LONDON — Wasim Khan has spent his life immersed in Pakistani cricket, even though he spent very little of that life in Pakistan. For his critics, the latter is the problem.
Wasim Khan was an addict early on. 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 cricket superstars, of its stunning victories and of the huge crowds that regularly filled the dusty stadiums, a world away from the Khans’ home in the Small Heath section of Birmingham, the city that has been a magnet for generations. has served migrants from South Asia in the 1960s and 1970s.
Khan was and is a Pakistani cricket fan. He was even as he began to show his own talent for the sport, a batting talent that landed him a place in the England under-19 squad. Even when he became the first Briton of Pakistani descent to sign a cricket contract for a professional club. And even later, when he was appointed to lead the Leicestershire County Cricket Club and become the first non-white chief executive of a major British professional sports team.
So when he was offered the chance to head the Pakistan cricket board in 2018, Khan didn’t hesitate for a moment. 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 hear the call to prayer,” he said.
Now, 18 months after taking the job, any romance Khan, 49, had about moving to his parents’ homeland to take charge of a sport that is a national obsession has largely evaporated.
Since moving to Lahore, where the Pakistan Cricket Board is based, last year, he has faced an endless stream of criticism. For the changes he made. For his European upbringing. For the languages he chooses to speak, and his accent in them when he does. But above all, as he is reminded almost daily, because he is not Pakistani enough, because he is an ‘importer’ doing a job that should be reserved for a Pakistani.
“I don’t think anything prepared me for the hostility I would face,” Khan said. “They put me on the back foot from the start.”
Khan described the daily flow of negativity in an interview last month. How a group of board members staged a strike followed by a press conference in which they attacked him as an outsider, almost as quickly as he was appointed last year. How his salary was leaked and is now up for debate on a daily basis. And how the rumors persist that he was only appointed because of connections with influential political figures who have become close to Pakistani cricket hero and prime minister, Imran Khan.
To emphasize his point, he waved his cellphone. “Look,” he said. “This just came out today.”
The screen loads a YouTube video in which another former Pakistani star player, the ex-Captain Javed Miandad, launches a full-scale attack on the cricket board and both Khans. (Wasim Khan is not related to Imran Khan.) The tirade lasts several minutes. Dressed in a blue tunic and sitting in a chair, Miandad fires volley after volley, angering Khan, his former teammate, about 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 in from abroad?” says Miandad, his voice rising until he almost screams. (Weeks later, Miandad apologized before his outburst.)
Being responsible for cricket in Pakistan is unlike most other similar roles in professional sports. The investigation spans from the prime minister’s office, through the dozens of news channels with foaming ex-players and commentators with hours of airtime to fill, and to the streets full of kids playing improvised games, imitating swashbuckling batting or fast-paced bowling. of their green-shirted national team heroes.
Then there is the day-to-day reality of managing cricket in Pakistan, which has only recently started hosting 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’s 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 when a group of board members ran out of a meeting after a motion to block his nomination was not heard. The moment was captured on television cameras as the men held an impromptu press conference to voice their grievances. Khan recalled receiving a panicked phone call from his wife, Salma, who was house-hunting for the new family home in Lahore, hundreds of miles away.
“She called me in tears and said, ‘You’re on every TV station now and it says you won’t have a job anymore,'” Khan said. “I said, ‘Don’t worry, it will be resolved.'”
Instead, it has gotten worse. In many ways, the incessant criticism is a function of cricket’s centrality in Pakistani life. But it is also based on the changes in the culture of how the sport is run in the country.
“Do you know what the word is? sipharian resources?” Wasim Akram, once the world’s No. 1 ranked fast bowler, asked. He referred to an Urdu word suggesting a mixture of favoritism and favoritism, which he said was a feature of cricket in Pakistan for a long time. players, relatives of ex-players and influential political figures had for decades benefited from a system that rewarded relationships over professional suitability.
“We need someone like Wasim Khan who comes in as a neutral man, as a person who comes in and sees things differently,” Akram said. His support has been a rare public endorsement for the cricket board chief and the changes he is pursuing. Many of Akram’s former teammates, such as his former captain Miandad, usually line up to outdo each other in their criticism.
The demand for such content – the commentaries are broadcast daily on dozens of news channels as well as on countless personal YouTube channels – is partly explained by the fact that cricket’s popularity has no rival in a country of more than 200 million inhabitants. Its importance is perhaps best underlined by the central role given to the Prime Minister, whose official title of patron of the cricket board belies his power.
And in Imran Khan, Pakistan is at the helm of one of the most legendary cricketers of all time. Educated at the University of Oxford in Britain, Khan was already a household name far beyond Pakistan’s borders when he starred in Pakistan’s biggest sporting victory, captaining the team to the 1992 World Cup title.
Shortly after coming to power as Pakistani Prime Minister in August 2018, Khan began to overhaul the sport in which he made a name for himself.
A club cricket structure dominated by so-called divisional teams – clubs run by some of Pakistan’s largest companies – was replaced by six regional teams, in an effort to create a cleaner path for talent to the national side and also build a fan base. to build for the club game.
While Imran Khan, in his role as Prime Minister, is the leading hand behind the change, Wasim Khan was the face of it. That has made him a lightning rod for criticism, especially after the changes cut the number of professionals by more than half, and led to stories of former cricketers suddenly having to drive taxis and even rickshaws to earn a living.
Many have blamed Khan’s foreign heritage for the plight of the players.
“Wasim Khan was imported from England, he has never lived in Pakistan, knows nothing about Pak cricket,” one of the chief’s critics, Mirza Iqbal Baig, a broadcaster with a huge social media following, wrote on Twitter.
Khan states that the new system will yield results in the long run. Moreover, he said, he had little choice in this: The prime minister wanted the changes, and the country’s world rankings – seventh in Test cricket and sixth in one-day internationals – suggest that the existing structure is not delivering the results the country and its tens of millions of people want. fans crave.
“If you tell me the competitiveness of our structure is working,” Khan said, “the statistics don’t lie.”
However, the belief that he is right does little to convince the critics, especially those – such as Miandad and others – who outright reject his authority because of his British roots.
“He has the worst of both worlds,” says Samiuddin, the author. ‘He understands the land, speaks the language, but he is not one of them. They treat him like one of them, but never let him in at all.”
Sitting in the corner of a largely empty London hotel restaurant, pondering what happened to him, the grief and pain he endured, Khan pondered a philosophical question he thought he had solved before leaving his homeland for that of his own. his father. parents.
“Where’s home? That’s a good question,” he said. “I’ve been here three weeks now and it was such a relief to be back and out of that cauldron.”