Jul 29

PCB challenges

Posted on Saturday, July 29, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

PCB challenges

A host of TV naysayers had advised the Pakistan Cricket Board to book the return flight of the Pakistan cricket team immediately after it lost to India in the opening match of the Champions Trophy in England last June. One TV commentator, an ex-captain of Pakistan, was so disgusted that he demanded PCB be disbanded, its domestic and international tournaments be cancelled and its management, selectors and coaches all be sent packing. Two months later, however, the “nation” is still celebrating Pakistan’s heroic win over hot-favourite but arch-enemy India to grab the coveted Champions Trophy. How did this cricketing “revival” come about? What are the obstacles in its path?

The single most important development in Pakistan’s cricket history since winning the World Cup in 1992 has been the Pakistan Super League. For eight years, three PCB Chairmen tried to launch it and failed. Today it is a resounding success. It has revived PCB’s fortunes in three significant ways. First, it has dug up a wellspring of fresh talent that was on scintillating display recently. Second it has enabled our youngsters to rub shoulders with and play against the top international players of the world in a high-pressure environment, a learning experience of immense value. Third, the profits from PSL are poised to become a major independent source of PCB funding equivalent to nearly 50% of PCB revenues from the ICC, which means more funding for cricket development in the country. But PSL is already threatened on two counts.

For PSL to become a truly dynamic and self-sustaining force, it must be played in Pakistan. The UAE is a very expensive venue. Ticket sales are insignificant. Local sponsors non-existent. But periodic acts of terrorism at home make this a difficult objective. That is why the Final in Lahore last March was an extraordinary achievement. But the task ahead is daunting. Whenever a bomb goes off in Lahore or Karachi, PCB’s hard work in trying to convince international players and cricketing bodies that Pakistan is safe to play goes up in a pall of smoke.

PSL is also threatened by powerful vested interests. Disgruntled ex-employees of PCB and perennially blackmailing job seekers are constantly dragging the PCB to court on frivolous grounds. Currently, PSL faces “inquiries” in NAB and FIA sponsored by such complainants despite the fact of highly intensive and independent internal and external audit procedures. In fact, instead of protecting a valuable national asset, parliamentary sports watchdog committees are riven by party political differences which spill over into undue criticism of PCB which is a statutory body of the federal government. Now attempts are underway in the courts to destabilize PCB by challenging the constitutional transition to a new elected Board of Governors and Chairman of PCB for the next three years. If this is disrupted, we can say goodbye to PCB’s efforts to bring PSL and international cricket back to Pakistan and revive cricket in the country.

Pakistan cricket is also threatened by greed and corruption. The recent spot fixing in the PSL involving a clutch of players would have wrecked PSL if the evil hadn’t been nipped in the bud. Yet a section of the media and ex-cricketers’ establishment seem to display more sympathy for the crooks than for their prosecutors. This is remarkable in view of the constant refrain from much the same sort of critics that if the Justice Qayyum Report of a decade ago had been ruthlessly implemented by the PCB and the errant cricketers rooted out, this corrupt practice would never have reared its ugly head again. Indeed, the very success of PSL makes it a potential high value target for bookies which necessitates a zero-tolerance policy by the PCB based on strict and swift punishments. But instead of supporting PCB, sections of the media are hell-bent on thwarting its anti-corruption squad.

Negative Indo-Pak relations have also adversely impacted the PCB. The BCCI is refusing to honour an eight-year contract for six bilateral series which were expected to yield over Rs 150 billion to PCB. It says the Modi government has stopped it from playing Pakistan at home or abroad. But by dragging politics into cricket, the Modi government is doing a great disservice to a game beloved of billions. The money from these series with India is earmarked for the development of cricket academies and stadiums across Pakistan and its loss is a huge blow for the PCB which receives no funding from the government.

The challenges ahead for the PCB are formidable. A necessary condition is stability of the management that has produced a successful “Made in Pakistan” brand like PSL, which has cobbled a successful coaching and selection squad behind a resurgent, “new look and new feel” Pakistan team, which is attacking corruption, and which is reforming the domestic cricket structure. If we can ask BCCI to keep politics out of bilateral cricket, we should demand the same from vested political interests at home.

Jul 21

End the crisis

Posted on Friday, July 21, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

End the crisis

The moment of reckoning for Nawaz Sharif has come. The three judges of the Supreme Court bench have digested all the arguments and will now decide whether Nawaz Sharif is “sadiq and amin” for speaking the truth or lying about the sources of his wealth. If the bench believes he has lied, he will be disqualified from being a member of parliament and holding the office of prime minister. Moreover, the bench will decide whether the case merits being sent to an accountability court for further investigation and criminal prosecution of one or more members of the Sharif family, including Mr Sharif.

The Sharifs’ lawyers have punched holes in the JIT’s credentials and conclusions. But the bench has shrugged away the charge by saying it is not, in any case, bound by the JIT’s findings. Instead, the judges aver that the Sharifs haven’t answered relevant questions about the source of wealth that led to the purchase of the London flats many years after they were in possession of the property. The Sharifs’ lawyers ask how can Nawaz Sharif explain the money trail of a property he does not own in the first place. The opposition counters if that be the case why did Nawaz Sharif stand on the floor of Parliament and declare that he would answer all questions and provide all documents relating to the wealth of the Sharif family? Forget everything else, say the judges in frustration, just show us how the flats were legitimately bought and we will wrap up the case. The Sharifs argue that if the JIT had asked the Qatari prince to confirm his involvement in the matter as the primary source of funds for the flats, this question would have been answered satisfactorily. Why the JIT didn’t question the Qatari prince – who expressed a readiness to be examined — remains a mystery, and one that weakens the legal case against the Sharifs.

The case is both simple and complex. It is simple in the sense that if at least two of three judges on the bench hold the prime minister guilty of lying, then it is curtains for him. It is complicated in the sense that if two of the three judges hold him innocent and one holds him guilty, how will this bear on the status of the judgment, since two out of five judges of the original bench had already declared him guilty? Unfortunately, the judges have not clarified whether a majority of three will decide Mr Sharif’s fate or a majority of five.

There are other issues to address. If the SC is not a trial court, as per the constitution, how can it hold a trial of Mr Sharif or any member of the Sharif family for corruption? By this argument, if the SC thinks that there is, prima facie, a criminal case to be made out against one or more of the Sharifs, it must refer the matter of a proper trial to an accountability court. But on the other side of the coin is the fact that two out of five judges of the original bench have already declared Mr Sharif to be not “sadiq and amin” on the yardstick of Article 62/63 of the constitution and disqualified him from being a member of parliament. An additional complication has arisen because there is both a disqualification precedence – MNAs were disqualified directly by the SC because they could not verify the authenticity of their BA degrees – as well as a strong judgment by Justice Asif Khosa, one of the two judges who have disqualified Mr Sharif on the basis of 62/63, against clutching at Article 62/63 for disqualifying members of parliament because that will open a Pandora’s box of arbitrariness and uncertainty. Confusion and contradiction is further compounded by certain written and oral remarks of some judges that point to preconceived notions and prejudices against powerful and wealthy men (like Mr Sharif).

Parallel to the trail of Mr Nawaz Sharif in the SC, there is a case against Imran Khan in the SC that mirrors much the same sort of issues. The SC is asking him to show the money trail of his London flat, of his Bani Gala property and of his party funds from foreign sources. The problem is that Mr Khan is having as much difficulty convincing the judges investigating him as Mr Sharif. If the two groups of judges trying them base their judgments on two different sets of laws and legal precedents, then all hell will break loose. But if they concur, then the likelihood is that both Mr Khan and Mr Sharif will meet with the same “innocent” or “guilty” fate.

It would be good for the country if the coming judgments do not deepen the political crisis. But if they do, it will reinforce the old wisdom that judges may wade into raging political matters only at peril to the rule of law and constitution, to the institution of the judiciary and to their own personal selves.

Jul 14

Save the system!

Posted on Friday, July 14, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Save the system!

In the considered opinion of the JIT, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family have amassed wealth beyond their declared sources of income; their defense is full of holes and lies; they are not good Muslims; they must be punished. Who can disagree with this assessment? We have a “system”. Surely it should prevail over an errant Prime Minister.

Never mind that the JIT report is full of gaping holes and overt bias. Never mind that the honourable judges sitting in judgement are not accountable. Never mind that the deep state conducting the investigations is not accountable. Never mind that the men of “piety” with flowing beards and the shrill media baying for blood are not accountable. Never mind the number of times we have heard this argument before to get rid of every elected prime minister since independence (twenty so far and still counting) before he or she can complete a full term without the “system” ever being held accountable. Never mind that the amassed wealth of all these pillars of the state — including gifts and donations from foreign ruling families — is beyond their declared sources of income.

In this wonderful “system” that must prevail over all else, the judges who enshrined the “law of necessity” legitimizing three martial laws, or the judges who sent a popular prime minister to the gallows and many others home, are not accountable. In this wonderful system that must prevail over everything else, the generals who ruled the country directly for over half its life since independence and lost half of it in the bargain, or routinely rigged key political parties and elections, are not accountable. The most incredible thing is that this wonderful system is self-perpetuating and there is not an iota of evidence that corruption is decreasing even fractionally as a result of its oversight. Even more incredible is the fact that “corruption” is such a “big” issue in the imagination of this powerful system that the wretched people of Pakistan have doggedly elected corrupt politicians to represent them in parliament whenever elections are held.

But let’s ask more fundamental questions. Are such “corruption” trials about “regime change” conducted to protect the vested interests of the deep state? Is the principal contradiction in Pakistan between an unaccountable deep state and a harassed civil society or is it between the people and the financial corruption of their political leaders?

According to the JIT, the Sharifs’ wealth was accumulated and laundered in the 1980s and 1990s. This is the period when, thanks to the deep state, instead of being held accountable for corrupt practices, Mr Nawaz Sharif was made chief minister of Punjab and exiled when he stepped on the toes of the deep state. He is now again for the chop – charged with corruption three decades ago — because he will not kowtow to the deep state’s vested interests today. In the same vein, Ms Bhutto was sacked in 1990 and then again in 1996 for “corruption”, revived in 1993 and 2007 when she agreed to play ball and eventually got rid of soon thereafter when she threatened to renege on her “agreement” with the deep state. In the 1980s, Mohammad Khan Junejo was blatantly sacked by the deep state that brought him into power without even the pretext of a corruption trial. Before Mr Sharif, the PPP government of Asif Zardari was lucky to lose only one prime minister at the hands of the deep state, barely survived in office and has now been reduced to a regional party whose leader prefers the safety of foreign shores to his abode in his home province of Sindh. Meanwhile, Mr Sharif’s flanks have been whittled away by the denouement of stalwarts like Mushahidullah, Pervez Rashid, Nehal Hashmi, Tareq Fatemi, et al who have aroused the wrath of the deep state.

Let us be clear. There is no doubt that the Sharifs have accumulated a mountain of wealth beyond their known sources of income. Equally, however, there is no doubt that this trial is really about “regime change” and only apparently about “corruption” as so often in the past. It was preceded by two dharna attempts to get rid of him, failing which an alternate route has been sketched – thanks fortuitously to Panamagate – to achieve the same objective.

Mr Sharif’s options are limited. He can choose to resist and be ousted ignominiously. Or he can resign on the pretext of higher “moral ground” and live to fight his case another day. In both instances, he can paint himself as a victim. The tricky question will relate to how his voters, and by extension his party workers, react to the manner of his exit. In 1993 and 1999 his defiance of the deep state made him a popular leader who encashed his victimhood in 2013. But this time, the deep state is aiming to knock him out for good and “save the system” because the stakeholders arrayed against him are more numerous, more united and more powerful.

Jun 30

“Double, double toil and trouble”

Posted on Friday, June 30, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

“Double, double toil and trouble”

If ever Pakistan needed political stability, economic certainty and visionary leadership, it is now. The internal and external environment is deteriorating and unaffordable political and economic turmoil is on the cards.

The internal environment stinks of conflict between the elected civil and institutional military leaderships, between the civil and judicial organs of the state, between the political parties and judiciary and among the political parties themselves. The conflict is bewilderingly comprehensive.

Despite a change of high command in the military from an overtly aggressive leadership to a neutral one, the institution is still bristling with hostility towards Nawaz Sharif, the elected prime minister, and his heir-apparent daughter, Maryam, and seems bent on getting rid of them.

But the battleground has shifted from the inspired dharnas on the streets of Islamabad to the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court and the Joint Investigation Team set up by it. The JIT has become hugely controversial, partly because of its own indiscreet bias and over-zealous behavior and partly because of a conscious strategy by the ruling party to undermine its credibility. Hardly a day goes by when the parties to the investigation – the three judges of the SC, the JIT and the ruling party and prime minister, do not trade bitter complaints against each other. Since the PMLN is already in the dock for a variety of sins of omissions and commissions, only the JIT and judges need fear a serious dent in their credibility at the outcome of the investigation and trial.

The JIT/judiciary are also at daggers drawn with various institutions of the state that are accused of obstructing their investigation. The judges have served notice to the chairmen of SECP, NAB and FBR while the IB has been warned to stop harassing the investigators. This confrontation between the judiciary and core civilian institutions of the state is no less inflammatory and destabilizing than the continuing civil-military conflict.

The political parties are also at serious odds with the judiciary. If Nawaz Sharif is obstructing the judicial investigation into the money trail of his personal wealth, Imran Khan is obstructing the Election Commission of Pakistan from inquiring into the money trail of his personal and party funds.

In this background, the deteriorating external environment is cause for concern. The porous border with Afghanistan is a continuing cause of terrorism in both countries. Anti-Pakistan Taliban holed out in Afghanistan and anti-Afghan Taliban holed out in Pakistan are shedding blood in both countries – the recent terrorist attacks that devastated Parachinar and Quetta no less than the one earlier in Kabul can all be attributed to state policies pursued by the intelligence agencies of both countries. American facilitation to resolve Pak-Afghan issues has failed, prompting the Chinese to step into the fray because of their huge investments planned in the region. But the political leaderships of both countries are paralysed by their internal problems and the chances of any quick successful outcome are slim.

Pakistan’s relations with India are hostage to the usual actors and factors. But PM Narendra Modi and his national security adviser A K Doval are in a belligerent anti-Pakistan mood while the Pakistan military establishment is not inclined to give the government any leeway in conducting any unconditional dialogue with New Delhi. So we may expect the border to remain hot, with attendant proxy warring by both sides.

Pakistan’s relations with the US could worsen. President Donald Trump is rolling out the red carpet for Narendra Modi even as the US Congress has introduced a bi-partisan bill to cut or reduce military assistance to Pakistan by withdrawing its status as a Major Non-Nato Ally because it has “failed to fight terrorism that has claimed American blood”. Apart from significant Coalition Support funds, this status enables Pakistan to receive priority delivery of defense equipment and a loan guarantee program for private banks that finance American arms sales to Pakistan. There are reports that the Trump administration is contemplating a tougher stance towards Pakistan while cozying up to India. The World Bank has sniffed the mood in Washington and accordingly issued a warning to the finance minister, Ishaq Dar, that he has missed important fiscal targets and must not expect leniency from donors.

Meanwhile, as general elections draw near, the political parties are at each other’s throats with renewed vengeance. The PTI has poached at least seven stalwarts from the PPP, including Babar Awan, while the PPP has nudged its former interior minister, Rehman Malik (who once investigated the money laundering trail of the Sharifs), to depose before the JIT against Nawaz Sharif.

What is unprecedented in this developing scenario is the central role of the judiciary in confronting and challenging state institutions and the country’s popular civilian actors. In the current situation, however, with elections due next year, it is a moot point whether the judiciary is right to get so deeply involved in criminal investigations which only promise more controversy and turmoil ahead.

Jun 23

Wings to fly

Posted on Friday, June 23, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Wings to fly

From the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore in 2009 to the wondrous win at the Oval in 2017, it has been a long and often painful journey for cricket in Pakistan. Shunned by big-item foreign cricketers fearful of safety, domestic cricket became a drab affair, stadiums fell into disrepair, training academies were starved of funds, game development and talent hunt projects were abandoned and the wellspring of talent began to dry up. The most exciting and lucrative cricket contest of all – India-Pakistan series – also fell prey to politics when India refused to play Pakistan even in a neutral country. In the event, Pakistan’s “home away from home” – Dubai and Sharjah – was like an arid wasteland, with empty stadiums, dead pitches and high costs. Worse, the world had discovered an exciting new 20/20 cricket format and set up domestic leagues to excel in it but the Pakistan Cricket Board was woefully inadequate to meet the challenge. Indeed, unlike other Cricketing Boards run by professional managers and accountants, the PCB was mismanaged by grubby politicians and sifarshi bureaucrats. In 2013, the PCB was laid low by undue court cases and vested-interest conspiracies by elements of the ancien regime.

Thankfully, a new beginning was made in 2014 when a new constitution was unfurled, elections to the BoG and chairman were transparently held, efforts were made to induct professionals in management and imbue the organization with best international practices. The result is palpable. Against the odds, Pakistan achieved Number One Test Team ranking in the World earlier this year and last week became the OD Champions of the World without a single super star in its lineup.

This journey began with the onset of the Pakistan Super League in 2016. For many years, the PCB had toyed with the idea of forming its own Super League in line with that of England, Australia, the Caribbean and, above all, India. But a combination of incompetence, bureaucratic lethargy and corruption had stayed the project. The PCB could not outsource it because of lack of marketing expertise and didn’t know how to run such a League itself. It was also confused about how such a League would fare if it had to be held in the UAE instead of at home. Indeed, when the new PCB BoG finally gave the green light for the project, there were many Doubting Thomases who secretly hoped it would be a Waterloo for the new management. But the PSL has grown to provide a competitive and challenging environment for Pakistan’s budding talent. The youngsters who clinched the Champions Trophy are all PSL products. Along with the rest of the team, they came of age rubbing shoulders with mentors like Viv Richards, Brendon McCallum, Wasim Akram, Kevin Peterson, Chris Jordan, Darren Sammy, Kumar Sangakhara, and learning to cope with pressure to excel in a fiercely competitive environment.

But the journey isn’t over yet. The next step is to bring PSL home and fill Pakistan’s stadiums. Holding the Final in Lahore this year was a magnificent achievement. Selling a sixth franchise at double the value of the most expensive franchise in 2016 is a sign of remarkable financial success. That also means more top foreign players, more matches in the tournament (eight or nine are planned in Karachi and Lahore in 2018) and greater opportunities for youngsters to showcase their talent and gain valuable experience. The icing on the cake is a planned trip to Lahore in September by an ICC World Team comprising top international players.

Slowly but surely, step by step, the stage is being set for the full-fledged revival of cricket in Pakistan. The PCB is readying centers of excellence for training in Multan and Karachi. Budgets for renovating and upgrading stadiums in Karachi and Lahore have been sanctioned. Programs for the development of club and school cricket have kicked off. Regional cricket associations are being nudged to find sponsors to invest in the game with matching grants from PCB. Domestic cricket tournaments are being restructured with fewer teams for quality competition. The PSL draft model is being replicated in the domestic T20 and One Day formats to achieve better results. Foreign curators are being contracted to supervise the laying of international-level wickets. In short, more money, more professionalism, more energy is being put into game development so that cricketers can live up to the expectations of a cricket-hungry nation.

Of course, there will be ups and downs in this journey. Pakistan is still way down the pecking order in the shorter formats of the game. The great stars of test cricket like Misbahul Haq and Younas Khan have faded away and there aren’t many ready to step into their shoes. But no matter. A new crop of street smart cricketers with a ferocious appetite to excel in the game is waiting. The PCB must give them wings to fly.