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COMMENT: The Covid-19 disaster behind the PSL’s razzle dazzle

NEGLIGENCE is a heavy word, but how else is it possible to describe the failures that led to the suspension of the sixth edition of the Pakistan Super League? The domestic T20 tournament with a global profile, Pakistan’s gateway to international cricket’s return to home venues, had promised to be better than ever in 2021. A reputation was built. A brand was growing in strength. Chris Gayle, Dale Steyn, and David Gower were in the house. Crowds were welcomed back. Security was proven. Global television rights were sold. Synchronised tea sipping and dandruff dances were choreographed. Ramiz Raja and Zainab Abbas were talking up the Covid biosecurity bubbles on the PSL’s YouTube channel.

All that remained was the considerable challenge of keeping Covid-19 at bay; it was a challenge that could not be failed for the sake of the PCB’s reputation and finances, for global confidence in Pakistan cricket. That the challenge was indeed failed is no shock. For 25 years or more, Pakistan cricket has danced one step from disaster. The incumbent PCB promised something better by bringing international players back to Pakistan, even staging a home Test series.

Organising six large squads of players and support staff is a logistic challenge of a different order, but the PCB had a dry run with play offs for PSL 5 in November. To manage the health risks, the PCB and PSL established biosecurity bubbles and standard operating procedures. Pandemic control measures, however, are only as good as the individuals required to create and implement them — and the omens in this regard were not good.

Pakistan’s players first fell foul of Covid regulations on the tour of England. The transgressions were explained away as naivety. The same happened in New Zealand, although New Zealand were less tolerant hosts as befits their more robust and more successful response to Covid-19. Shoaib Akhtar, Pakistan’s wannabe chairman of selectors, took this as a national insult. Instead, he should have been embarrassed that his countrymen were risking re-introduction of Covid-19 to a country that had all but eliminated it. In the meantime, nine players were reprimanded for violating Covid-19 protocols during the National T20 Cup.

That same lack of appreciation of the seriousness of Covid regulations was apparent for the world to see in the opening phase of this year’s PSL. Players, supporters, and various hangers on mingled freely, intoxicated by the old razzle dazzle. Masks were rarely used. There was no biosecurity bubble in sight. It had become an empty phrase. But it wasn’t just the elite who flouted the rules. Fans thronged the stands without a care. In the face of a global pandemic that has so far claimed 2.5 million deaths and is not yet under control in Pakistan, the PSL was partying like it’s 1999.

Meanwhile, people with access to the team hotels reported free interactions between players, supporters, and other hotel guests. Whatever the regulations, they were being ignored. Indeed, the PCB admitted as much. On the eve of the tournament, Peshawar Zalmi were caught flouting the Covid rules when captain Wahab Riaz and coach Darren Sammy met with owner Javed Afridi. The three most senior members of the franchise were misleading by example.

Instead of abiding by its own inadequate standard operating procedures of self-isolation, the PCB cut corners further by relying on a negative Covid test to allow Riaz and Sammy back into the tournament environment. Negative tests alone cannot be used to rule out Covid-19, especially in people who appear asymptomatic. Once that example had been set, it was inevitable that other franchises would breach the protocols too.

The Covid-19 virus doesn’t work for Pakistan cricket; it works for its own survival and it seeks out every weakness in the human response. The tournament was therefore doomed before it even started. The PCB’s cavalier approach to Covid-19 placed players and officials at risk, but was also unsafe for fans, their families, and their communities. Instead of being a super sports spectacle, PSL 2021 became a Covid superspreader event that risks a resurgence of Covid-19 and more deaths in the general population.

The implications of this mismanagement are huge. The financial impact is clear for a cricket board in desperate need of broadcasting and advertising revenues. Dishonoured global television contracts will cause broadcasters to think twice before buying television rights from the PCB, hurting the PSL’s opportunity to grow its international audience. Franchise owners may reconsider their present and future involvement with the tournament. Once trust is lost it takes hard work to retrieve.

Most tellingly, the effect will be greatest on the confidence of the international players that the PCB persuaded to participate. As good as the PSL is for entertainment, it generally attracts international players a rung or two below the elite of T20 cricket. The PSL will always be able to include international players since money talks, but elite players will remain hard to recruit, and many of the current crop may even decide not to venture back.

Wasim Khan, the chief executive of the PCB, was right enough that apportioning blame isn’t a sensible route when investigating a safety incident. Safety incidents are best viewed as system failures rather than individual error. That is best practice in all major industries, including healthcare, but that doesn’t mean that nobody is responsible or accountable for the mistakes that caused the tournament to be suspended.

The inquiry that Khan promises only has merit if it identifies why the PCB’s own standard operating procedures didn’t meet international standards and weren’t followed. The breaches happened in hotels and practice grounds, but they were also beamed live around the world, and presumably the PCB was watching?

A characteristic of the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic is that governments have refused to accept accountability and responsibility for mistakes that have led to millions of deaths and millions more cases. In the land of Pakistan cricket and the PSL, the PCB is the government, which means that the responsibility for this embarrassing, damaging, negligent, and utterly avoidable disaster rests squarely at its door.

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