By RICHARD LORD
Pakistani cricket is in turmoil. But then again that’s nothing new. The Pakistan Cricket Board’s harsh penalties meted out against several of the country’s top players on March 10 represent just the latest chapter in a long history of sackings, resignations and controversies that have haunted the national side for as long as anyone can remember.
Following a disastrous December-to-February tour to Australia during which the Pakistan National Cricket Team lost all nine matches to the home side, the PCB held no fewer than seven senior players accountable. Incumbent test match and one-day international Captain Mohammad Yousuf and former skipper Younis Khan, who also happen to be the team’s two best batsmen, were handed indefinite playing bans. The board then claimed a few hours later, in a characteristically confusing fudge, that these aren’t life bans. Mr. Yousuf’s sour-grapes rejoinder was a temporary retirement from the game.
Another former captain, all-rounder Shoaib Malik, along with fast bowler Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, received one-year bans. Talismanic all-rounder and Twenty20 captain Shahid Afridi, as well as brothers Kamran and Umar Akmal, wicketkeeper and rising batting star respectively, were given fines between $24,000 and $36,000 and put on probation for six months.
The list of their infractions was long, varied and in places rather vague. At least Mr. Afridi’s crime was obvious: He was caught by television cameras biting the ball during the tour’s solitary Twenty20 match. It was a particularly baroque example of ball-tampering, one of cricket’s cardinal sins.
As for the others: mainly they appear to have been banned for hating each other. The Australia tour was shot through with in-fighting, backbiting, feigned injuries and accusations against the team’s most senior players of deliberate underperformance. Just think about that last one for a minute: players who are actually prepared to throw a match for their national team, just to undermine a captain they don’t like. If that’s true, something is very rotten in the state of Pakistan.
The sad thing is that none of this comes as a great surprise. For years, Pakistani cricket has been bedeviled by barely-and-sometimes-not-at-all-concealed animosity among the players, ball-tampering, use of both performance-enhancing and recreational drugs, and match-fixing. Throw the hopelessly politicized nature of the Pakistan Cricket Board into the mix and you realize that it’s only the deep well of talent and passion for the game in the country that allow the team to ever win anything.
But ridding the team of troublemakers is unlikely to solve the problem. In recent years, its bad-boy-in-chief has been tear-away fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar, who was banned in 2007. The team hasn’t become appreciably more stable in his absence, so there’s little reason to assume the recent bans will make a difference either. Particularly as they mean that the team’s leading fast bowler is now Mohammad Asif, who has tested positive for steroids twice, gotten into a changing-room fight with Mr. Akhtar, and been caught with a recreational drug in his pocket at Dubai airport.
The cull has swept away so many senior players that the Pakistan Cricket Board was more or less forced, just two weeks after punishing him, to appoint Mr. Afridi as captain for the forthcoming World Twenty20—where Pakistan will be defending champions after claiming victory in England last year, one of the heartbreaking, periodic glimpses of what they’re capable of. The team were close to world-conquering as little as two decades ago, for a while competing with Australia to take over from the declining West Indies as world’s pre-eminent side. The divergence in the fortunes of the two teams since has been startling.
The real victims in all this, of course, are Pakistan’s remarkably loyal and long-suffering fans, who don’t even get to see their team play at home. Any prospect of that was abruptly shattered on March 3, 2009, when 12 terrorists, believed by Pakistani authorities to represent Kashmiri separatist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, opened fire on the Sri Lankan team’s bus as they were on their way to play at Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium. The first terrorist action against an international sports team since the attack on Israeli athletes by Palestinian militants at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, it instantly swept away any chance of teams touring the troubled nation any time soon—the Sri Lankans had been the first international team to visit Pakistan in 17 months, after several tours had been cancelled on security grounds. It’s exactly the opposite of what Pakistani cricket needs, given all the other issues it faces.
So resigned is the Pakistan Cricket Board to not playing at home for the foreseeable future that it has agreed to play its Test-match and Twenty20 series against Australia in England this summer. The cities where the matches will take place, of course, have massive populations of Pakistani extraction who will pack out the grounds and provide the usual impassioned-verging-on-hysterical support, and the Pakistan board’s coffers will be swelled by their share of the fat English gate receipts. But for the players, contesting their home games 6,000 kilometers from home is roughly that many kilometers from satisfactory.
In sum: too dangerous to visit, paralyzed by internal strife, terrifyingly political and dominated by big, powerful egos. Poor old Pakistan. And the cricket team has its fair share of problems, too.
Mr. Lord writes on cricket for The Wall Street Journal Asia.