It felt good to be welcomed by huge multimedia hoardings flaunting Pakistan Super League at Dubai Airport. The cool February air in the Emirates was buzzing with cricket fever. Billboards marketing the tournament dotted the roads that led to the hotel and the path to the Dubai International Cricket Stadium, where the opening ceremony followed by cricket matches was to take place, was lined with team posters. A bigger and better tournament, PSL 2018 kicked off on February 22 with an opening ceremony that picked up the pace on what we’ve been seeing these past two years. It was a shorter and crisper ceremony, but featured a roster of enviable names of entertainers.
You had Abida Parveen paying tribute to this year’s Sufi theme, Sachal Studio performing the National Anthem, Ali Zafar and Shehzad Roy in their roles as PSL brand ambassadors, Hareem Farooq and Bilal Ashraf putting up a good face of Pakistan as emcees and finally, international pop star Jason Derulo in the stadium for a reinforcement of international flavor.
This year’s opening ceremony was given a Sufi theme, apparently to welcome the sixth team – the Multan Sultans – while also to simultaneously project the message of Sufism, which is peace and tolerance. Multan is known as the City of Saints and Sufis and thus.
“We had added the Multan team this year and since Multan is known as the City of Saints, we wanted to pay tribute to that,” Project Director PSL, Naila Bhatti said. “We wanted to propagate tolerance and the softer side of Pakistan to the PSL stage,” she added.
This is what the entertainers on board reinforced as well. They wanted to show the world that there is more to Pakistan than what they read in the news. Moreover, they wanted to see the people of Pakistan caught up with something beyond politics and its adjoining chaos and corruption.
“PSL is making people happy in Pakistan and I believe that making people happy is also a part of spirituality,” the legendary Abida Parveen said at a press conference held a day ahead of the opening. Abida jee was part of the opening ceremony and while her performance was limited to several minutes and two songs – ‘Tere Ishq Nachaya’ and ‘Laal Meri Pat’ – she set the tone for days to come.
“We wanted both Abida Parveen and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan but were unable to rope in both,” Naila Bhatti explained the selection process. “But who better could there be to champion the Sufi theme? We wanted an orchestra to play the national anthem and who better than the Sachal Studio? They also played the UAE national anthem so well.”
They did. The National Anthem was a positively goose bump moment. To hear it on the television is one thing, but to be at the stadium and feel the notes resonate through the hearts of thousands of Pakistanis is beyond imagination. It’s the kind of feeling of pride and nationalism that one misses back at home where the constant political bickering drowns out any other sound. Perhaps PSL, gradually making its way into Pakistan, will bring that feeling of collective national pride back too. God knows how desperately the people of the country need uplifting entertainment.
“PSL is an asset that belongs to Pakistan and every political party, group, region owns it,” Chairman PCB, Najam Sethi said during the inaugural speech. “We have to keep politics out of PSL and we must protect it as a national asset. Only then will it survive. Inshallah PSL will come to Pakistan and will be played all over the country.”
PSL has been dipping its toes into local waters. Last year the final match and closing ceremony flew to Lahore. This year it is scheduled to take place in Karachi at the National Stadium.
“The closing will be completely different, on a smaller scale, keeping the security parameters in mind,” Naila Bhatti shared. “We have to keep so many things in mind, including a four tier security check. But we’re trying to do something big, which we’ll reveal closer to the date.”
Back to the opening, this year’s ceremony was shorter, specifically to give the organizers time to take everything down and clear the field for the match between Peshawer Zalmi and Multan Sultans in time. The match was delayed by half an hour last year because it took longer than expected to take the stage down; this year things were on time.
Ali Zafar and his stunts were one of the most anticipated features of the opening ceremony and he didn’t disappoint. Turning on his action hero mode, he flew into the stadium and whizzed across as the first official teaser for his upcoming film Teefa in Trouble played to the crowd. It was a Mission Impossible moment; befitting, as the Mission Impossible – Fallout trailer debuted at the Super Bowl earlier in February. The teaser was made available online soon after.
This wasn’t the only moment of glory Ali Zee enjoyed. He returned to stage after Jason Derulo and performed his popular PSL anthem, ‘Dil Sey Jaan Laga Dey;’ this is Ali’s third anthem in as many years and was just as uplifting as his last ones.
Pakistan Super League, with its international players and global broadcasting, has also stuck to a tradition of having an international artist perform at the opening ceremony every year. One saw Sean Paul in 2017, Shaggy last year and this year brought in Jason Derulo, an undisputed popular choice to the teenage youth of the country. But there was criticism back home. People felt that it was unnecessary to rope in an international artist, especially when you already had someone of Abida Parveen’s stature on the program. Wasn’t it an unnecessary expense?
“Jason was in Dubai for other shows so his fee was very manageable,” Naila Bhatti explained the feasibility, while suggesting that so many local celebrities were quoting unaffordable figures to be part of the program. “It was a 7-minute segment. PSL is broadcast globally. We have international cricketers and our global broadcasters demand an international angle in the opening as well. We want that branding. No other League has this big an opening ceremony. This is unique and now has its own identity. I think we just prove that we’re inclusive by bringing in foreign artists. We should think outwards and not just inwards.”
Naila Bhatti, who’s also Director Marketing PSL, shared some information on the reportedly million dollar opening ceremony that took almost six months of meticulous planning every year.
“We are gradually understanding what we can and can’t do,” she said about the third year of PSL. “The team is gelled in better, Samer from The Musketeers (the London-based show directors) is in tune; we have bigger budgets. This year we hired a different director for television. That was an addition. We want the PSL opening ceremony to be bigger and better every year. Last year the match was delayed by 45 minutes so this year we had strict instructions to get off the field in time.”
What are the criteria for choosing performing artists or hosts, for that matter, for the opening ceremony? So many people wondered how Fahad Mustafa was chosen last year and Hareem Farooq and Bilal Ashraf were selected to emcee the opening ceremony this year.
“At the end of the day it has to be about cricket,” Ms Bhatti explained. “We know that team entries are tough and only Rameez (Raja) can do the cricketing part of the hosting. So the selection depends on the budget. This year we wanted someone neutral, someone who wouldn’t look affiliated with any one particular channel. Hareem and Bilal are young and speak well and were the perfect choice.”
The games continued and celebrity appearances kept dotting the stadium, keeping things exciting for fans all over the world. The opening ceremony attracted Fawad Khan, Ahsan Khan, Javed Sheikh, Neelam Munir and several others along with the brand ambassadors Ali Zafar and Shehzad Roy. Those who couldn’t make it for the opening – like Mahira Khan and Hamza Ali Abbasi – came in later to keep the celebrity quotient high during regular matches.
One wondered if the cricketers ever felt that their big moment was divided between the hype these entertainment stars create. The perfect answer came from Shoaib Akhtar, also present at the opening ceremony and sharing the limelight in the VIP stands.
“PSL is a great experience and every year it is growing,” he said. “It’s becoming a bigger brand each year and that feels good. It’s beautiful. It’s Pakistan’s brand and we’re going to support that. I wish PSL the best of luck.”
How did he feel about the combination of cricket, film and entertainment and stars from each realm came together for PSL. Was there ever the fear of cricket getting overshadowed by entertainment?
“What three things did you mention?” he asked, in quintessential Shoaib Akhtar flair. “Cricket, film and entertainment? You combine all three and get Shoaib Akhtar.”
- This article was first published in Instep on Sunday on March 4, 2018
- Pictures courtesy PCB and Babar Hashmi @ Somethinghaute