Q&A with Pakistan sports journalist Ashar Zaidi

Ashar Zaidi is one of Pakistan’s most respected voices being a senior sports journalist with Geo TV. He has over 15 years of journalism experience, covering cricket and other sports. Zaidi had previously worked for Dawn and Reuters TV. 

In a freewheeling discussion, I chatted to Ashar Zaidi about the drama surrounding India and Pakistan’s relations in cricket, Mohammad Aamir’s comeback to international cricket and much more.

TIM: How do you see cricket in Pakistan?

AZ: Cricket has always been No. 1 and it will continue to be the No. 1 sport in the country. Just a decade back, it did lose some ground to hockey, but since the dismal performance of the men with sticks, cricket is no doubt setting an example.

Pakistan cricket has always had a topsy-turvy nature with things shifting towards the unknown without notice. The biggest problem with Pakistan cricket is that the head of the board, the Chairman, is government handpicked and is answerable to none other than the premier. Like the country itself, when we have the army ruling the country, the cricket board is also run by a man in uniform, when political sanity prevails, friends and foes of struggling years are brought in.

This results in inconsistent policies, merit killing and nepotism. It is something that has always been there in Pakistan cricket and sadly I don’t see it going away anytime soon.

As for the game itself, let’s admit it, the Pakistan team is highly unpredictable. They can win major battles on their days but when things are not going their way, they drop down their shoulders against the minnows.

Plus, we have had experienced bitter happenings like match fixing and player revolts. Not praiseworthy at all, but that’s how Pakistan cricket is, despite all its short comings, it is still one of the crowd favourites - a team that can never be written off. 

TIM: How do you see the cricketing ties between Pakistan and India? And talk about your experiences as a cricket analyst?

AZ: There is no bigger joy in world cricket, being a player, fan or a journalist to see Pakistan-India play in front of the jam-packed crowd, especially in either of the two countries. Sadly, politicians on both sides have kept this joy shelved for some years now and jolted the spirit of sport.

I still remember 1989, when India toured Pakistan and Sachin debuted at Karachi, I saw that match alongside my father. The same ground saw India return in 2004, each and every seat was packed, the atmosphere was electrifying and the players gave their heart out. Overall, it was a splendid show.

I then travelled to India in 2006 and found it to be just like my home, only difference were the sign boards were in Hindi. Like in Karachi or Lahore, taxi drivers in Jaipur and Mohali overcharged me, never ending queues at the stadiums and everything that you can associate with daily life was similar.

I roamed around freely and when I said I was from Pakistan, people showed overwhelming love. I wasn’t charged at restaurants and made some great friends in the media industry and we still share cordial relations. Same were the feelings of Indian journalists and people when they visited Pakistan.

It is the threat itself that keeps both nations knitted together. There is no point in blaming the common fan, because he has no role to play in it. Whenever relations between the two nations settle something happens and I find it sad and highly disturbing.

The cancellation of the recent bilateral series is painful, and I see little chances of normal cricket relations anytime soon.

TIM: With India not playing Pakistan for so long, how do you see the reaction from the fans back home?

AZ: I will talk about Pakistan, and telling you honestly, people are deeply disappointed. Look at it this way, people around the world very conveniently target or blame Pakistan for being the reason of global terrorism.

What they forget, yet again, is that the common man is miles away from that chaotic thought. He is hardworking, peaceful and loves his cricket, not to forget his love for a game against India.

Pakistan itself has lost over 50,000 of its countrymen at the hands of terrorism and each and every person here has felt the pain. Amid this gloom, cricket is one ray of hope, a reason to smile and rejoice.

Talk to any tea stall owner, vegetable seller, student, driver, housewife, manager or CEO Etc, they all were looking forward to India visiting and playing Pakistan in Pakistan. It would have been a festive atmosphere here. And let me tell you, India has a huge following here. Even if somehow India defeats Pakistan, based on good performances, the Indian players would always be cheered and remembered here.

I did many street interviews and everyone I talked to dreamt of India coming here and getting a chance to go and watch the matches live with their loved ones.

So, overall people are very disappointed. 

TIM: Do you think ‘tainted’ Mohammad Aamir should play international cricket again for Pakistan? If yes, why?

AZ: Yes, but not immediately so. Well first thing, all the punishments were given by ICC and England. What punishment did Pakistan give him? In effect we are facilitating his swift return to International cricket. For me, he should be made to play at least one more domestic year before he is allowed to play for Pakistan.

Secondly, we have been losing more matches recently due to bating failures, if there is an urgency to bring back ‘fixed’ players, then Salman Butt deserves better. See for yourself how many openers have been tried and failed.

Thirdly, players like Hafeez, Azhar and Misbah gave their heart out in rebuilding the tarnished image of Pakistan cricket over the last 5 years. If they have reservations on Aamir’s return, then PCB should listen to them. On the other side, these players in my opinion should discuss a road map of return to Aamir in the team. We need Aamir but he is certainly not irreplaceable, and we have Umer Gul and Sami fit and firing for international return. 

TIM: Who do you think has been the most successful captain for Pakistan in ODIs and Tests?

AZ: Ah, tough one! From what I heard from my seniors, it was Mushtaq Muhammad who got the team going initially, from a bunch of rookies, he turned them into a force.

Then, I must mention Wasim Akram and finally Misbah, whom I have seen at first appearance and in his prime being as a captain. I give him extra marks as he didn’t have legendary players at his service; he was at the helm in an extremely difficult situation and did come out with flying colours.

TIM: What are the memorable matches you’ve watched?

AZ: 2004 Karachi ODI, Pakistan against India, never saw a better hard fought match, brilliant stuff. 

TIM:  Should cricket return to Pakistan?

AZ: Of course, cricket should return to Pakistan, but not the way PCB is planning or wishing for. Their steps are often illogical and not done with due concentration. For example we called over Zimbabwe to fill our grounds earlier this year and then it was played in just one city - that didn’t give out a good signal to the world.

We need to be honest to the world and seek their help in returning cricket. If asking India calls for trouble, we can ask Australia and England to help us out in ironing out the issues. Take advantage of their expertise and technology and see how we can get things back.

Instead of taking a giant leap and wasting all resources on inviting national teams, the need of the hour is to take baby steps and call A, B or even junior teams. Ask foreign journalists to come along and let them speak for our sincere efforts. Apart from security issues, I believe it’s more a matter of trust building that can bring cricket back to Pakistan.

And yes, the world also needs to realize that leaving Pakistan alone to fight this menace would not yield any positive and desirable results.

Come forward and help us. 

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