He Loves Pakistani Cricket. It Doesn’t Love Him Back. (Published 2020)

LONDON — Wasim Khan has spent his life immersed in Pakistani cricket, even as he spent very little of that life in Pakistan. To his critics, that latter bit is precisely the problem.

Wasim Khan was hooked early. As the son of Pakistani immigrants to Britain, Khan grew up listening to his father, his uncles and his cousins talk passionately about cricket late into the night. They told tales of Pakistan’s cricketing superstars, of its stunning victories, and of the huge crowds that regularly packed the dusty stadiums a world away from the Khans’ home in the Small Heath section of Birmingham, the city that served as a magnet for the generations of migrants from South Asia in the 1960s and ’70s.

Khan was, and is, a Pakistan cricket fan. He was even when he started to show his own talent for the sport, a talent with the bat that earned him a place in England’s under-19 team. Even when he became the first Briton of Pakistani heritage to sign a professional club cricket contract. And even later, when he was appointed to lead the Leicestershire County Cricket Club, becoming the first nonwhite chief executive of a major professional British sports team.

So when he was offered the opportunity to run Pakistan’s cricket board in 2018, Khan had no hesitation. The lure was personal, not just professional.

“Part of the appeal of going back to Pakistan was being with your own people, the whole understanding of the place, the feeling when you get up in the morning and you hear the call to prayer,” he said.

Now, 18 months after taking on the job, whatever romance Khan, 49, had about relocating to the land of his parents’ birth to take charge of a sport that is a national obsession has largely evaporated.

Since moving last year to Lahore, where the Pakistan Cricket Board is based, he has faced an unending torrent of criticism. For the changes he has instituted. For his European upbringing. For the languages he chooses to speak, and his accent in them when he does. But mostly, as he is reminded almost daily, for not being Pakistani enough, for being an “import” doing a job that should be reserved for a Pakistani.

“I don’t think anything prepared me for the hostility I was going to face,” Khan said. “They’ve put me on the back foot right from the word go.”

Khan detailed the daily outpouring of negativity during an interview last month. How a group of board members staged a walkout, followed by a news conference in which they attacked him as an outsider, almost as soon as he had been appointed last year. How his salary was leaked and is now subject to daily debate. And how rumors continue to persist that he was only appointed because of connections to influential political figures close to Pakistan’s cricket-hero-turned-prime-minister, Imran Khan.

To underline the point, he brandished his cellphone. “Look,” he said. “This just came out today.”

The screen loads a YouTube video in which another of Pakistan’s former star players, the ex-captain Javed Miandad, launches into a full-throated assault on the cricket board, and both Khans. (Wasim Khan is not related to Imran Khan.) The diatribe lasts several minutes. Dressed in a blue tunic and sitting in a chair, Miandad fires volley after volley, excoriating Khan, his former teammate, over changes to the cricket board, including the appointment of Wasim Khan.

“Is there a shortage of people in your own country that you had to bring people from abroad?” Miandad says, his voice rising until he is almost shouting. (Weeks later, Miandad apologized for his outburst.)

Being responsible for Pakistan cricket is unlike most other similar roles in professional sports. The scrutiny runs from the office of the prime minister, through the dozens of news channels featuring frothing ex-players and commentators with hours of airtime to fill, and down to streets teeming with children playing impromptu games, mimicking the swashbuckling batting or the fast bowling of their green-shirted national team heroes.

Then there is the daily reality of managing cricket in Pakistan, which has only recently started to host international teams after a decade-long exile forced upon it after militants attacked a visiting Sri Lankan team in 2009. Domestically, Khan has become the face of a major restructuring of the professional game, a streamlining that has eliminated several teams, cost hundreds of professional players their jobs and sparked protests in the streets.

“There is that emotional pull and he moved back to Pakistan, hoping it would be great,” said Osman Samiuddin, an author and journalist who has written a book about the history of cricket in Pakistan. “And then you get there and the reality of the situation hits you, and you think, ‘Oh damn, maybe I shouldn’t have done this.’”

Khan shook his head as he recalled the moment a group of board members walked out of a meeting after a motion to block his appointment was not heard. The moment was captured on television cameras as the men held an impromptu news conference to air their grievances. Khan recalled receiving a frantic call from his wife, Salma, who was in Lahore, hundreds of miles away, house hunting for the new family home.

“She rang me in tears, saying, ‘You’re on every TV station right now and it’s saying you’re not going to have a job anymore,’” Khan said. “I said, ‘Don’t worry, it will get sorted.’”

Instead, it has gotten worse. In many ways, the ceaseless criticism is a function of cricket’s centrality to life in Pakistan. But it is also based in the changes to the culture of the way the sport is managed in the country.

“Do you know what the word sifarish means?” Wasim Akram, once the world’s No. 1-ranked fast bowler, asked. He was referring to an Urdu word which suggests a mix of nepotism and favoritism, which he said has long been a function of cricket in Pakistan. Ex-players, relatives of ex-players and influential political figures had for decades benefited from a system that rewarded relationships over professional aptitude.

“We need someone like Wasim Khan to come as a neutral guy, as a person who comes in and sees things differently,” Akram said. His backing was a rare public endorsement for the cricket board chief and the changes he is pursuing. Many of Akram’s former teammates, like his former captain Miandad, typically line up to outdo one another in their criticism.

The demand for such content — the commentaries are broadcast daily on dozens of news channels but also countless personal YouTube channels — is partly explained by the fact that cricket’s popularity has no rival in a country with a population of more than 200 million. Its importance is perhaps best underlined by the central role afforded to the prime minister, whose official title of patron in chief to the cricket board belies its power.

And in Imran Khan, Pakistan has one the most storied cricket players of all time at the helm. Educated at the University of Oxford in Britain, Khan was already a household name well beyond Pakistan’s borders when he played a starring role in Pakistan’s greatest sporting triumph, captaining the team to the 1992 World Cup title.

Shortly after sweeping to power as Pakistan’s prime minister in August 2018, Khan set about overhauling the sport in which he made his name.

A club cricket structure that was dominated by so-called department teams — clubs run by some of Pakistan’s biggest businesses — was replaced by six regional teams, in an effort to create a cleaner pathway for talent to the national side and also build a fan base for the club game.

While Imran Khan, in his role as prime minister, is the guiding hand behind the change, Wasim Khan has been the face of it. That has made him a lightning rod for criticism, especially after the changes reduced the number of professionals by more than a half, and led to stories of former cricketers having to suddenly turn to driving taxis and even rickshaws to make a living.

Many have blamed Khan’s foreign origins for the plight of the players.

“Wasim Khan has been imported from England, he has never lived in Pakistan, doesn’t know about Pak cricket,” one of the chief executive’s biggest critics, Mirza Iqbal Baig, a broadcaster with huge social media following, wrote on Twitter.

Khan argues that in time, the new system will yield results. Besides, he said, he had little choice in the matter: the prime minister wanted the changes, and the country’s world rankings — seventh in Test cricket and sixth in one-day internationals — suggest the existing structure is not producing the results that the country and its tens of millions of fans crave.

“If you’re telling me the competitiveness of our structure works,” Khan said, “the stats don’t lie.”

The belief that he is right, though, does little to win over the critics, especially those — like Miandad and others — who reject his authority out of hand because of his British roots.

“He’s got the worst of both worlds,” said Samiuddin, the author. “He understands the country, speaks the language, but he’s not one of them. They’ll treat him like one of them, but never let him be completely in.”

Sitting in the corner of a mostly empty hotel restaurant in London, mulling over what has happened to him, the sadness and hurt that he has endured, Khan ruminated on a philosophical question that he thought he had resolved before trading his homeland for that of his parents.

“Where is home? That’s a good question,” he said. “I’ve been back here now three weeks and it’s been such a relief to be back and out of that caldron.”

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