'Zoni' ducks his responsibilities

Zulqarnain's disappearing act is another entertaining but inglorious chapter in the Pakistan cricket soap opera.

Zulqarnain Haider’s disappearance from the Pakistan team hotel in Dubai was the latest in a string of controversies surrounding the team. There could be more to come.
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The Zulqarnain Haider saga is the latest instalment in the soap opera that is Pakistan cricket, further supporting the widely held belief that the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has hired a an assembly-line of talented script-writers and story-tellers who are feverishly churning out one implausible story after another, week in, week out.

Zulqarnain, known more widely as Zoni, has received flak and kudos in equal measure after his bizarre and inexplicable behaviour of the past week. While the full facts of the matter are not known, and may never become public, this much is certain: the 24-year-old wicketkeeper from Lahore has acted foolishly and in haste, and in the process, has done irreparable harm not just to his own career, but also to Pakistan cricket.

The facts remain unclear. Zulqarnain alleges he was approached by someone who asked him to underperform in Pakistan's fourth one-day international (ODI) against South Africa on November 5. Pakistan subsequently won that match, through a coordinated team effort. There were match-winning contributions from many players, including Zulqarnain.

This one incident, it seems, prompted Zulqarnain to abscond for the UK on the first available flight. He did so, he claims, out of fear for his life. He appeared to leave in secrecy, without bothering to inform his teammates, the PCB management, the local Dubai authorities, the International Cricket Council (ICC) or even his close friends and family, yet he did have the time to leave an update on Facebook and inform certain Pakistani journalists.

Zulqarnain overreacted and this is borne out by subsequent statements from former Pakistan cricketers. It appears that most experienced cricketers would either have ignored the perceived threat to his family, laughed at it or, if serious, reported it to either the PCB or the ICC. Basit Ali, the former Test batsman who took a courageous stand in the match-fixing scandal of the late 1990s in the era of Azhar-ud-din, Saleem Malik and Hansie Cronje, said: "It is strange the way he acted. I think being a new player maybe he got scared by the threats, but this is nothing new for professional players. Most of us have got threats at some time to do this and that but you just ignore them."

It also seems strange that a potential match-fixer or a bookmaker would approach a wicketkeeper who bats low down in the batting order if the aim was the affect the outcome of Pakistan's batting. After all, Zulqarnain's contributions with the bat in the previous five matches against South Africa in the UAE had been minimal.

Abdul Qadir, the great leg-spinner and former Pakistani chief selector, shares this scepticism: "What is strange to me is that Zulqarnain is not a frontline or match-winning player, so why threaten him? I think he should have informed the team management about the threats instead of taking such an extreme step."

Zulqarnain's disappearance from Dubai and appearance in London thus raises a number of unanswered questions.

Under the ICC's regulations, all approaches or perceived approaches from bookmakers must be reported immediately. This is what players such as Shane Watson, the Australia batsman, did recently. Zulqarnain, however, chose not to report this to the ICC, despite the Anti-Corruption and Security Unit (ACSU) and the ICC being located in Dubai.

It defies belief that Zulqarnain could not find even a single trustworthy confidant: not the ICC or the ACSU; not his teammates or his captain or the officials; not the team manager, the coach, the security manager or even other impeccably honest players such Younus Khan and Mohammad Yousuf.

He did not even approach the Dubai Police, who accompany the team bus and provide security.

Also, it appears from Zulqarnain's statements he felt the UK was safer than the UAE. It is, however, well-known that crime rates in the UK are significantly higher than in this part of the world.

His apparent lack of concern for his family is remarkable. He felt they were threatened yet instead of joining them in Pakistan he left them in the lurch, disappearing to London and leaving them, according to him, at risk in Pakistan.

He did not even contact them and they found out about the whole issue through the Pakistan media. They have since been calling on him to return to Pakistan and have refused to join him in the UK.

It is thus safe to conclude that Zulqarnain's reported stories and the purported chain of events has more holes than Swiss cheese.

Public accounts of how illegal bookmakers operate would appear to indicate that if he had no prior dealings with the criminal underworld, and had never accepted money from them or done their bidding in the past, he faced little danger.

Deserting a promising cricket career based on one random threat from an unknown stranger seems to be an overreaction.

While he may come across as naive, Zulqarnain is also savvy with the media, unusual for a Pakistan cricketer. He was a user of Twitter and Facebook well before he even started playing for Pakistan.

During the tour of England this summer, he had tried hard to ingratiate himself to journalists by providing quotes and interviews when most other players would have offered no comment or concentrated on their game instead.

In particular, he was very keen to build an online platform by seeking out journalists from PakPassion and Cricinfo.

The role of certain sections of the Pakistan media in his disappearance is thus interesting. It appears the only people Zulqarnain could trust were Pakistani tabloid journalists who could increase his profile. Was there a pay-off involved from the journalists? For Zulqarnain's sake, one hopes not.

There is though a lot of speculation from former players and people connected with Zulqarnain about their disbelief of his story.

As is to be expected in matters where there is a lot of conjecture and the facts are not known, there are conspiracy theorists galore, coalescing around two extreme viewpoints.

The first is that it is all made up and nothing untoward happened. This seems excessive. Why would Zulqarnain go to such lengths and do all this just to seek asylum in the UK? That would imply that he is not only lying and duplicitous, but also idiotic.

The second equally fanciful extreme argues that everything is true, and one cannot trust a single Pakistan player, that Zulqarnain is the last honest man left in Pakistan, and people go around threatening murder in public and in broad daylight in five-star hotels in Dubai - and do so right under the ICC's nose. Again, this extreme is very far-fetched and hard to believe. At this stage, all we can say for certain is that we have not heard the last word on this issue. Stay tuned for further drama from the most riveting soap opera in all sport.