With the PCB announcing the decision to hold the PSL final in Lahore, the time for hoping that the authorities would choose a safer option is over. The decision to hold the final in Pakistan’s cultural capital had been known for a while, but a spate of terrifying attacks across the country during the PSL’s run certainly changed the situation.
Although all sorts of officials have made noises about how security would be fool-proof, one has to wonder how much to trust a state that has lost 60,000+ civilians in this decade-long war. Certainly, the international players who were once cautiously considering traveling for the final have now balked at the prospect, probably wondering how much they can trust a security apparatus that can’t protect its own people.
But if you want to hear the political and social reasons for why hosting the final in Lahore is a terrible idea, you would probably want to read that at a newspaper or a political blog. This is a cricket website, and I can anticipate that not everyone would want to read politics here. But even purely from the perspective of cricket, hosting the final in Lahore is a terrible idea.
The PSL’s format, where five teams play a league system only to see one get knocked out, isn’t perfect and undermines the group stages a little bit. But despite this, the contest is really well contested, as evidenced by several classic encounters that the competition has already thrown up this season. It suggests that the league is quite even and well contested. In light of that the final represents the culmination of a rather tough journey, where a team has to make it through the league and then one to two knockout games before playing the final. Having been part of the scenes for both events, its very clear that over the course of the tournament the successful sides come together off the field as well, with clear leaders emerging and others finding their identities and roles.
Last year’s final saw the most consistent team, Quetta, take on the one that peaked at the right time, Islamabad. United won a well fought final, and did so after a spate of injuries and close defeats early in the tournament had threatened to knock them out. Both sides saw their foreign players really embrace the team ethos, as well as having mentors who were fantastic ambassadors for the competition. Both had players like Mohammad Nawaz and Sharjeel Khan who broke into the national side. The final therefore represented the culmination of two powerful narratives, and gave a lot of context to the tournament itself.
This edition has seen a similar run. Peshawar and Quetta are once again the top two sides, although neither has been as consistent as last time. Islamabad, who had qualified last time by beating the two weaker teams, lost to both this time while taking out the two teams above them. Karachi once again pipped Lahore by the skin of their teeth, though this time look to be peaking much better.
But once they get to the final, they will barely be recognisable. That is because each team plays four foreign players, almost none of whom will be available in the final. Instead, a pre-final draft will have various players joining the two finalists. This had always been on the cards, even before the terrorist attacks, and was always a terrible idea. The only difference was that the presence of the foreign stars might have added some glamour, and without them we will be watching a glorified Faysal Bank T20 final instead.
What makes it worse is that it upends all the narrative and hard work of the tournament itself. A team makes it to the final by finding its best combination, watching players find their form and roles, and seeing leaders emerge. Once there, all those factors are meant to come together. Instead, we will see two hollowed out sides, having to come up with new strategies and tactics to accommodate the new players in the side. Since none of these were selected in the draft, they will also be lower quality players.
It utterly destroys the value of the final, and means that whoever wins it will always have an asterisk next to their win. Moreover, it would mean that the most important match of the tournament would be the one with the lowest quality, the least stars and the complete lack of any reference to how the team actually played during the tournament.
Some might argue that sacrificing the context of the PSL’s final is worth it for the greater good. But what exactly is that? Despite having an international team over for several weeks in 2015, even the lower profile teams in world cricket weren’t convinced of travelling to Pakistan. Similarly, the insider reports from the initial meetings (before the Mall road bombing etc) held with foreign players about playing in Lahore suggested that most were unconvinced. If that was the situation before 200 people were killed by terrorists, then it can only get worse after.
Moreover, there is the greater loss to consider. At this point, with Pakistan having made gains in the fight against terrorism, the wait for resuming cricket might be somewhere between 3-5 years. If, and I pray all the time that this doesn’t happen, there is an incident at this PSL final, then that wait would become something like 10-20 years. A bad enough incident might very well turn people in the country itself against cricket. And if we must truly contemplate the terrifying, a horrible attack could wipe out an entire generation of cricketers.
Again, this is alarmist but at the same time, we have all experienced terrorism first hand. It isn’t something that happens elsewhere, but has happened in our markets and mosques, our hotels and houses, our schools and streets. We have lost thousands upon thousands to it. Terrorism isn’t something unthinkable, but probable. So it makes little sense why we would risk the one successful product our cricket has created in decades for a false sense of security.
Nevertheless, the massive response of ticket buyers in Lahore reminds us that cricket is indeed the lifeblood of this country. Hopefully, the PSL final will bring plenty of joy to the fans, even if it will be a shadow of its own self.