play the semi-final in the T20 format. On top of it, while considering the ODI and Test formats, it is really hard for us to go past the pool stage.”
Critics still maintain to this day that if Sarfaraz and Arthur had been persevered with in their respective roles at the helm of the T20 side, Pakistan would have probably developed into a more formidable unit for the impeding global competition. They say that they were heading in the right direction when both found themselves booted out by Mani within the space of roughly three months after Pakistan narrowly missed out on a semi-final spot at the 2019 50-over World Cup.
Pakistan’s inconsistent performances — notwithstanding their grand feat of winning series against South Africa and Zimbabwe earlier this year — have considerably weakened Misbah-ul-Haq’s position as the head coach. And even more so in white-ball cricket. Mani had initially trusted him in the unprecedented double role of chief selector-cum-head coach, during a 13-month experiment that died a miserable death last October.
Misbah’s passive attitude — which was a hallmark of his Pakistan captaincy as well — and safety-first approach will surely come up for strict scrutiny by Ramiz and Wasim Khan, who has expressed keenness to extend his contract as the PCB’s chief executive. The defeats in England could spell an end for Misbah on the white-ball front, even if Pakistan do surprisingly well in the T20 World Cup.
From being considered ‘one of the boys’ because of his interactions with the Pakistan players during his commentary stints, Ramiz now embarks on his toughest cricketing journey. If he fumbles on the way, he is also well aware of the pitfalls.
The writer is a member of staff
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 5th, 2021