A colleague of mine – who is still too young to have been jaded by Pakistan – was moping over our national team’s record-setting loss to West Indies in the Cricket World Cup match on Saturday. How could we lose, he asked? Despite all the prayers, the especial ‘mannat’ for victory, the giving of sadka in advance, how could we lose? His predicament reminded me of a story I heard some time back: a Priest and a Rabbi become friends, and decide to learn about each other’s religion. Together, they go to watch a boxing match where, just as the match is about to start, one of the boxers makes a cross on his chest to seek divine protection. The Rabbi turns to the Priest and asks, “What does that mean?” The Priest replies, “It doesn’t mean a thing, if the young man doesn’t know how to box!”

And so Pakistan’s loss to West Indies, at the heels of the earlier loss to India last Sunday, as humiliating as it is for us all, is barely surprising! It is not simply a cricketing failure. It was not a question of having been outplayed by the opposition, on the given day. It is not just a result of bad shot selection by our batsmen (if you can call them that!). The current cricket team, its players, and its unprecedented wave of embarrassing failures, is a microcosm of our overall national condition.

There was a time, we are told, when Pakistan was a rising nation! In the 1960s, even 70s, Pakistan had its share of problems (as all nations do), but was also making palpable advances in the field of sports, economy, even technology. Pakistan International Airlines, for example, was once the fastest growing airline in the world. It was not perfect, but it was progressing. Our pilots were hired to train others around the world. PIA set the very foundations of a Middle Eastern airlines, the Emirates, and lent its technological know-how, equipment and personnel for development purposes.

The scourge of terrorism, militancy, bureaucratic incompetence and widespread corruption had not yet made its home in the roots of our nation. Karachi was a bustling port city, with commerce, trade and industry as its overarching mantra. Lahore was the envy of competing cities across the border (including Amritsar, even Delhi), and Islamabad was being developed as the very model of a modern-age city. Our Steel Mill was functioning at near full capacity, our Railways were functional, electricity shortage was virtually unheard of, and the gas crisis could never have been fathomed. With fertile plains, high-yield agriculture, and an inexhaustible supply of sub-soil commodities, the nation seemed well on its course to take on the modern age of prosperity. Our sporting culture was second to none, with Pakistan featuring as a potent force in Cricket, Hockey and Squash. The children of Jinnah and Iqbal were on the cusp of pulling off a miracle: creating a nation-state from the fruits of their blood, sweat and toil.

In walks a new generation: the children of Zia-ul-Haq. The generation of Nawaz Sharif, Asif Ali Zardari, and Musharraf.

Born, as the promised generation, during Ayub Khan’s ‘decade of development’, they were the youth that rallied behind Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto across countless dusty fields throughout our land. Their formative years were inebriated with the elixir of ‘roti, kapra aur makan’, during an era that was imbibed in a passionate romance with socialism. They bore witness to the message of Che Guevara, Mao Zedong and Zou Enlai, which aspired to the creation of a classless society. They sat with Faiz sahib, drank with Jalib.

But then, just as the military boots of Zia marched onto the stage, accompanied by whips of intolerance and lashes of fundamentalism, this generation cowered into defeat. It is not that they struggled and lost against the forces of extremism and expediency… instead, they ignominiously surrendered without a fight. Civil liberties were replaced with shackles of conservatism. Democratic ideals were replaced with a twisted interpretation of national security. Modern education was replaced with a perverse version of religious indoctrination. Meritocracy was traded for nepotism. Professionalism gave way to hereditary entitlement.

Most of them joined the ranks and parliament of Zia when provided with that opportunity, and served him loyally till the end. And even the handful that struggled during Zia’s regime, soon lost their way in the post-Zia era. Graduating to the ranks of leadership, this generation became consumed by the petty politics of the 1990s, and chose to uphold partisan squabbling over national interest. National institutions – from PIA to WAPDA, Pakistan Railways, Steel Mill, and yes… the Pakistan Cricket Board – were toyed with and ruined in the name of individual interests.

Just as the world shifted its focus away from State control to market forces, in Pakistan, the trend was reversed. An incompetent and nepotistic State, helped by a sclerotic bureaucracy, strengthened its grip to stifle national progress. Calls for privatization of inefficient state ventures, were viewed with contempt by successive leaderships that saw these institutions as instruments of bestowing favors upon their loyalists.

And sports, which is an entirely national/governmental venture in Pakistan, suffered the most. Where Pakistan once enjoyed almost complete dominion in Squash, a quarter century ago, today there is no Pakistani (not even one!) among the top-50 rankings of the world. We slumped to the lowest performance (ever) during the last Olympics, and Asian Games. We have dropped to No. 10 in Hockey, our national sport. And the ongoing Cricket World Cup finds Pakistan at the very bottom of the league table.

Till such time that the State continues to control and manipulate open market competition, particularly in sports, meritocracy will continue to suffer at the altar of vested political interests. Till such time that the Pakistan Cricket Board, or the Pakistan Hockey Federation, or the Pakistan Sports Board, continues to work under the control of the State, bowing to political interest, we will forever be stuck in this rut of incompetence. Till such time that the government of the time continues to appoint raging mediocrities, including Ijaz Butt, Najam Sethi, Zaka Ashraf and Shehryar Khan as the chairman of PCB, there can be no hope of the Pakistan team performing any better than what is presently at display.

Appeal: Mr. Prime Minister, the Patron-in-Chief of PCB, for all your love of the game (demonstrated by the wonderful cricket pitch made in your house at Raiwand) it is time that you take the initiative of handing over sports to the private (competitive) market domain. With all the bloodshed and despondency that ravages the people of this country, sport (especially cricket) is the one feel-good factor that the nation had. It is time to take an aggressive approach towards reforming PCB and the domestic cricketing structure, by amending the law, taking it out of the State clutches and handing it over to market forces. Models such as the IPL, Australian BigBash, and the South African Ram Slam, provide a workable model. Let the market harvest the talent from our streets. And let this be your enduring service to a sport that we all know you love!