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Sack Butt, not Afridi

June 07, 2011

What should a captain do when a board no one trusts won’t talk to him, but warns him against talking to anyone else?

Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) Chairman Ijaz Butt is yet to reveal why Shahid Afridi, ODI captain since the 2010 Asia Cup, was sacked after leading the team to two back-to-back ODI series wins, as well as to the semi-finals of the 2011 World Cup. But it is becoming clear now that Afridi’s ouster was not a spur-of-the-moment decision and in fact the wheels had been set in motion way back before the recently concluded tour of the Caribbean.

Let’s look at what happened on the West Indies tour. Afridi had initially opted out of the West Indies tour, saying he needed a break and wanted to spend time with his family, but was eventually convinced by his father to go ahead. Pakistan started well, taking an unassailable lead of 3-0 in the five-match series, but lost the last two matches to a depleted West Indies side (though it was a tour of new faces for Pakistan as well). Afridi’s own performance was flat – he averaged just over 9 with the bat and 84.50 with the ball. There were reports that Afridi clashed with the rest of the tour selection committee (the coach Waqar Younis, vice-captain Misbah-ul-Haq and manager Intikhab Alam) over the selection of the final XI for the last two games. On his return to Pakistan, Afridi made the following comment in response to a query about said issues:

“Although the differences in team management are not such which could not be solved; I feel everyone should do his job and need not interfere in others' work.”

Reacting to this explosive (sic) comment, PCB officials admitted that there were “long-standing issues” over selection matters but hoped they would be resolved when Afridi met the chairman. That meeting never took place, and the PCB sent Afridi a notice demanding an explanation for comments it believed were against the board’s Code of Conduct. Afridi replied to the board’s notice, downplayed the issue in the media and also called Butt and got assurances from him before leaving for a personal/fundraising tour of the US. Butt sacked Afridi as ODI captain while he was in the middle of his tour of the US. Afridi heard about it in the news, and after returning from the US, decided to quit in international cricket in protest against the current PCB administration.

We also know now that PCB selector Mohammad Ilyas and Shahid Afridi don’t get along, thanks to an ugly war of words between the two that’s being played out in the media.  Ilyas, better-known as the father-in-law of discarded Test opener Imran Farhat, was himself an opening batsman and leg-spinner. The media “debates” between Afridi and Ilyas took on an ugly tone these past few days, which is regrettable, but some of the revelations that have come through them are startling.

Afridi accused Ilyas of chumming up to Butt and conspiring against him. Ilyas, in response, agreed that he is close to Butt and called upon Afridi to show some respect to the board that has, in Ilyas’ words, stood by him through many controversies. Ilyas also admitted – nay, boasted – that he refused to sign off on Afridi’s name being included in the squad for the tour of the West Indies because he felt that Afridi was “not fit and wouldn’t do well on those pitches”. Think about this for a second. When the selection for the West Indies tour was being deliberated upon, Afridi had just returned from leading Pakistan to the semi-final of the World Cup in which he was the leading wicket-taker. And here you have a national selector who wanted to drop him from the team for the very next tour. Forget the captaincy! No matter how big a critic of Afridi one may be, he did not deserve to be dropped from the squad on the back of that World Cup performance. An even more damning revelation to emerge from this exchange has been that Ilyas was the selector that the team’s then Security Manager, Colonel Najam, reported seeing with Mazhar Majeed in a cricketer’s room on the tour of England at a time when the players had been specifically told not to meet Majeed. It was also hinted that this might have been the reason Najam was fired, albeit belatedly (after the Zulqarnain Haider incident) from his role. The said report by Colonel Najam was submitted after the England tour, and no selectors have been investigated, let alone removed, since.

If you want to dig a little deeper, we can explore Afridi’s history as captain. He said he’s known of a conspiracy against him since the England tour, but I suspect he would have sensed it even earlier.

His first tournament as ODI captain was the Asia Cup in which Mohammad Amir was investigated for being on the phone in the dressing room – incidentally during a spectacular collapse the scorecard of which reads like Afridi was playing some other match. Kamran Akmal and Salman Butt were subsequently asked by the ACSU to submit their phone records. In an interview to Geo TV after Pakistan were booted out of the tournament, Afridi stressed that discipline was his primary concern and he would not tolerate any violations, a threat that we now know fell on deaf ears. Thanks to NOTW and Mazhar Majeed as well as Salman Butt’s post-ban TV punditry, we now know that the same players – convicted by an ACSU tribunal for spot-fixing – hated Afridi and wanted him to be removed. It was also reported that Afridi formally called a meeting with Waqar and then-manager Yawar Saeed to alert them about his suspicions regarding Majeed, telling the players to stay away from him.

His next assignment was the T20 World Cup where Pakistan were typically hit-or-miss, but somehow contrived a path to the semis where they were on course to win for 39 overs but lost due to a Hussey special. Details of text messages exchanged between Kamran Akmal / Salman Butt and Mazhar Majeed that emerged during the spot-fixing tribunal again suggest efforts that would have undermined Afridi’s captaincy. Colonel Najam reported that Mazhar Majeed was also “seen” on the tour.

Then, came the England tour, before which Afridi says he was forced by the board to return to Tests. He lasted one Test before he realized that wasn’t a wise decision and announced his retirement in the post-match presser in typically rash Afridi fashion and, in so doing, paved the way for the fixers to get their man, Salman Butt, in charge. We all know how that went down.

The point I’m trying to make – in an admittedly long-winded fashion – is that a few extra extras have not been the only harm to come from corruption and controversy: an undermined captain who was left with weak reason to trust his board was an underrated setback.

Speaking of a cricket board supporting their captain, the PCB announced the squad without naming a captain on multiple occasions, including the squad for the World Cup. This all but eliminated Afridi’s input in selection matters. It also created for him the embarrassing situation of being asked about his vision for Pakistan’s World Cup team at a time when he was unsure not only about getting the team combination that would execute his game plan, but also about whether he would even be captain come the next series.

Butt is yet to reveal why Afridi was sacked. Reports say it was his comments to the media about his issues with the coach that got him in trouble, but the chairman himself made the following comment after saying that his reasons for sacking Afridi as captain were solid.

“We know Afridi won two series and that is why we didn’t act then [during the tour]. We couldn’t do anything more during that tour. Right now anything more I say will cause more tensions.”

This seems to suggest that Afridi was sacked for something that happened on tour, most likely the much-reported selection spat between him and Waqar. The decision was announced after a report on the tour – and said selection spat – was submitted to the board by the manager Intikhab Alam, and before Waqar was summoned and met with the chairman to discuss the same. Afridi’s take on the matter was never requested, yet the chairman announced that he had “genuine reasons to sack Afridi.” It is ridiculous that such a big decision was taken without letting the concerned party know what the allegations were, let alone giving them the chance to defend themselves against them.

In a television interview, Afridi said that he tried for months to work through all the issues that were being created for him but got fed when the PCB chairman closed the communication channel. I don’t blame him. He has had his fair share of controversies but he remains a straight-talker in a country where it is increasingly difficult to speak the truth. He has asked to see the tour report which supposedly got him sacked and one can only hope he will get the opportunity to defend himself, albeit belatedly.

It is also hoped that the PCB shows a similar level of proactive intent when it comes to drafting a chapter in the Code of Conduct for the board’s “seniors”, some of whose last statements have included gems such as “Pakistan is safe for international cricket” and “Afridi is a scrap of paper from the street.”

Sana Kazmi is a reformed (read failed) computer scientist who has a serious tweeting-about-cricket problem.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.