Cricket

SW Exclusive: “Pakistan Is Cricket Frenzy Nation; Ball Is In India’s Court,” Says Najam Sethi On Bilateral Ties

After a roaring success in the inaugural edition, the Pakistan Super League (PSL) is gearing up for its second edition in the United Arab Emirates from February 9.

The PSL has added a new twist as the final to be played in Pakistan in a memorable return for elite cricket in Pakistan.

However, it will be the litmus test for the revival of cricket in Pakistan when the players and officials land in Lahore, which is scheduled to host the grand final of the tournament – something that will be an equally surreal moment for the fanatic home crowd.

In a free-wheeling chat, Sportzwiki caught up with the PSL Chairman and Pakistan Cricket Board’s (PCB) Executive Committee Chairman Najam Sethi, who spoke on the revival of international cricket in the country, potential bilateral ties with India and the bold decision of hosting the PSL final in Lahore.

Sethi revealed that the PSL is a massive platform for the large pool of raw talent in the country, who can cash in on the prime opportunities before the national selectors could identify the best-suited players for the national side.

He also spoke on how the league overcame a lot of stumbling blocks to becoming a successful product that it is today.

The PSL has pulled off the market in short period of time with expats thronging to stadia as the players from 11 different countries added a flavour to Twenty20 league for people back home in Pakistan, who are likely to witness the International cricket sooner or later.

There is a lesson in passion and for a cricket crazy country like Pakistan, it sits well after its several stadiums were left empty as no international cricket took place since 2009 when Sri Lankan team came under gruesome attack while heading for the stadium.

Better late than never, a ray of hope shone in 2015, when the massive crowds thronged to the Gadaffi Stadium, Lahore as Zimbabwe toured to Pakistan – to play the limited-overs series. The series grabbed eyeballs – on a pitch which was quite as flat as a marble floor on which the script was written.

Zimbabwe side was provided with the Z-plus security which was quite fascinating for the fans at home.

There was the aerial surveillance as two helicopters reportedly circled the stadium, 4,000 troops guarded the stadium – over 60 vans patrolled the roads and around 50 CCTV cameras were established in the command control that literally put an end to the international cricket isolation for Pakistan after six years.

That was some tireless effort to find a method to succeed in reviving the cricket in Pakistan.

Cricket-starved Pakistani supporters will be able to watch the showpiece of the PSL during the final and hope that could serve as a tonic for the beleaguered cricket nation.

Excerpts from an exclusive Interview:

TIM: Explain your involvement with the Pakistan Super League (PSL), and what is its future? The PSL final is scheduled in Lahore – How you see it?

NS: I took over the project of PSL in 2015 when most had given up hope of a Pakistani T20 league. In fact, two of my predecessors had dropped the plan of holding the league after wasting millions in their half-hearted effort. I was determined to hold the league and got together a team of go-getters who wanted to deliver a world class event for Pakistan.

PSL’s success is for all to see, I expect to chair the body in the foreseeable future and will try and recommend a suitable successor when the time comes so that the league continues to grow in the years’ ahead.

We are confident of holding the final in Lahore and are hoping that there is no unforeseen trip-up in the run-up. Rest assured we won’t leave any stone unturned to secure the participating teams and officials and of course the crowds.

The PSL final in Lahore can be another stepping stone in bringing back international cricket to the country after the success of the Zimbabwe series two years ago.

TIM: No Test cricket since 2009 at home, what’s your take on it? Fans are waiting to see India-Pakistan bilateral series. And how you see the progress between the PCB and the BCCI in past couple of years?

NS: Fans in India and Pakistan and all over the world await the resumption of cricketing ties between the two countries.

The ball is in India’s court because we have tried really hard to keep our doors open in the hope that the BCCI will reciprocate our gesture and ensure the resumption of the biggest sporting rivalry in the world. We have been told that they need clearance from their government; we need to see how that pans out.

TIM: For the first edition, the PSL had attracted 11 different countries’ players and the PCB had sold five franchises for US$93 million. How do you see the staggering figures for a country like Pakistan?

NS: The success of the first season exceeded our expectations; the figures are great considering the cricket market in Pakistan. We have to continuously work to ensure that the league grows, that’s the key and all stakeholders are on board and share our vision on the PSL.

TIM: What are the lessons you’ve learned from the inaugural edition?

NS: The biggest lesson that we learnt was that cricket is definitely Pakistan’s greatest passion. The fans were eager to see their own players mingle with the best in the world and play for their respective franchises.

The TV ratings were historic, there were shortcomings in a few areas for sure but bear in mind that this was the first edition which was put together at very short notice, I am confident that the second edition will be better the first.

TIM: Pakistan Television Rankings were  55 percent for PSL, at the peak time during first PSL edition, more than the 2015 Twenty20 World Cup in Pakistan!

NS: Yes, the ratings went through the roof, people were glued to the action on the field which was heartening indeed and gave us immense satisfaction.

The level of competition was comparable with the best leagues in the world while some of the foreign stars felt that they faced a stern test of their skills as Pakistan’s young guns like Mohammad Nawaz, Mohammad Asghar, Hassan Ali, Sharjeel Khan gave a glimpse of their potential before earning their rightful spots in the national team.

TIM: What are your expectations from the second PSL season? How is PSL going to benefit the United Arab Emirates in terms of a sport?

NS: I expect good competitive cricket and a tournament that meets the expectations of cricket fans. After the enormous success of the first season, expectations are high, so we have to be collectively on our toes throughout the event to ensure that we sustain the momentum.

I also expect that Pakistanis in the UAE, as well as fans from here, will fill the stadiums. Of course, there will be interest from cricket fans from other nationalities too and we welcome everyone to the stadiums.

I think the league benefits UAE cricket and sports significantly too. Other than the economics of hosting big events and business opportunities, the local population gets a taste of top-class cricket action as well as the entertainment that the league provides, so yes there is indeed a lot for the UAE to gain from the PSL.

TIM: What were the challenges while putting on a global event of such magnitude in such a short time?

NS: The UAE was definitely our preference compared to any other venue outside Pakistan simply due to the huge fan base for our cricket team. We have played our home cricket in the UAE ever since the March 2009 tragedy; the venues support our style of play too.

Our initial challenge was to secure the venues last season since the Masters Cricket League was to run parallel to the tournament, which wasn’t a good idea at all.

However, after tireless effort and negotiations we secured Dubai and Sharjah, MCL too failed to make the impact their organisers desired while the PSL got an excellent response in the UAE and we have already discussed the phenomenal impact it had in Pakistan.

I think we have addressed almost all the logistical challenges with organising an event of this magnitude outside Pakistan, but let me reiterate, the PSL has to be played in Pakistan and let’s hope we are in the position of staging the entire tournament across the country soon.

TIM: Pakistan Super League has partnered with Q-Tickets this year. How that deal took place?

NS: Q-Tickets have delivered some world class events in the region and we have confidence in their ability to handle the PSL expertly. Let me add here that all our deals are finalised after due diligence, the tickets allocation deal is no different.

TIM: What are your expectations from TV viewership this season including the streaming?

NS: We are confident of generating similar if not better TV ratings and numbers to the 2016 season. The broadcasters are gearing up for extended transmissions around the league besides the live broadcast of the game, the PSL fever should grip the country again beginning of February 2017.

TIM: What are your thoughts on the local leagues in Pakistan and Quaid-e-Azam Trophy?

NS: Pakistan domestic tournaments especially the Quaid-e-Azam trophy are events of great value for the development of the new talent and sustenance of the cricket industry in the country. We are constantly looking at ways of improving our domestic competitions including improvement in pitches, grounds, support staff and of course quality of cricket

TIM: What will the PSL do to differentiate itself from other lucrative leagues across the globe?

NS: PSL is a new competition, in fact, we are the newest league on the horizon, our focus, for now, is to sustain the success of the 2016 edition and make further improvements where ever the opportunity arises.

If you see the numbers generated by the Big Bash in Australia for example, you’ll notice that T20 leagues are in great demand, there is scope for all major leagues like the Indian Premier League (IPL), Pakistan Super League (PSL), Caribbean Premier League (CPL), Bangladesh Premier League (BPL) etc to grow, our target is to become the second best T20 tournament in the world after the IPL and we are confident of achieving our targets.

TIM: Do you see it as the career extension for the retired players of Pakistan and for overseas imports?

NS: T20 leagues provide a fascinating blend of youth and experience; yes, many players on the verge of international retirements get extensions if they are good enough to compete in the professional circuit around the world.

A franchise only invests in a player if he’s good enough to deliver for them, one has to understand that it is a performance driven industry and if you are good enough to compete and perform you are roped in regardless of your age.

TIM: What is your take on filling stada for PSL matches in UAE? Any change in the strategy in terms of sponsorship from last year?

NS: The stadiums were packed for the opening games and the playoffs; the final too was packed to capacity. This time around we are looking at improving the numbers further, we have made various sponsorship deals which you will see unravel in the days ahead. The stadiums are spectator friendly which is a vital requirement for any sporting event.

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