cricket:image:1427412 [900x506]
cricket:image:1427412 [900x506] (Credit: PCB)

It truly is a picture that speaks a thousand words. PCB chairman and Interior Minister Mohsin Naqvi - one of the most influential men in the country - shaking hands with Shaheen Afridi, the man he freshly deposed as Pakistan captain. Naqvi's posture reveals the defensiveness Shaheen's dissatisfaction with events has put even someone as powerful as Naqvi under; the left hand placatingly placed on Afridi's arm as the chairman leans forward. Afridi's own left hand hangs limply by his side, only the hint of a smile on his face. The broadest grin actually belongs to Mohammad Amir, inexplicably in the frame, eyes locked firmly on the handshake itself.

And this was the picture the PCB put out themselves, so it was presumably as good as it got. Afridi, as ESPNcricinfo had reported later, was not exactly left impressed.

If the manner in which Babar Azam stepped down as Pakistan captain at the tail-end of last year showed up administrative ineptitude, how his return has been managed can only be described as a spectacular act of one-upmanship. For weeks, there had been hints of Afridi's impending departure - a whisper to a journalist here, a refusal to back him there. Like leaks about the latest iPhone, everyone knew what was coming. And then, like a retro feature being brought back to a new device, Babar was back.

Replacing captains is never a happy task, but few specialise in leaving behind a mess Pakistan cricket does in such circumstances. In some ways, it feels very 1990s, a time most people recall for its technological innovation and economic prosperity. In Pakistan, it's often associated with the backsliding of nascent democratic norms and Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis falling out over the captaincy. It took that pair the best part of three decades to properly mend fences, and though Babar and Afridi may find ways to work through all they have experienced sooner, it's not going to be thanks to the board that has a duty of care towards them.

This isn't the first Pakistan administration to have found a way to drive a wedge between its biggest stars, mind you. The very structure of the PCB, captive to political interests, means reform and progress at the board remains restricted to the government of the day ensuring they retain administrative control, and often unroll steps taken by its predecessor. It is no coincidence the PCB feels almost uniquely dysfunctional at a time when the Pakistan government is in maximum disarray. The four chairmen the PCB has seen the last two years is matched by four prime ministers in that period, which only further makes the point.

To recap, Babar was unceremoniously dumped as captain by an administration that had no authority to take that decision. Afridi became T20 captain in a World Cup year, and was given a somewhat experimental squad for a five-match T20I series in New Zealand, which Pakistan lost 4-1. The PCB chair changed hands, and Afridi, after weeks of feverish speculation, was dropped, with Babar brought back. No one at the board had communication with Afridi in a way that satisfied him, and on the day he was replaced, the PCB put out a statement on his behalf in which he appeared to accept his sacking.

Afridi never spoke the words attributed to him, and threatened to publicly deny them, prompting the chairman to make a dash for Kakul, the military camp he had arranged for the team to train at so they could, among other things, hit bigger sixes. They shook hands, superficially covering up deep-seated issues that remain.

If it wasn't so pernicious, it would almost be impressive how a switch of captaincy has managed to drag both Babar and Afridi through mud they didn't willingly wade into. And Afridi's right to deny words he did not say will in some quarters be interpreted as a sign of his dissatisfaction at Babar taking the captaincy away from him, immediately undermining his position.

Babar's demands of the PCB for greater autonomy and control, and guarantees of a longer stint, have already been framed. But the way in which he was removed, compelled to issue a statement of resignation, means he will feel he has a right to ensure a repeat of that does not occur. It is, after all, the PCB that came knocking, not Babar, and only the churlish would begrudge a man using the rare leverage a player gains over a board in Pakistan cricket.

The cynical might say the PCB's administration has been chaotic and dysfunctional for long enough that, like that frog in slowly boiling water, we can barely tell the difference anymore, and that is where the cruellest irony lies. That all this should happen in the week that Shaharyar Khan passed away only serves as a painful reminder of the parallel world where Pakistan cricket could be. Shaharyar may have been every inch the political appointee his predecessors and successors have been, but he did take that frog out of the boiling water. Having been thrust back into it at full steam, every singe and char is now felt. Who really knows what he would have made of all this, even if he had that famous diplomatic tact to keep it all to himself?

When Naqvi told the players the military camp had been organised because he had only seen foreign players hit big sixes, he copped plenty of stick, though perhaps that was unfair. There was a wider purpose to it; after all, Misbah-ul-Haq's Pakistan had famously used a similar camp to train and get fitter ahead of a tour of England that culminated in Pakistan becoming the No. 1 Test side in the world.

Training away from home during Ramzan with only their team-mates for company, part of the purpose of the camp was to bond with each other, and foster the sense of team unity which has that tacit ability to matter in the most trying times. But on the evidence of how a scythe has been taken to player relationships over the placement of an armband, let's just hope the players are at least hitting bigger sixes.