The Pakistan Super League chief, Najam Sethi, tells Raymond Whitaker how his boys triumphed on the world stage
On the internet there is a video of a beaming 69-year-old man with a bristling moustache punching the air as Pakistan beat their great rivals, India, to win the 2017 Champion’s Trophy at The Oval in London. That man is Najam Sethi, a journalist and publisher who is now enjoying a second career as a power in Pakistani cricket.
‘Nobody expected us to reach the final, let alone win the thing,’ he tells me a few days later. ‘We came into the tournament ranked eighth in the world [the one-day cricket Champion’s Trophy is only for the top eight teams], and Pakistan fans had to hunt everywhere for tickets for The Oval.’
Nor would supporters have started looking for tickets until the last minute – in the qualifying round Pakistan was thrashed by India, and only scraped through against South Africa in a rain-affected match, before striking some form and eliminating Sri Lanka. Their reward was a semi-final against the hosts, England, who were favourites to contest the final against India. But as the tournament reached its climax Pakistan’s young team was inspired, and hypnotised both England and India into playing well below their best.
‘Why did we win? A couple of reasons,’ says Sethi. ‘Our players had true grit: they were determined to show what they could do. They didn’t come under any pressure of expectations. Since they had nothing to lose, they could play with a degree of abandon. And in the final India were too arrogant – they thought Pakistan were there by a fluke.’
The victory was a redemption of sorts for Pakistani cricket after the devastating terror attack on Sri Lanka’s touring team in Lahore in 2009, which brought Test matches in Pakistan to an end. The national cricket sides have had to shift instead to Dubai and Sharjah in the Gulf, although that did not prevent the Test side reaching the top ranking in the world last year (they are currently sixth).
Shorter forms of the sport were a different matter. ‘The game in Pakistan was structured around Test cricket, which was played on flat pitches, very different from one-day and Twenty20 cricket,” says Sethi, a passionate follower of the game, though he has not picked up a bat since school. ‘Playing in the Gulf did not change that very much. We won the world one-day tournament in 1992, hardly anything since.’
But Pakistan, like the rest of the world, could not ignore the stratospheric success of India’s T20 Premier League, which has generated fabulous amounts of money and spawned similar competitions around the world. It was at this point that Sethi became involved, in itself a story almost as extraordinary as the cricketers’ victory at The Oval.
How did a liberal media man who has been thrown into detention by three Pakistani leaders – including the current Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif – end up in a position many cricket fanatics consider the most important in the country? Sethi still writes the editorial every week in the Friday Times, the newspaper he launched in 1989 with his wife, Jugnu Mohsin, slamming Islamist extremists and official corruption alike. He and Jugnu also have hard-hitting television programmes, and require 24-hour protection at home.
Yet not only is Najam Sethi chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board’s executive committee, he has been in charge of Pakistan’s T20 league from its launch a little over a year ago. And it was PM Sharif who asked him to take it on: apparently old Lahore loyalties, and a mutual distaste for military interference in politics, have overcome past hostility.
Unlike in India, the Pakistan Super League (PSL) had to be organised in large measure by the cricket authorities themselves. ‘We have a three-year model,’ says Sethi. ‘We set up five team franchises, for which bids totalled $9.3 million.’ In the first season, all the matches were played in Dubai and Sharjah in front of few spectators, but millions were watching in Pakistan. Season two has just concluded, with the final taking place in Lahore under heavy security. Dawid Malan, England’s new T20 star, was among four overseas players in the winning team, Peshawar Zalmi.
With the PSL taking off, bids for a sixth team have reached $5.2 million. ‘It shows how much we have progressed,’ according to Sethi. There are plans to hold eight matches next year in Pakistan, four each in Lahore and Karachi. ‘We hope to bring the PSL back, step by step, over the next two years,’ says the chairman of its governing council, who is in no doubt that the league’s faster-scoring, high-pressure environment is what carried the youthful 50-over side to success in London.
And in September the Pakistani Test team will play on home soil for the first time in over eight years, against an international all-stars side. It is another step towards normality, though the threat from extremists remains, and security will have to be overwhelming.
Seeing passionate Indian and Pakistani fans mingling noisily but peacefully at The Oval raises another question, however: why can’t the two countries resume playing Test cricket against each other? ‘Unfortunately, cricket is now another word for nationalism,’ says Sethi. ‘And nationalism now equates Hinduism with India, and Islam with Pakistan. It is why things have become terribly tense between our two countries.’ It seems any encounters between the two countries will continue to be away from the subcontinent, and only in the context of an international tournament.
Nor can cricket bring unalloyed harmony within either nation. Squabbles among top players and officials have been blamed for India’s poor performance in the Champion’s Trophy final. And while Najam Sethi was acclaimed as a hero after the match by most of the Pakistani fans who mobbed him outside The Oval, there is another video circulating online which shows them being harassed by a number of supporters chanting ‘Nawaz, go!’ He and his wife had to be escorted back into the ground until the crowds dispersed.
Sethi blames members of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), a party founded by an old adversary, the former cricketing great Imran Khan. ‘It was really sad that Imran brought politics into this,’ he laments. While India and Pakistan were able to leave their hostility at home, some animosities travelled all the way to south London.