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Our latest Beyond the Boundary article examines the issues leading to the postponement of PSL 6 and how the PCB can rescue the image of Pakistan cricket.

By Amir Husain (6th March, 2021)

The nightmare that COVID-19 has presented to the world shows no signs of abating. Yes, the vaccines to combat this infection are present and we are told that battle to rid this calamity is well underway, but the fact of the matter is that COVID-19 or its many variants are here to stay with us for the foreseeable future. No amount of optimism bias will get rid of this reality and this is where we, as fans of Pakistan cricket and those who have been tasked to run the game in the country, need to gather our thoughts and understand what needs to be done to preserve the game we all love.

The PSL 6 fiasco – the slow train wreck we all saw coming – or did we?

The Pakistan domestic cricket season featuring 6 First and 6 Second XI sides was played without any major incidents which included the National T20 Cup, the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy and the Pakistan Cup (One-Day). It appeared that the PCB understood the demands when it came to organizing safe environments for players and officials. The Limited-overs series against Zimbabwe in October and the Test series again South Africa also went off without any incident and provided further proof that the PCB had its arrangements in order. The next big challenge was PSL 6 and given the organization of similar multi-team domestic tournaments, the PCB seemed to be well prepared for the upcoming challenge.

Whilst many who knew of the inner workings of the PCB and indeed of many institutions in Pakistan, where the “chalta hai” (it all works out in the end) culture has been the reason for many failures in the past, were concerned about the efficacy of the bio-secure bubble for the PSL, the overwhelming feeling was that the SOPs for such an undertaking were well looked after by the PCB. All eyes were now on the tournament and the host of foreign players who had arrived in Pakistan. Add to that the fairly impressive broadcast deals that PCB had lined up for this tournament, the PSL was set to take off as it never had in its 5 earlier seasons.

Lights, Camera, and gimmicks and some questions on the bio-security of the bubble!

To those who have watched this tournament since its inception in 2016, the sixth edition of the tournament which began on 20th February, seemed to have an energy of its own. Of course, the full houses were missing due to the 20% audience restriction enforced by the country’s authorities (later increased to 50%), but the quality of performances and the competitive edge was amazing. The tournament seemed to have won the hearts and minds of many of us but lingering doubts about what the nature of the bio-secure bubble really meant were worrying many. To start with, despite the threat of COVID-19, there seemed to be a strange sense of normalcy in the proceedings. The odd manner in which Wahab Riaz and Daren Sammy were reintegrated into the Peshawar Zalmi bubble after clearly breaking rules, the “Humaray Heroes” segments, the interviews with celebrities as well as other hangers-on at groundside and pictures of owners sitting next to players – all seemed wrong given the strict protocols that should have been in place. And there were murmurs in the media too about food being brought into the airtight bubbles and reports of players stepping out of the bubble for PR activity on behalf of their respective franchises. All of this would have been fine in normal circumstances, but the dangers posed by such activities in times of the COVID-19 threat were too big to ignore.

Fawad Ahmed's dubious debut as first COVID-19 case in PSL 6 and the beginning of the end

And so it came to past, that on the 1st March, the game between Islamabad United and Quetta Gladiators was first delayed and then postponed to the following day after it was revealed that Fawad Ahmed had tested positive for COVID-19. Loud alarm bells should have rung in the heads of those tasked with the safety of players about how in a bio-secure environment which was sealed from the world around it, a player had contracted this virus almost 9 days after the start of the tournament. The situation was getting worse now with PCB’s announcement that further positive cases had been found amongst the 244 or so players and officials who had had been tested. Thursday 4th March is when it all came to a head. The day began with news that Dan Christian of Karachi Kings had left the PSL and a few hours later, the PCB had made the announcement that many had suspected would ensue soon. 7 individuals had contracted the virus and PSL 6 after consultation with the franchises had been postponed in the face of a very real threat of infection for all concerned.

The blame-game, finger pointing begins

The press conference organized by the PCB to explain the reasons behind the suspension of PSL 6 was aimed at damage control, but it had the opposite effect. The CE of PCB, Wasim Khan sought to project a picture of unity with the franchises but as the press conference wore on, it became clear that PCB and the franchises were not seeing eye to eye on this matter. It emerged that Chris Lynn had a selfie taken with a fan at the hotel where access was severely restricted, views from the Karachi Kings and Lahore Qalandars camps had come to light that questioned PCB’s SOP enforcement or lack thereof, followed by statements by the former PCB Chairman, Najam Sethi which provided stark and damaging insights to the matter. Whilst the danger to players’ well-being seemed to have been averted, the role of the PCB in this very real PR and possibly financial disaster was becoming uncomfortably clear.

The worst disaster to beset Pakistan cricket in many years

Wasim Khan was at pains to project a positive take the issue with claims that the tournament could be resumed sometime this year. But even the most optimistic amongst us could see that this would be a tough task. Quite apart from the logistics of re-organizing the tournament to the satisfaction of all parties, the real danger from potentially the worst disaster to beset Pakistan cricket in many years is one that should be the prime concern. The damage to sponsors and franchises in terms of reputation and financial aspects is very real – as is the chance that teams such as England and Australia will give up on any plans to visit Pakistan, citing the inability of the PCB to organize an environment which is a pre-requisite in today’s COVID-19 world.

A detailed analysis of the PSL 6 fiasco and an honest review by the PCB is the need of the hour

What happens now will depend a lot on how PCB go about investigating the reasons behind the PSL 6 fiasco. Apart from the lessons learnt, the most important aspect of this inquiry will be how those found responsible for this situation will be dealt with. Clear and concise actions are what are needed to avert a similar disaster in the future – brushing the issues under the proverbial carpet as was done after the Sri Lanka terror attack will result in irreparable damage to the reputation of Pakistan cricket.