ISLAMABAD - After 66 years, 28 chairmen and slew of controversies, Pakistan is still wrangling over how to run cricket in a country where millions follow it passionately. Last week, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif dismissed Zaka Ashraf as the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), unseating him for the second time in a year.
In his place, Sharif appointed a committee headed by senior journalist Najam Sethi, who has been asked to devise a constitution which would give the country its first truly-elected cricket board chairman. But critics fear a continuation of political meddling in an organisation which has long seen its chairman handpicked by leaders who reward supporters with the prestigious job.
“It’s totally incorrect to appoint a political person,” said Sirajul Islam Bukhari, a former president of the Karachi cricket association, who says Pakistan has “failed to find a roadmap”. In 1962, military ruler Ayub Khan started the trend whereby presidents would appoint the cricket chief, leading to a succession of military men, judges, businessmen, former players, diplomats and politicians in the top position.
Some of them had highly questionable credentials. A serving lieutenant general who was made PCB chief from 1984-88 once asked: “Why doesn’t the board give all players the man of the match award?”
Many former players and experts want the PCB to hold elections to choose the most qualified leader available without political interference. Sethi has promised to do this, telling reporters after his nomination that he planned to “restore the prestige of Pakistan cricket” by forming the new constitution.
But former Pakistan captain-turned-politician Imran Khan has derided his promotion, saying he was being rewarded for loyalty to Sharif. “How can you have accountability of a man who is the president’s man? That’s why our board can never be run on professional lines,” he says. In Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, cricket chiefs are also appointed by the ruling party, but major cricketing powers such as India, England and Australia have presidents elected by members of local associations.
Former PCB chief executive Arif Abbasi fears Pakistan’s membership of the International Cricket Council (ICC) could be under threat over “government interference”. “The ICC had warned Pakistan on three occasions on ‘outside actions’,” Abbasi explained. “I fear that the ICC may put our membership in abeyance. If it happens it would be unfortunate as we are an important member of the ICC.” After an attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in March 2009, which led to the suspension of international cricket in Pakistan, the ICC formed a task force to propose changes.
Among them, it recommended the ending of political appointments, but the PCB rejected the advice, saying it was “not viable”. Last year, the internal problems of the sport were exacerbated by a series of court cases. Thirty-three out of 114 cricket associations are ensnared in legal action, with some cases directed at the PCB and others over dubious elections or other issues.
The case that led former PCB chief Ashraf to be deposed for the first time began in May last year. He amended the PCB’s constitution with the approval of the board’s patron, President Asif Zardari, to allow himself to be elected as chairman by a nomination committee of four members. That was instantly challenged legally, and the Islamabad High Court suspended him and ruled that the prime minister should be the patron of the PCB instead of the president.
Reputed cricket writer Osman Samiuddin sums up the situation as “dangerous”. “Ironically, instead of depoliticising the board either through a ceremonial apolitical president/patron, the Islamabad High Court has effectively ensured that the board will remain beholden to political winds prevailing in Pakistan,” he said. “You can argue that it has always been the case but this move has formalised it.”