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CRICKET: THE BUBBLE THAT BURST – Newspaper


The night before the indefinite postponement of the sixth edition of the Pakistan Super League (PSL), the Quetta Gladiators defeated the Multan Sultans. It was a significant victory as it was not only Quetta’s first win of the season, it was also the first time a team bowling second had successfully defended a total. The curse of losing the toss and losing the match had finally been broken.

All the chatter was based around how Gladiators skipper Sarfraz had pulled a bunny out of his hat to stand victorious. Little did anyone anticipate the events that were to follow the next day.

On March 4, around midday, however, the rug had been pulled out from under the feet of the PSL. Which team topped the table, which team was sitting last, which player had scored the most runs, who had taken the most wickets, who did the shalwar challenge or the googly challenge — all of this did not matter anymore. The only buzz was about the increasing number of players that had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Within 12 hours or so, PSL operations came to a standstill, and the ramifications of this one line, ‘the sixth season of the PSL has been postponed indefinitely’, slowly started to unfold. The right decision had been taken, given the circumstances, but what led to this were a string of poor decisions that could and should have been avoided.

Was it negligence, overconfidence or just plain stupidity that led to the indefinite postponement of PSL 6 just when things were getting exciting?

In retrospect, it all began when Wahab Riaz and Darren Sammy, the captain and coach of Peshawar Zalmi, breached the bio-secure bubble on February 20 to meet their franchise owner Javed Afridi. It was the first publicly known instance of a violation, and that too right at the start of the tournament.

As per the rules, the duo were supposed to complete a three-day quarantine period and return two negative Covid-19 tests before they could be allowed to join the bio-secure bubble again. But Riaz and Sammy did not observe the three-day quarantine period. Instead, just based on the second condition (returning two negative Covid-19 tests) — and a rumoured threat of a Zalmi boycott of the tournament — Zalmi’s appeal to let their members re-enter the bubble was accepted by the league’s Event Technical Committee (ETC).

The committee failed to consider the impact this decision could potentially have on the tournament. Rules are not meant to be broken or bent in anybody’s favour, especially when those specific rules are put in place to prevent a contagious disease from spreading. The ETC set a terrible precedent.

On March 1, when Islamabad United’s Fawad Ahmed tested positive for Covid-19, dark clouds of uncertainty started looming over the league’s completion. This development resulted in the postponement by 24 hours of the 12th match, between United and Gladiators. The Australian leg-spinner had begun to show symptoms on February 27 and was put into isolation the same night after playing against Zalmi, but his test was not conducted until the next night, on February 28.

It is difficult not to question the PCB’s mismanagement from here on. When Ahmed showed Covid-19-related symptoms, as a precaution, all members of Zalmi and United should have been asked to self-isolate until tests were conducted. There should have been clear instructions for everyone within the bubble to restrict their movement until tests were conducted, even if this meant postponing the next match, or even if the tournament had to be halted for a few days. However, this was not done.

It is evident that there was no clear set of procedures defined by the PCB for the franchises to swiftly deal with an emergency situation. By March 4, a total of seven players had already contracted the virus, and a sense of panic prevailed among the players and teams. Many foreign players wanted out. And this eventually led to the postponement of the PSL.

Before the start of the sixth edition of the PSL, the PCB had successfully managed to conduct its domestic season and two international series against Zimbabwe and South Africa. The success of these events was a huge confidence-booster for the management, and they decided to cater for the PSL bio-secure bubble in-house. In hindsight, this decision proved to be fatal.

There were a lot of shortcomings inside the bubble. For starters, why did the management not consider booking the entire hotel for the tournament? There were reports of players mixing with other guests at the hotel and sharing lifts with them. Even weddings were being held on the same premises. Why were foreign players asked to quarantine for only three days, instead of the standard 14? Why were Covid-19 tests not being conducted every four days from the start? Why did the PCB fail to take firm action when the first breach was made by two members of Peshawar Zalmi? Why were the franchises’ owners allowed to sit near or in team dugouts and even interact with players in some cases? Moreover, why were entertainment celebrities permitted to roam around near the dugouts and interact with the players?

The six teams involved in the tournament also had a responsibility to abide by the standard operating procedures (SOPs) set by the PCB. If the league management had failed to implement procedures, the franchises should have stepped up in taking care of their squads. After all, human safety should have been paramount.

PSL is not the first sporting event to have positive cases reported, but it is how the whole situation was handled that rang alarm bells. After this setback, every stakeholder’s confidence has been jolted. The dent in the credibility of both the Board and the league now cannot be fixed overnight.

The head of PCB’s medical panel resigned from his post amid severe criticism and a fact-finding committee, comprising infectious disease experts, is now investigating the bio-secure arrangements’ mishandling. The investigation might lead to more resignations within the management.

This was also the first instance the PSL was being aired on multiple reputed global platforms. The onus of projecting the home-grown product with the utmost care lay with the PCB, to showcase its capability to host a multi-team tournament at a bigger scale. The events of the last week will certainly not bode well in this regard.

Cricket enthusiasts in Pakistan were deprived of cricket at home for a long, long time. It took a lot of hard work to finally make Pakistan a safe venue for touring teams and bring the PSL back home. The postponement of the league will not only hamper Pakistan’s chances of hosting ICC events but future international tours have also been jeopardised.

Before convincing any other touring party or player, drastic measures will need to be taken to regain trust. The PCB is already considering outsourcing the responsibility of maintaining a bio-secure bubble for the remaining matches of the PSL to an international company. It remains to be seen if and when the remaining tournament can take place because of a packed international cricketing schedule throughout the year.

A failure to complete the sixth edition of the PSL could deal a substantial financial blow as well. The board and the six franchises have already been at loggerheads regarding the league’s financial model. The PCB was also involved in litigation with the official broadcaster Blitz after the fifth season was halted midway because of the pandemic. A repeat of the financial losses due to the postponement of the PSL this year could potentially prove to be a fatal blow to the PCB, the franchises and the other stakeholders involved, with the reported potential loss to be in millions of dollars.

All of this only makes one wonder why the PCB was so negligent in their approach in the first place. Let this PSL debacle be a lesson for all of us and not just the tournament organisers. As a nation, we need to reevaluate our approach towards the pandemic that is nearly a year old. Every individual needs to take responsibility by following the SOPs. It will take a collective effort to recover from the embarrassment.

The writer tweets @anamnadeem

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 14th, 2021





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