At the end of the day, I decided to have faith in you guys having nothing to do at work, and that you would find it sufficiently engaging to not drift off. Enjoy.
Malcolm Gladwell, the world’s most brilliant writer, and master of the no-shit-Sherlock thesis, recently had his third book published, called Outliers. In it, he debunks the notion that overwhelming success is merely the result of innate talent. To the contrary, Gladwell argues that the social and economic systems within which individuals are embedded in matter a great deal. Individuals, talented as they are, cannot succeed without being blessed with the right circumstances.
So Bill Gates wouldn’t have been a computer super-genius if he didn’t happen to be one of the few people to go to school at a place where he had an exclusive opportunity to sit and stare at a screen all day. The Beatles wouldn’t have been The Beatles if they didn’t have the opportunity to hone their skills night in and night out in Hamburg. Jewish lawyers in New York needed the anti-Semitism of early-20th century America so that they would be forced to work in then-unpopular areas of law, areas which expanded considerably in the 1960s and 70s leaving the same Jewish lawyers in a highly advantaged position. Chinese students are better at math than Americans because their ancestors worked in rice paddy fields (you’ll have to read the book to figure that one out).
The story of Pakistani cricket from the summer of 2006 to the present has been remarkable in many ways. In those three years, it has enjoyed more drug-related charges (four) than test match victories (three). It has lost its two best players to retirement and the ICL respectively. Few teams have faced greater misfortune with respect to World Cups – it was knocked out of the last one by Ireland, a country that doesn’t play any meaningful cricket, and denied a chance to host the next one by the Taliban, who would rather that no country play any meaningful cricket. From dummy captains to dead coaches, from terrorist attacks to a fading bowling attack, from ball tampering allegations to ball-busting stupidity, Pakistan cricket has lurched from one crisis to another, uncaring to the followers it has taken on this death-ride. Every time Pakistani cricket fans reason to themselves that it surely cannot become any worse, reality bites, and asks them a cruel question: are you sure?
The usual explanations bandied about for these events are usually couched in the language of structures and systems. If Pakistan’s domestic cricket was better organized, we are told, it would throw up better talent. If Pakistan’s cricket board had a constitution and internal elections, it would be better managed. If Pakistan’s players were trained from a younger age, they wouldn’t be so clearly out of their depth when they hit the big leagues.
These explanations are all well and good, but there is something inherently problematic about them. Pakistan’s domestic cricket has always been this badly organized. Pakistan’s cricket board has never had a constitution or internal elections. And Pakistan’s players have only ever received real coaching once they made the national team. And yet Pakistan has, at various times in the last two decades, been arguably the best team in the world, despite these factors working against it.
Why does this matter? To borrow social scientific lexicon, we cannot explain variation with a constant. Pakistan cricket’s systemic chaos has been a near constant. Pakistan cricket’s success and failure on the field has varied considerably. In the last decade alone, it has seen two periods of top quality cricket (1999-2002; 2004-2006), one period of rebuilding a young team (2002-2004), and one unmitigated collapse into oblivion (2006-present). So if the purported cause (“quality of structure”) hasn’t changed, how can its putative effect (“quality of cricket”) have changed so dramatically?
Pakistan’s problem in the last three years has not been with the structure within which individuals operate, but the individuals themselves. More to the point, the problem has been that it has filled particular roles with personalities spectacularly unsuited for them. Three in particular have stood out: Nasim Ashraf, Shoaib Malik, and Shoaib Akhtar.
Nasim Ashraf, during his time in charge, was seemingly intent on challenging George W. Bush for the coveted most-bad-decisions-per-year award, the Buffoon d’Or. In a culture that values personal relationships above all else, he never got on with the players, and never tried to either. He jettisoned people when he shouldn’t have (Waqar Younis as bowling coach) and failed to do so when he should have (Mohammad Asif and Shoaib Akhtar after the first round of drug offenses). In his untiring efforts to sideline the ICL signees, he proved himself to be more loyal than the King; never bothering to note whether or not kowtowing to the BCCI on the question of banning the ICL players was in Pakistan’s interest or not. Instead of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, as Theodore Roosevelt would have exhorted him to, Ashraf spoke loudly but enjoyed little authority – both within and outside the country – because he simply did not win people’s respect. Everybody knew that he was in the position he was for precisely one reason: his close relationship with former president Pervez Musharraf. His time as head of the PCB was marked, above all else, by incompetence and mistrust. It showed.
Contrast that with his predecessor, Shaharyar Khan. Khan’s professional training was as a diplomat – for a period of forty years, he served Pakistan as an ambassador, a high commissioner, and a foreign secretary. This training, no doubt, allowed him to cultivate stronger relationships with stakeholders in Pakistani cricket to a much greater extent than Ashraf. He would know which buttons to push, when to push them, and when to tactically back off – all qualities that a diplomat naturally possesses. He had experience in the cricketing fraternity – he was appointed the team’s manager on the politically charged tour to India in 1999, and managed the side in the 2003 World Cup too. In short, he wasn’t out of his element around superstar cricketers (unlike Ashraf) and knew how to get along with people, because he had done it for a living (unlike Ashraf).
So Ashraf’s reign over Pakistan cricket is the first step toward understanding what has happened in the last three years. Though the PCB has always been a dysfunctional organization, it exceeded its own high standards of ineptitude during Ashraf’s time.
The second key individual we must look to is Shoaib Malik. Now, Shoaib Malik is a good man and a good cricketer. Until he became captain, he always showed himself to be a team player – doing whatever those senior to him asked him to, never being involved in any controversies on or off the field, batting in any and all positions, turning his arm over when a breakthrough was needed on flat wickets, and being Pakistan’s only world class fielder. It is not his fault he was asked to be captain – no, that particular honor belongs to Younis Khan. But it is his fault that he was such a bad one.
Pakistan has always been known for playing an attacking and aggressive brand of cricket. Under the Inzamam-Woolmer regime, they lost some of that style, though that regime’s detractors sometimes overstate the case. But Shoaib Malik took it to another level. It would take one boundary for sweepers to be put out, even against the Zimbabwes and Bangladeshes of the world. Two slips would be a rarity, three a pipe dream. There was little to no innovation in fielding positions. Bowling changes were predictable. Youngsters – Fawad Alam and Sohail Khan must be asking themselves if they accidentally insulted someone in Malik’s family – weren’t given chances to show what they worth, even when they were selected. Pakistan didn’t just become a bad team, they became something much worse. They became boring. A team that prided itself on magnetic and charismatic superstars wreaking havoc with opposition team’s carefully crafted plans suddenly became an Excel spreadsheet: staid and predictable. Shoaib Malik created more EPL fans in Pakistan than Cristiano Ronaldo, Jose Mourinho, Steven Gerrard and Cesc Fabregas combined.
So Shoaib Malik’s bad captaincy is the second clue we need to chart Pakistan cricket’s descent. Under him the team was neither good enough to challenge the big boys, nor bad enough to warrant a complete overhaul and an infusion of youth. He failed to inspire, played favorites – Kamran Akmal, anyone? – and was tactically lost. The result was mediocrity.
Last but by no means in this sordid story is Shoaib Akhtar. There was a period – perhaps two or three years ago – when Shoaib Akhtar was an incredibly polarizing individual. If you walked into a room of ten cricket fans, five would tell you that he was the only savior available to Pakistan cricket, and five would tell you that he was overweight, injury-prone and selfish, and deserved to be booted. There was no middle ground. This is no longer the case. Now, not only is there no middle ground, but there are no supporters left either. Suddenly, that room of ten cricket fans has nine loudly railing against Shoaib, and it’s only nine because the tenth popped off for a smoke, probably unable to handle thinking or talking about Shoaib Akhtar any longer. It is all become a bit much: the self-aggrandizing Ferrari references, the repeated pull-outs on second and third days of test matches, the laziness in the field, the incessant trouble with teammates, the drugs, the scandals, and the injuries – oh, the injuries. After contracting genital warts, Shoaib has seemingly completed his quest to suffer every ailment possible for an athlete; surely there is nothing left for him to accomplish.
It is important, however, to note that Shoaib Akhtar the individual was not the problem, per se. After all, this was the same man who ran through sides, good sides, for fun, who once silenced one hundred thousand Indians in Calcutta by getting Tendulkar first ball, who once possessed capabilities of destruction that no one else could even fathom. Why? Well, he was quicker than Ambrose, got more bounce than Waqar, was more accurate than Lee, and more menacing than Donald. What more do you want?
No, the problem wasn’t Shoaib himself, but the role he was asked to fulfill around the middle of this decade: the senior statesmen. Shoaib thrived as the breakthrough-iconoclast at the beginning of his career (1998-2000) and did fairly well as the up-and-comer stepping up to replace the Ws as the best bowler in the team (2000-03). What he was clearly unequipped to handle was the next logical step, that is, of a position of responsibility; his selfishness, immaturity and stubbornness simply precluded any success in that role. One only needs to imagine Mohammad Asif’s career under Wasim Akram or Waqar Younis’ tutelage to comprehend the difference. This is not to excuse Asif for his bouts of incredible inanity and stupidity, but it is to say that the type of players available as mentors matter greatly for one’s development.
It is a truism that individual talent alone doesn’t guarantee success. But I would submit: it can make a helluva difference. Even if the structure around individuals is decrepit and constraining, talent has a way of rising above such concerns, and making a difference. Imagine Shaharyar Khan in place of Nasim Ashraf as head honcho of the PCB over the last three years. Or Wasim Akram in place of Shoaib Akhtar as the team’s elder statesman. Or Younis Khan (or even Shahid Afridi) in place of Shoaib Malik as captain. Despite the unfavorable conditions that are a staple for Pakistani cricket, there is little doubt that we would not be where we are now. No chance.
That lesson – the lesson that, irrespective of systems and organization and circumstances, simple talent can overcome – is valuable, for it provides a silver lining for us to consider. Imagine, for instance, how difficult a course Pakistan would face if reforming its system would be the only way of getting back on track. Imagine if we followed Gladwell’s blueprint, and had to ensure that the circumstances and structures that facilitate success were put in place before we actually got any. How depressing would that be? How long would we have to wait? Structures cannot be reformed overnight – indeed, that’s what makes them structures: their quality of endurance.
Ten minutes. Count to six hundred, and you’re there. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
If there is one critical moment from which Pakistan’s tale of woe begun, it must surely be Younis Khan’s “dummy captain” moment. As a result of that madness, Pakistan neither had the captain (Younis, despite his impetuousness, was the best bet) nor the chairman (Shaharyar resigned after the fiasco) it needed. Moreover, it sucked the life out of the entire set-up, leaving the late Bob Woolmer aghast, and in no small way led to the unraveling of the most successful Pakistan team of the last decade. And finally, it led to a fracturing of the team, because all of a sudden, the medium-term captaincy was an open question, and each of Shoaib Malik, Yousuf, and Afridi was a candidate, and lobbied intensely for it. Claims and counter-claims for respect and allegiance were made, and the team simply splintered at the top.
Rumor has it that the reason Younis Khan had his “dummy captain” moment was that he was made to wait for ten minutes outside Shaharyar Khan’s office in the autumn of 2006. Ten minutes. In that time, this too-proud man decided that the wait was an insult he could not bear, and that he would not only walk away in a huff and not meet the chairman of the board, but that he would also walk away from the captaincy for the Champions Trophy. In that instant, Younis threw to waste Pakistan’s carefully laid plans. He had loyally served as Inzamam-ul-Haq’s deputy for almost two years, and had impressed all and sundry with his leadership and man-management skills. He had played the “young, energetic, full of life” ying to Inzamam’s “calm, steely, fatherly” yang faithfully and brilliantly. For once in Pakistan cricket’s tortured history, there was a succession plan; for once, the captaincy would be peacefully and normally transferred from a captain to a vice-captain. For once, there would be no revolts, no back-biting, no politicking, no cliques, no haphazard ascension to the throne.
For once, there was a system in place.