Shahid Afridi bottles PSL in one word as the Pakistan Super League unravels a heady mix of cricket and entertainment
The air was uncharacteristically brisk that evening in Dubai and despite being a Thursday - weekend for the Emirates - all roads led to the Dubai International Stadium, where cricket enthusiasts assembled for the opening ceremony and inaugural PSL match between Islamabad United and Quetta Gladiators. Luxury vehicles lined up at the entrance, making checking-in a lengthy and time-consuming process. We were outside when we heard the mighty notes of the National Anthem rise above the stadium periphery. Stepping out of our vehicles to pay our respects, we also decided to walk our way across as to not miss any more of the ceremony. The ‘walk’ turned out to be a camel-trek over sand and gravel but it wasn’t a deterrent.
This was the Opening Ceremony of the very first Pakistan Super League tournament, held in Dubai for obvious reasons. To host it in Pakistan would have been as tricky as dancing on the lip of a volcano. And so players of all five teams, their coaches, accompanying friends and families and almost 12,000 fans had come together to witness history in the making. The mood was festive, with vendors carrying popcorn, chips, curry puffs (samosas) and drinks through the stands. This was Dubai so fast food was just as conveniently available. Illuminated bracelets were stuck to each chair, speckling the stadium with popping lights. There was a hum in the air, a sound of ecstatic exhilaration that reminded us of the World Cup Final between Australia and Sri Lanka, held in Lahore in 1996. That was an entire era ago but this tournament, albeit hosted in Dubai, provided some reassurance that Pakistan had its foot back in the door…or stadium.
The spirit of PSL at the opening ceremony was high; this was more of a celebration than competition. It was a celebration of national spirit, a spirit all too often dampened by tragedy and misfortune. There was no doom or gloom at the Dubai Stadium, where the ceremony unraveled with high-octane acts from Ali Zafar, Sean Paul, Mohib Mirza and Sanam Saeed along with some engaging comedy from Yasir Hussain. It was barely audible in the stadium (clearer on TV screens) but between chants and bugles and body waves, it was love for Pakistan that carried the evening on, beyond individual acts.
Most of Pakistan’s biggest stars had flown in to celebrate the historic event. Fawad Khan and Ali Zafar came as ambassadors of Islamabad United, Hamza Ali Abbasi and Humaima Malik represented Peshawer Zalmi. A whole entourage featuring Javed Sheikh, Ayesha Omar and Sohai Ali Abro flew in to wave the royal blue flags for Karachi Kings and despite not having as many celebrity supporters, Quetta Gladiators were hot favourites that night. Lahore Qalanders, with their drumbeats and dhols, managed to make enough noise of their own.
Shahid Afridi, indisputably cricket’s biggest star today, drove the fans into frenzy whenever he stepped onto the field. And brushing off criticism that ‘film stars’ were hijacking the essence of cricket, he later spoke to Instep saying, "Both have to go hand in hand so people can enjoy. It’s ‘cricketainment’. They (cricketers and celebrities) complement each other."
"Pakistan needs these stars to come together now," Ali Zafar added. "These are the people who drive your industry, its worldwide popularity and even its economy. They play a big part. Even actors and actresses who are not that big drive a lot of things. Pakistan needs idols and role models and mixing cricket with these celebrities just provides opportunities to nurture those stars. It gives a huge, global platform for Pakistan."
That does ring true for film and entertainment stars as well as cricketers. PSL has introduced several new players to the tournament, many of which will get a chance to play again even if they’re not in the limelight right now.
"Each franchise has around 16 Pakistani players with one emerging player per team playing in every match," Naila Bhatti, Director Marketing PCB and PSL informed Instep. "We have already unearthed a future star; Muhammad Nawaz from Quetta Gladiators has been inducted in the Pakistan World T20 squad. In essence, our youngsters are getting to rub shoulders with leading international cricketers and legends. Islamabad United’s Sharjeel Khan and Khalid Latif are getting to play with Australian superstar Shane Watson and getting mentored by the one and only Wasim Akram. The great Sir Viv Richards is mentoring the likes of Ahmad Shehzad and Sarfraz Ahmed in Quetta Gladiators."
Fans have been complaining about Dubai as a venue. How soon before this will happen in Pakistan?
"While we all want to stage PSL matches in Pakistan since that is where the real connection of the fans is, we have security concerns that keep foreign players away. It is hard to say when but PSL will definitely go back to Pakistan!" MS Bhatti reassured.
PSL, as Afridi pointed out, is ‘cricketainment’ and demands unique treatment. At the end of the day there’s no chance that film stars, actresses and fashion models - those flamboyant troupes that keep fans entertained from their VIP galleries – will overshadow cricket heroes. But there aren’t too many heroes in Pakistani cricket right now and a tournament like PSL will help create them.
At a time like this, it is important to understand that a sense of nationalism and creating positive discourse around Pakistan is much more significant than restricting it to a sporting event. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that PSL, while being a cricketing event, catapults a positive image of Pakistan – much more than anything else – onto the global horizon. It was heartening to see provincial discriminations blur out; fans weren’t necessarily rooting for their cities but for teams, players and even team ambassadors they had the hots for.
"PSL is a huge leap," Fawad Khan reverberated the thought. "As you can see, people have come out in huge numbers and it’s much more than a match. People are rooting for each other; they’re mingling in different booths. This season, PSL is all about that national spirit and it is a great feeling."
One more criticism that PSL faced was the inclusion of Sean Paul in the line-up. We learnt that Will.i.am was the original choice but couldn’t be booked because of his tight schedule. Sean Paul came to the rescue but his act wasn’t exciting, at least not on ground. It did, however, hit the right notes with Chris Gayle (who you could see dancing in the background) and the foreign cricketers. While local bands like Noori, Ali Azmat and Atif Aslam would have hyped up the Pakistan-heavy stadium much more effectively, Sean Paul provided the international flavor essential to PSL. And then Ali Zafar more than made up for mass appeal.
"Since we have international players and there’s a worldwide cricket spectatorship, it’s important to broaden the ambit of entertainment to remain plugged in." Ammara Hikmat, PSL’s official publicist said. "Right now, 55 % of the Pakistani TV audience is tuned in to watch PSL. If not more, it’s not less than the audience engagement for a Pak-India cricket match. PSL very carefully picked Ali Zafar to come up with the official anthem and do the closing act on opening because he is a crowd friendly celebrity and an excellent performer. Similarly, a global sensation like Sean Paul was added to appeal to cricket enthusiasts who might not understand a word of ‘Khel Ke Dikha’, but are die hard cricket fans and we saw some big international cricketers show us their moves on the stage. No matter what the critics say, the sky high TV ratings tell us that PCB has already pulled off a successful first season of PSL."
There’s no denying that Pakistan’s very first Super League will go down as history and will hopefully make way for bigger and better events that provide the country’s ‘cricketainment’ stars to shine, whether they are on the field or on the stands. Yes, hosting the matches in Pakistan would have ensured a larger spectators turn out (the stadiums have been appearing quite scarce) but then given the current and continuing security situation that may not have been possible at all.