Pakistan cricket chief Shaharyar returns to changing sporting landscape

Former diplomat will need all his intelligence to navigate a cricket world that looks very different to his first tenure, writes Osman Samiuddin

Newly elected Pakistan cricket chief Shaharyar Khan addresses a news conference in Lahore on August 18, 2014. Former diplomat Shaharyar was elected Pakistan's cricket chief for a three-year term, a move aimed at ending a 14-month leadership tussle which has left the governing body in disarray. Arif Ali / AFP
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In an avuncular way, there was something comforting about the return of Shaharyar Khan as chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) last week.

Admittedly, so nonsensical had the back and forth between his two predecessors Najam Sethi and Zaka Ashraf become, that had Sepp Blatter himself been unveiled as the new chairman, Pakistan might have heaved a sigh of relief.

The reality is, however, that with each passing day of embedded administrative decline, the glow around Shaharyar’s first tenure, between 2003 and 2006, becomes brighter and warmer.

That period, in the history of modern Pakistan cricket, seems now like a refuge to retreat into, especially from the insanity created by his successors.

It was not a perfect tenure, because there is no such thing, but it was a productive and progressive one. His career, as an accomplished and well-travelled diplomat and former foreign secretary of Pakistan, meant he brought worldliness to the role which, though not necessary, was refreshing.

It was partly on the basis of a contact from his time as a diplomat, for instance, that he secured funding for domestic cricket. That had not been thought possible at all, let alone to the extent he managed – an injection of Rs92 million (Dh3.3m), which in 2003 was approximately US$1.6m.

It also allowed him to nurture the potentially tricky partnership of Bob Woolmer and Inzamam-ul-Haq, as coach and captain respectively, adroitly and objectively, free from the jingoism that so often undoes foreign appointments. That did not end well, but for two years, the pair created an unusual chemistry and stability, from which Pakistan benefited.

Above all, he was a sensible, rational man, with whom it was possible to have sensible, rational discussions. His intentions, it was easy to see back then, were clean. He could not change the implicit politicisation of his role and the structure of the board, but for good or bad, he made that matter less.

By the end, he had allowed affairs to drift too much, especially in letting Inzamam accrue too much influence and tip the delicate balance on which the side existed and thrived.

The Oval Test forfeit in August 2006 was not a good moment, a manifestation of how much power Inzamam had grabbed from other spheres, such as Woolmer and Shaharyar himself.

Today, eight years on, he steps into a different world. Pakistan cricket, in most ways, has regressed. At least there is finally a workable constitution in place and his own election has a democratic tinge to it. But there is no cricket at home and few friends abroad.

Outside, at the International Cricket Council (ICC) and within the “Big Three” of India, England and Australia, he will not matter as much as he used to. His contemporaries are gone, replaced by a new breed of administrator. These are younger and guided by corporate ruthlessness, not the pliable diplomacy of the men he knew.

Shaharyar is a different man, too, 80 years old now and said by some board officials to have required considerable persuasion to take the post. The reluctance is understandable because at that age, the headaches of Pakistani cricket administration are entirely avoidable.

He may, it is said, stay for just a year instead of the three for which he is appointed. That will help drag the PCB further away from the administrative standstill of this last year, regain some stability, and then he might head off.

If he is indeed a reluctant chairman, then the consolation is that the role requires less of him now.

In the new PCB constitution, power is spread elsewhere, with a 10-man board of governors. As of this weekend’s board meeting, however, a fair chunk of power will also reside within the control of a new three-man executive committee.

The committee will only make recommendations, but much like the ICC’s own new ExCo, it is where the organisation will be steered from. Heading that? Sethi, Shaharyar’s predecessor and the man prevented by courts from becoming a chairman.

In effect, Sethi has played a masterstroke and outwitted the courts by engineering a structure, all within constitutional ambit, in which he is still an important – perhaps the most important – decision-maker. It is razor-sharp operating.

Who can say yet whether that is a good or bad thing? Reservations remain about Sethi and the conflicts of interest in his continuing media commitments. But he has an intellectual breadth that defeats most of the men who have headed the board; he is, in fact, the first since Shaharyar of whom such a sentence can be written.

It could, as one official warned, complicate the working of the board. On paper, Shaharyar still has powers; the ExCo exists at his discretion, for example, and most big decisions require his approval. Separate power centres in organisations are invariably tricky and often self-defeating.

But in a body such as the PCB, run into the ground by years of autocratic function, the complication of decentralised control is something it may need most.

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