Living With The Sultans: The Cricketer Spends A Week Behind The Scenes With The New Owners Of The PSL Franchise
SAM MORSHEAD flew out to Dubai to see first hand the inner workings of the Multan Sultans in the five days leading up to PSL4.
Monday, February 11
Multan Sultans’ small backroom staff is working overtime in an effort to be ready for the start of the season. They have had just six weeks to complete their squad, assign coaching responsibilities, sell sponsorship packages and manage logistics, while each of the other five franchises’ have had the best part of a year.
It is remarkable that they have time for a hanger-on from the other side of the world, quite frankly, but within an hour of arrival The Cricketer is scooped up and deposited in a minibus for the 30-minute drive from our hotel base in Dubai Festival City to the ICC Academy.
Co-owner Ali Khan Tareen – a smartly-dressed, sharp-witted 29-year-old – jumps into the back seat. He is keen to talk about his grand plans for the South Punjab region of Pakistan, where he intends to use cricket as a vehicle for great social change.
A row ahead sits Asser Malik, a close associate of Tareen (the pair met at a World Economic Forum event in Lahore three years ago and have remained close since). Malik is the Last Man Stands franchise owner for Pakistan and has played a prominent role in setting up league cricket in South Punjab for the first time.
Up front, alongside Sussex batsman Laurie Evans, is operations director Haider Azhar. Azhar, as will become ever clearer as the week goes on, appears to know absolutely everyone in the Pakistani cricket scene.
A lawyer with an Ivy League education, he has worked as a team advisor in the T10 League and Global T20 Canada, as well as having an interest in a boxing league. His responsibilities are fifty-fold, from the scouting of young players to the logistical nightmare of coordinating superstars jetting in and out of the PSL at random and varied times. A slightly fatigued smile is almost always inked on his face.
Completing the group – and given the organisation’s reach it seems extraordinary that the engine room is so small – are the communications team; digital manager Hassan Qureshi, a charismatic British Pakistani with ties to South Punjab and a figure to match his hearty character, in-house writer and walking Pakistan cricket encyclopaedia Farhan Nisar and three seconded PR professionals from multinational agency Ogilvy. And that is it.
We pull up outside the ICC Academy, a bespoke cricket facility in the heart of this extraordinary desert city, a little after 11.30am. Inside, the Multan Sultans players have been encouraged to attend Pakistan Women’s decisive one-day international against West Indies, as part of Tareen’s desire to see the female game move gently towards parity in the regions where that is a particular struggle.
Aside from a handful of local administrators, support staff and the crew employed to stream the game via the PCB’s YouTube channel, there are precious few spectators at one of two full-sized fields housed within the walls of the Academy.
“It’s a one-day international and look,” gasps Tareen. “No one.”
The Cricketer asks whether anyone knows the game is on. Tareen shrugs an exasperated shrug.
Still, the presence of the Sultans players is well received by the Pakistani side, who pause at the interval to pose for pictures – the photographers need to take a few extra steps back to ensure that both the women and seven-foot, two-inch Mohammad Irfan can fit in the same shot!
“Have you played ‘one-tip’?” Ali asks The Cricketer.
The Cricketer has not played ‘one-tip’ and is told in no uncertain terms that no, it is not French cricket. In the end, it is a lot like French cricket.
The staple of many a Pakistani playground and backyard, one-tip rewards soft hands and finesse – batsmen are out for hitting the ball too far in the air, if the ball strikes their body on three occasions and if caught (one-hand-one-bounce rule also being in effect).
This correspondent, not known for a delicate approach to batsmanship, is suitably embarrassed and skittled out for just 5.
The game brings the inner child out of owner Tareen and everyone else in the hodgepodge group (we are joined by renowned Pakistani journalist Faizan Lakhani and Asmavia Iqbal, the first woman to take a T20 international hat-trick).
“We have made meetings wait because we have had to finish games of one-tip in the office,” Qureshi says. Apparently, there is a dent in the office TV in Lahore, inflicted by an overly-zealous Malik.
It’s quickly obvious that the group that run the Sultans are close.
“We have a small team, a young team, two of them are from South Punjab – people I’ve known for years but haven’t been in touch with for a while. I know they are cricket nerds and we are always talking about cricket,” Tareen says.
Tareen is regularly accosted by fans seeking selfies, and happily obliges. By the time we head back to the hotel for a brief interlude before the evening practice matches, I have counted 15 requests from strangers (not an insubstantial number, considering this is all taking place behind closed doors in the UAE).
I try to think of similar cricket figures receiving such idolatry back home, and it just seems absurd. Can you imagine the average county regular hankering after Colin Graves for a picture around the outfields of Leicester or Taunton?
Back on the bus, the commercial arm of the operation is whirring. A deal has just been struck for a sponsorship slot on the team shirt and the details of an official partnership with a national radio station are also being finalised.
In the evening, the Sultans lose a practice match at the ICC Academy to Islamabad United, for whom Rizwan Hussain and Ian Bell look particularly good. Mohammad Ilyas, a speedy swing bowler, impresses for Multan.
There is disappointment at the result, and particularly a batting collapse that left them 21 for 4 early on, but the feeling is it’s better to get this kind of performance out of the way early.
Tuesday, February 12
One thing I have quickly come to learn is that it is almost impossible to have a conversation of more than a couple of minutes with Azhar without being interrupted.
The man is the physical manifestation of LinkedIn. A handshake here, an embrace there. Connect, connect, connect.
Commentators, analysts, coaches, players from all levels; during the space of breakfast alone Pakistani internationals Kamran Akmal and Mohammad Amir, and model-turned-actress Saheefa Jabbar Khattak come over to say hello. Poor Haider barely gets a chance to enjoy his pancakes.
The accommodation setup for the series allows for a wonderful melting pot of cricketers from around the world. Five of the six franchises – all except Lahore Qalandars – are staying in the Intercontinental and Crowne Plaza at Dubai Festival City, and hundreds of millions of pounds worth of talent is milling around the hotel halls.
They are milling around a little more this morning because, in the desert, it has rained. Training is delayed until the skies brighten; when they do strong winds kick in off the Gulf.
“The man is the physical manifestation of LinkedIn. A handshake here, an embrace there. Connect, connect, connect.”
Our schedule in theory includes the formal unveiling of the PSL trophy, which we are at first told will happen at 2.30pm at the Dubai stadium, then at 2.15pm in the hotel lobby, later it’s 3pm at the stadium, then 1.30pm in the lobby. At 1.30pm, in the lobby, The Cricketer is told it has already happened, on a boat, with no one but PCB officials present.
It’s a way of operating that seems to come naturally to those who work within the franchises. For those used to the rigours of English scheduling, it’s totally alien.
Still, the tournament’s various moving parts always seem to come together in the end and by mid-afternoon we are back at the ICC Academy, observing training. A bleep test equivalent challenges the stamina of some of the lesser-known Pakistanis, with one or two noticeably struggling while their international-level peers and the English contingent lead from the front.
Fitness and fielding drills last for an hour before the players shuffle off into the nets. The Cricketer takes the chance to search out the franchise’s overseas players, to get a flavour of life in the PSL.
“It’s been busy but it’s great, playing high-level cricket is something I’ve always wanted to do,” says Nottinghamshire wicketkeeper Tom Moores, who has arrived in the league via the T10 and England Lions’ tour of India.
“It sort of feels I’m jumping from one plane and one country to the next but it’s all part of the fun and I’m just loving the journey and loving growing and experiencing from different players.”
Laurie Evans is looking forward to his new wife Verity arriving on Wednesday. She skipped the trip to Bangladesh while her husband was playing in the BPL (they had to take a truncated honeymoon because of his cricketing commitments).
“She knows some people out here and there’s more for her to do,” he says.
“You’ve got to marry the right girl,” he adds when asked how he got away with leaving his new bride by herself at home for three weeks almost immediately after getting married.
Wednesday, February 13
Boom Boom has arrived.
Wherever Shahid Afridi goes, the decibels follow. And for this particular edition of the PSL, his destination is Multan Sultans.
Afridi flies into Dubai to plenty of fanfare and there is a collection of fans at the hotel when the team leaves for a practice match against Quetta Gladiators, waiting to scoop a selfie with their hero.
He quickly clambers on board the team coach, itself slathered in blue and green, and images of South Punjabis at work, and we are off on the half-hour journey to the ICC Academy.
The game itself is another disappointing one for the Sultans, who lose early wickets and can only post a modest 117, which Quetta ease past with plenty of balls to spare.
Let’s quickly talk about Mohammad Irfan. My word is the man tall. ‘Great insight, Sam, we can all check Wikipedia’. Yeah, sure, but until you meet the guy in person it’s hard to grasp what seven-foot-two really means (innuendos not welcome here). I cannot stop thinking of Richard Kiel as Jaws, the metal-toothed henchman of the 007 franchise, or Steinbeck’s Lenny, a five-and-three-quarter-ounce lump of leather sitting fragile in his hands.
“I went to give him a high five earlier and I had to jump up,” says Chris Green, the Australian offspinner. Green is six foot three.
Everyone must leap to give Irfan a high five, quite literally. At the end of the warm-up prior to the game against Quetta, the gentle giant strolled through a gauntlet of his team-mates, his arms stretched upward, almost touching the clouds, a gaggle of elite cricketers jumping up and down around him like kittens aiming at a thread of string.
Thursday, February 14
It is the opening day of PSL4 and that means the squad are all required to attend the opening ceremony, a lavish affair at the Dubai International Stadium.
As the backroom team board the bus to the ground there is intriguing advice from general manager Haider Azhar.
“If women start coming up to you when you’re in team kit,” Azhar warns, “and they take an interest in you be careful. They are honeypots.”
First thing’s first, though, the administrative staff have a rush on their hands to ensure their new mascot – a seven-foot-tall cartoon South Punjabi called ‘Saeen’ (loosely translated as ‘mate’) – arrives in time.
The team have a habit of communicating in WhatsApp voice messages – a practice alien to your correspondent – and for what feels like an eternity but is probably no more than five minutes, three of the marketing group are talking into their phones at the same time, waiting 30 seconds, pressing their phone to their ear, flipping it over and talking again.
Eventually, they discover the whereabouts of the Saeen costume and the performer that needs to be stuffed inside of it – a diminutive Filipino named Miko. And just in time.
He has to be at the head of the player parade during the ceremony and, after all the effort that has gone into designing a character which appeals to the masses back home in South Punjab (and, whisper it, might have commercial value further down the line) it would be a nightmare if he was not on show in front of a sell-out crowd and the millions watching in Pakistan and around the world.
The ceremony itself is without Pitbull, who pulled out at the last minute. “Apparently something was wrong with his plane,” says a member of the team. This is uncorroborated.
The remainder of the artists do turn up, however, and what results is a disco-dancing, firecracking, umbrella-wielding (no idea!), strobe-lit technofart of a show, which is well received by the locals.
Personal highlight: The total lack of health and safety regulations that go into placing a 25 square-metre franchise logo-bearing tarpaulin over the top of just-used fireworks cannons in the dark. Salman Ahmed, the lead guitarist for iconic Sufi rock band Junoon, who today bears not just a passing resemblance to Colonel Gadaffi, is the primary victim of these mighty trip hazards and takes a terrific tumble as he makes his way from the stage.
Once the colonel, and everyone else involved in the hundreds-strong production, is safely off the outfield, it is time for the action to start. Oh no, wait, no it’s not. Firstly we need to have the mascot flog the competition’s official hand sanitizer live on TV at the toss. And you complained about the Big Bash bat flip!
An absorbing first game of the tournament sees Islamabad United chase down their 172-run target to beat Lahore Qalanadars with four balls to spare.
The Cricketer is left to search out the minibus for a lift back to the hotel, and after wandering the streets of Dubai for a few minutes I succumb to the only remaining option: a WhatsApp voice message. It works. I’m one of them now.
Friday, February 15
It’s the big day. Today, Multan Sultans get their PSL campaign under way against Karachi Kings.
Tareen flies back into Dubai after 24 hours or so in South Punjab, where he has hosted British journalist Peter Oborne’s touring Wounded Tigers team at one of his rural academies. He arrives just in time for the match, bringing with him 14 children from his home region who have survived cancer.
They are to be the Sultans’ brand ambassadors – a role which has typically been the reserve of superstar actors, musicians and comics elsewhere. They are attending the cricket, and making their first trip outside of Pakistan, on International Childhood Cancer Day.
It is an astute move from a public relations perspective by Tareen, but that does not appear to be his primary motivation. The children have had an epic journey to Dubai – a two-hour coach ride from Lahore to their airport – and they are delighted just to be part of the occasion. Plus, they make it onto TV, too.
Tareen spends some time with the kids in the concourse and also visits several other areas of the ground, alongside his co-owner Taumir Malik, a lawyer from a village just south of Multan who is never seen outside of a suit.
Joining him for the game is his father Jahangir, and that is causing quite a stir. Jahangir is among the wealthiest industrialists in Pakistan, a self-made multi-millionaire who owns one of the largest sugar factories in the country. He is also a prominent politician and a senior adviser to Prime Minister Imran Khan, and – like Ali – he is bombarded by requests for selfies and videos.
In between the chaos he mines The Cricketer for information on Laurie Evans, who is batting with Shoaib Malik and trying to rescue Multan from a difficult first 10 overs, in which they have managed just 60 in pursuit of 184 for victory.
Your correspondent tips him to make an impact if he can get through a spell of left-arm spin. Evans does get through that spell, and does make an impact – with 49 in an ultimately losing cause. Face-saver. Thanks, Laurie.
As the match approaches its denouement, the atmosphere within the Sultans VIP box becomes more and more anxious and excitable. Malik takes 24 off a single Sohail Khan over and the required rate drops below 12.
“I used to watch PSL matches and everything was just fine,” says one of the guests. “Now it feels like this.”
“I’m not allowed outside at the moment,” says another. “It would be bad luck, apparently.”
Each boundary comes with raucous celebrations and, as the target dips within sight, there is a sudden sense that victory is in the team’s grasp.
Sadly, Multan end up seven runs short. There is a feeling of proud deflation in the owners’ box. Ali Tareen, who spent the final few balls sat with Karachi fans in the stands, returns to joke “no dinner for anyone tonight”.
As his guests slowly head home, Tareen is left with his team around him – Taumir Malik, Asser Malik, Qureshi, Nisar and the Ogilvy trio.
Later, in his 31st-floor suite at the Intercontinental, there is a group debrief – games, dinner and one-on-one interview-style reflections on what has happened so far, conducted by the owner on the balcony in front of the glowing Dubai skyline.
Later, Azhar also joins, his backpack still strapped to his shoulder, his mind still whirring about the events of the day and how the team might be tweaked.
It is gone 2am when I take my leave, conscious of a flight to be made. Tareen and Asser Malik are still in conversation; two friends, not yet into their thirties, plotting and planning on a grand scale over watermelon juice and shisha.