Undoubtedly, Pakistan will produce more match-winners in the future but none of them should be allowed to break or bend rules as they wish and when they want. This is needed to establish the rule of law in our game and stop it from being a free for all. It may have been something we tolerated in the past but in today’s world, the superstar syndrome is damaging Pakistan cricket and it must be stopped.
There was a time not so long ago when the strength of the Pakistan team was literally measured by the number of superstars, also referred to as match-winners, which it boasted. These were essentially glamorous individuals who did superbly well on the field but had, what could mildly be described as, colourful lives off the field too. Youngsters wanted to look and dress like them. Newspapers would make stories about their personal lives. Agents flocked to represent them and ad men would revere the ground they walked on. So the thrills related to watching the likes of Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and Wasim Akram act in commercials throwing frisbees whilst drinking a popular drink was not uncommon and appreciated by all. Mind you, these weren’t just ordinary individuals – what they did on television meant a lot to their fans and the financial rewards associated with these activities were, and remain today, a major source of income for the Pakistani stars.
Like most bodies charged with the promotion and administration of the sport in a bygone era, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) did not pay much attention to player’s activities until and unless they conflicted with the main task of playing the game to their best abilities. Reports of players being arrested for drugs related offences or the more sinister issue of spot/match fixing were PCB’s main concern and whilst their historical record in the prevention of such activities is weak, they have to be commended for realizing their mistakes and putting in place more robust systems in place to prevent future occurrences of such events.
The issue of legal commercial interests and behaviour of players is an area which was never really broached in any meaningful manner by many PCB administrations. The much discussed and at times maligned concept of ‘show cause’ notices was used as a weapon of whim rather than based upon any sound legal advice or planning and ended up more as an embarrassment for the administration. The PCB also appeared powerless to instil any sense of proportion to the media activity of some players, many of whom used their friendships in the media to further their own causes or to malign current and past players.
Although, the year 2014 will be known as the year of great upheaval for cricket with the emergence of the ‘Big 3’ and the turmoil at home with the seemingly unending fight for leadership of the PCB, it would be remiss to point out the improvements in the structure of the organization and the professionalism instilled in its various administrative functions as apparent in the manner many recent issues have been dealt by the PCB.
Also, whilst we can be critical of the PCB and its performance in some aspects, it is imperative that the behavior of the superstars is also brought to light. Thanks to the age of social media, a lot more is now known about the lives of these individuals and the aura of mystery that surrounded the stars of yesteryear is no longer able to hide the good and bad about them. Fans and administrators have more knowledge about the motives and actions of players so the onus is on them to ensure that they behave in the manner befitting people of their stature.
It is therefore no surprise that the likes of Shahid Afridi are finding it difficult to comply with rules imposed by today’s professionally stringent environments. Afridi due to his volatile nature has always been prone to ill-advised media interactions but this tendency backfired on him when recently he made statements regarding the captaincy of the Pakistan One day international team and had to backtrack with a nonsensical statement of support which was clearly drafted for him as a way to downplay the whole issue. What damage such a careless action by someone who is regarded as a superstar of Pakistan cricket did to the team can never be truly assessed but is an example of how the bad habits of yesteryear are no longer tolerated by the fans and administration alike. If the media reports about Afridi’s contract to work on commercials with a major Telecom provider in Pakistan without prior approval by the PCB are true then this would be another flagrant and unnecessary use of his status to do as he pleases. The PCB for its part will make sure that no precedent is set for others to follow suit and draw his attention to the necessary clauses in his employment contract, but what does that do for the reputation of the game and players in Pakistan?
The advice to those who feel that Pakistan is unique in its love for superstars and such people are one in a million and need to be allowed some space, is to look across the border. When India’s World Cup winning captain and supposedly a multi-millionaire in his private life recently decided to leave the Test arena during the Australian tour, his decision was communicated to his employer, the BCCI first and foremost. Whether the BCCI had any actual influence on his decision or not and whether this decision was right or not, the protocol was followed and MS Dhoni felt it correct to inform the BCCI as a matter of courtesy about his intentions.
Not so Shahid Afridi. He decided on his own future in ODIs by announcing his retirement in front of the press but forgot to tell the people who run the game in Pakistan, who pay his wages and who he is contracted to, the PCB. He then, according to some PCB sources, complained to the media that the PCB had not shown enough concern or reaction to this momentous decision! It has been suggested by some that this decision was done to put pressure or manipulate opinion in favour of a possible move to become captain of the ODI team but the intentions are irrelevant to this discussion. The fact is that this kind of behaviour is undoubtedly based on precedents in the past by players from Pakistan who have felt that they were larger than life but why blame Afridi when the likes of Saeed Ajmal have also indulged in similar practices. However, in Pakistan’s premier off-spinner's defence, one could argue that his livelihood is at stake and he is doing what he can to ensure his survival. Regardless of his defence, as we saw a few times in the recent past, he has made statements that were ill-advised and have possibly weakened his case and also put the PCB in an embarrassing position.
Above are just some logical outcomes of the star culture which has in recent times come to haunt us but how much are the fans to blame for this? Yes the PCB must keep its charges in line but the Pakistani culture as a whole has never really appreciated individuals that exist to serve the system. For many, the maverick nature of some individuals is a matter of great national pride and celebration. No one really pays attention to the long term damage such individuals can do to the health of the game and how its run. Undoubtedly, Pakistan will produce more match-winners in the future but none of them should be allowed to break or bend rules as they wish and when they want. This is needed to establish the rule of law in our game and stop it from being a free for all. It may have been something we tolerated in the past but in today’s world, the superstar syndrome is damaging Pakistan cricket and it must be stopped.