A lot has happened since the Pakistan Super League ‘17 opening ceremony on February 9 in Dubai. Corruption has reared its ugly head in the league and we have spent the last few days brooding over the ‘bombs versus balloons’ dilemma when the celebration of Valentine’s Day and Basant was banned in Islamabad and Lahore while the nation was mourning the sudden spate of terrorist attacks all across the country. Could there be anything to celebrate in a landscape that breeds morbidity, depression and corruption? Is it even rational to talk about the need for entertainment when things are so dangerous and volatile? It is. And therefore, for a few moments and keeping all critical issues aside, one must evaluate PSL and its opening ceremony for its true worth: bringing people together and giving them hope.
If there’s one thing that reemerges every time tragedy or sheer idiosyncrasy strikes our country, it’s the capacity to bounce back and the capability to find the odd lotus flower in the swamp around us. In this case that would be the PSL opening ceremony, which really did raise the bar of ‘cricketainment’ and reenergized levels of national pride. It was a world-class ceremony, evident in the sharply telecasted live programming. PSL united people; not just people of one country but people and players across continents. In this global stage of polarization, there can be no better reason for PSL to be supported.
“In all the leagues you bring all types of players, who usually compete against each other, together and you find them in one dressing room,” said Darren Sammy, Captain of the Peshawer Zalmis, when speaking at the Conrad Hotel, where the teams where staying. “It’s no different in the Pakistan Super League. You find players from Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean, England…all over the world coming and playing together. It’s a wonderful thing.”
The feeling of unity went beyond teams and into the stands, where hundreds of thousands of cricket fans came together. Taking a cab to the Dubai International Sports Stadium, we walked through the hordes of young and enthusiastic cricket supporters jumping in joy. Vendors bustled here and there, singing slogans of ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ while trying to make a sale on flags. It was heartfelt, ceremonious and at the same time, bittersweet. PSL should ideally have taken place in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, but that’s a discussion for another time and another space. Especially now that the final match, scheduled to happen in Lahore, is in the doldrums. (No concrete decision had been taken at the time this article went to print.)
At that point in Dubai it was all about building brand Pakistan, putting out a positive picture and one that could be held at par with any international event. That it was.
Every successful project needs brand ambassadors and alongside the real superstars – the cricketers – the right pool of people had been brought onboard for peripheral entertainment. Fahad Mustafa, MC of the evening, was the perfect choice to host the show. “This is not the league of one province but of all of Pakistan,” he shouted from the elevated stage, inciting thunderous applause from the spectators. Well dressed and just as well spoken, he successfully reached out to millions of fans and followers all across the world.
Ali Zafar charmed his way through the evening, whether it was his high-octane performance to the PSL official anthem or his presence in the VIP enclosure where he sat and saw the opening match. Fawad Khan, making a rare appearance as brand ambassador for Islamabad United, was accessible and available for as many selfies as could be squeezed in. The celebrity quotient was high, with Shaan, Mehwish Hayat and Bilal Ashraf rooting for Lahore Qalandars. Ali Zafar and Shehzad Roy settled down in the HBL enclosure while Fahad Mustafa was eventually seen with Karachi Kings and Momina Mustehsan with Islamabad United. Since all enclosures are linked by one corridor, it was hearty to see most celebrities mingling; for once it looked like politics had taken a backseat in favour of national pride.
“Music and cricket are two things that have always brought people together, especially in our country,” Ali Zafar commented, when we asked him how the PSL helped at a time when the world was becoming an increasingly divided place and the cracks could even be felt within the country. “Pakistan is an entertainment starved country and cricket entertains on a massive level. I feel very sorry that our stadiums don’t fill up anymore because cricket isn’t played domestically but this is the next best thing. It brings Pakistanis together here and people get that feeling of unity. And when it comes on TV, each city is involved in healthy competition and it keeps people engaged.”
The PSL opening ceremony did engage around 18,000 spectators in the cinema and a worldwide audience of millions who were watching the event live. It was an evening of spectacular sights and sounds, from the team anthems that reverberated across the stadium to the firework displays, the illuminated aerial drummers and the flat screen across the ground that added yet another visual dimension to the ceremony. Jamaican rapper Shaggy, though somewhat disjointed amongst all things that evening, added a much-needed international integration to the lineup. It would be great if PCB would next year manage to rope in someone slightly more relevant, as was the original choice – Justin Bieber.
The one sound that pulled at the heartstrings in an overwhelming emotional moment was the National Anthem; it drummed straight to the heart. The most endearing vision that evening was the sight of Islamabad United marching out in shalwar qameezes designed for them by Lawrencepur. Sam Billings even put up a video of himself doing the bhangra in the dressing room.
The dressing room was where teams came together.
“We talk about music; we talk about movies and stuff which keeps us entertained,” a soft-spoken Mahela Jayawardene spoke to us. “We talk about good food and restaurants. Those are the things that are good fun and we always have a good laugh in the dressing room.”
“For players it’s a great opportunity,” he added, commenting on the relevance of PSL. “We’ve seen in the past 10 years, that these little franchise tournaments have evolved, that a lot of players who used to play against one another now share dressing rooms. Different cultures get together and you get to understand different players better. It’s happening in the PSL as well. Some of the Pakistani players don’t get to play a lot of franchise cricket around the world so this is a great opportunity for them and for other cricketers to mingle with them. It’s a great way to understand different cultures.”
All the cricketers we spoke to commended the high standard of the opening ceremony, which could be credited to The Musketeers. We spoke to Samer Feghali, the Lebanese, London-based director of the organization.
“We took the concept that the PCB gave us and reworked it,” he said, speaking about the making of the show, which was managed in four to six weeks. “The spirit that the whole team had in putting this together is something I’ve never seen in any show. You could feel the energy and how much they were devoted to making this a success. It was a big challenge because everybody was willing to kill himself over it. It was great to work with them because I was not challenged on anything and I had the last call. The biggest challenge was to put it together in a short time. Next year we’ll have a much bigger show, you’ll see.”
“You have to get people emotional to have a successful show,” he said. “And the most emotional part was the anthem, the history and the landmark moments in cricket. This is what the event was pivoted on and this is what I wanted to show the rest of the world. Our experience was great. I have never worked with people of this culture and I must say that the news does not pay true tribute to the people there. There was a great vibe, great energy. I made so many friends in such a short time.”
It is that vibe, that emotion and that energy, which the world did see during the opening ceremony and it garnered great feedback; the show held the attention and admiration of millions of people worldwide. We have somehow got to find a way to hold on to it and nurture that feeling of success and optimism while preventing things from falling awry as they almost always do. One feels that is the sentiment that one must invest in, even when things seem dark and shadowed by doubt.
This article was originally published in Instep, February 19, 2017.