Sports is often referred to as the great distraction, but like every other industry, it has a unique role in politics, particularly within diplomacy; from soft power projection and economic growth to building bridges, sports can do much more than play with the emotions and passions of its fans. And what we recently witnessed with the Pakistan cricket team’s tour of England, is nothing short of a masterstroke in sports diplomacy.

Wasim Khan’s appointment as CEO of the PCB hasn’t come without its criticisms. Fans, former players (a lot of them) and other sports professionals have called him out for, an alleged “lack of understanding” regarding sports in Pakistan, questionable appointments of staff and administrators, claims of nepotism and the most popular one—being an “outsider”.

And although everyone may criticise and question certain decisions, the backlash towards Khan and his time at the helm has been excessive, and often unwarranted.

However, in less vocal circles, away from cricketing YouTube channels and the local media, the thinking is slightly different. On social media, and through word of mouth there are voices stating that we sometimes need an ‘outsider’, or a neutral individual, to come in and fix things, and you may not agree with me, but over the course of Wasim Khan’s involvement with the PCB there has been a dedicated approach on implementing systems and procedures that may enable long-term growth and development.

Speaking solely from the perspective of diplomatic victories, the PCB’s CEO has done something Pakistani sport has failed to do in quite some time, get noticed.

Rallying up a large contingent of athletes, administrators and staff, flying them to a country over 6000 kilometres away, and that too, over a month prior to a long summer series, during one of the most unprecedented times in recent history, is not an easy accomplishment.

Mind you, this was all managed and implemented at a time when the coronavirus was spreading across the country like wildfire.

And with so many variables in the equation, and so much on the line, to have done it with no controversies, something Pakistan is not exactly renowned for, is an incredible feat in itself. The outcome, you ask? Well, English players, commentators, administrators and fans from around the world have all lauded the contingent for its dedication and commitment to bringing cricket to life in a COVID-19 world.

Despite a less than ideal outcome on the pitch (one victory in six games across the two formats played), Wasim Khan has utilised his network of connections across England (let’s not forget that this man was in the running for Director of cricket at the ECB) to make sure this trip was worth Pakistan’s while.

With the return of cricket to the country, the fact of the matter is that it has been an important step to have teams such as Bangladesh, West Indies and Sri Lanka visit the country, cricket is a sport that is heavily reliant on the financial benefits that can be reaped from playing against ‘the Big Three’ nations—India, Australia and England.

One of them, for obvious reasons, is out of the picture, and this leaves the latter two still knocking at one’s door. Australia, however, is far more risk-averse and strict with travel guidelines, often following suit after some other countries, and the Aussies are far more likely to watch how the England situation plays out before jumping towards any decisions.

With England, the only realistic option out of the Big Three in the short-term future, the conversation around a potential England tour of Pakistan in 2022 is a monumental step in the return of full-fledged sports to the country, particularly while including the ‘bang for buck’ element, which, of course, is of paramount importance for the PCB’s pockets.

It seems likely that this will come through, but we never know how tides might shift, especially if 2020 is anything to go by.

Whether this happens though, Pakistan has achieved victory in projecting soft power and preparing the floodgates for reopening tourism in the country, whether it is for sports, or via the exposure it has received through positive media representation such as Sky Sports’ recent ‘Out of Exile’ documentary.

And there is no doubt that Wasim Khan’s knowledge, experience and shrewd manoeuvring have played a key role in giving Pakistan a platform very early in the COVID-19 and Post-COVID-19 cricket world. We are, nonetheless, going to see harsh criticism of the PCB’s CEO, but the fruits of this tour will also, eventually, come to light, both on the diplomatic front and also on the pitch itself.

Zushan Hashmi

The writer is a Co-founder of Sportageous, a sports platform, based in Australia. He tweets @zushanhashmi.