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PSL blame game begins with independent investigation on the horizon

Alex Hales is cleaned up by Shahid Afridi PCB

The blame game has begun in the aftermath of the abrupt postponement of the PSL, as franchises and league management begin to sift through the wreckage of a sixth season curtailed only 14 games in after a spate of Covid-19 cases among players and support staff. An investigation into what went wrong will take place, at an as-yet unspecified time in the future, conducted independent of the PCB. And though Wasim Khan, the PCB's CEO, began a press conference by saying "this isn't about a blame game", the message by its end - when he spoke of "self-policing" and players needing "to take responsibility" - had subtly but clearly shifted.

That is likely to have been in response to the reactions of at least a couple of franchises, who pointed to persistent breaches and loopholes in the bio-secure bubble put in place by the PCB at a hotel in Karachi. And according to at least two officials who were present, the PCB's public statement was a change from a heated meeting between management and franchises on Thursday morning, in which the board was more accepting of the blame for all this lying at their door.

A couple of options were put forward at that meeting in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the PSL, including implementing a five-day lockdown and pause on the tournament, and going ahead with a local player-only tournament. Both ideas were shot down, the latter especially emphatically.

"This isn't about a blame game, about who's to blame," Khan said at a press conference a few hours after the decision to postpone. "This is a collective effort that we all had a responsibility to actually police and self-police that environment. Unfortunately, we weren't able to do it effectively enough. Hence we find ourselves in this situation today.

"We had a discussion this morning with the franchise owners and we came to the conclusion that it was best to postpone the event. We entered that meeting with the franchisees with one or two possible solutions, one in terms of looking to halt proceedings for five days until we were able to make sense of what was going on and see whether we could move forward. There was a strong consensus that it was untenable to continue based on the fact that it was outside of ours and others reasonable sort of areas because of what had taken place."

Khan did concede that trust in the PCB's handling of the event had been broken. "When players are affected and players start to lose confidenceā€¦. Bio-secure bubbles are about trust. There has to be trust for players, with all the partners working together. We have to recognise, internationally, this will make news. It is a difficult day, a lot of work and effort went into our last major event of the calendar."

The board's immediate concern and attention is to begin the process of exiting players from the tournament and the hotel now. The seven players and support staff who have tested positive will remain in the hotel until their quarantine periods are over, with some PCB and PSL management officials also staying behind with them. But as that process continues, repercussions with franchises will begin, a few of whom are now offering a picture of the fragility of the bubble that had been put in place.

A public precedent was set by Peshawar Zalmi the night before the tournament began, when captain Wahab Riaz and coach Darren Sammy breached the bubble to go and meet franchise owner Javed Afridi. They were later allowed to effectively ignore the league's own three-day quarantine period - on Thursday, the PCB were at pains again to defend the episode.

The bubble was in one hotel in Karachi where all franchise players and officials were staying and which, to some extent, had Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) put in place to keep everyone safe. Teams were cordoned off on separate floors and had designated times in which to use public facilities such as restaurants and gyms. But the hotel had not been taken over in entirety by the PCB and so public functions, such as weddings with guests, were still being staged there - away from the bubble ostensibly but on the premises. Numerous incidents are now being recalled by franchises, of smaller breaches and SOPs not being adhered to, of fans taking selfies with players, trying to high-five players, of lifts in the hotel not being initially cordoned off from public use.

"Somebody has to take responsibility for this mismanagement," the Karachi Kings owner Salman Iqbal told ESPNcricinfo. "We have worked so hard in the last five years to bring this brand back to Pakistan but due to the PCB's negligence, me, my team and fans are disappointed.

"There were breaches and nobody is accountable for it. The hotel was vulnerable and [I don't understand] why they can't they have booked it entirely for the duration of the tournament?"

"It's sad and very unfortunate the way things panned out," a Lahore Qalandars spokesperson told ESPNcricinfo. "There were clear breaches and with growing cases we had no option but to agree to postpone it with immediate effect. It was important for the health of our player and support staff and its out duty to protect them.

"We came here because we were invited by PCB as they were the host and we had trust in that, but there were loopholes. There were multiple wedding function in the same hotel with the spa and gym area had common use."

It has also emerged that two of the teams - Islamabad United and Multan Sultans - were not placed in the same hotel when they first landed in Karachi on February 14th. For three days they were put up in another hotel, meaning that though they had cleared tests when they entered the official bubble - and continued to thereafter - they had spent time at a premises that had not been specifically re-purposed with bio-secure SOPs in mind.

"We have to remember there's a lot of emotions at the moment," Khan said. "Franchises have invested a lot of money, everybody has invested time in making the PSL work. There was always going to be a lot of emotion in the first 24 hours, we fully expect that. I will say, any environment can only work if everybody is on the same page. Why did our domestic cricket work? Because it was being policed and everything was done. We had 30 matches across two venues, we delivered tournaments with multiple teams involved domestically. Fine, there is a response from franchises but this isn't about blaming anybody. This is about Pakistan cricket. A lot of work has to be done to get cricket back up and running to get it to where it has."

Though it is correct Pakistan did carry out an entire season's worth of domestic cricket prior to the PSL, it did not go off without incidents or breaches. Players were reprimanded for breaching protocols. A number of players tested positive after the end of the rescheduled phase of the PSL season five in November.

Khan was asked whether he, or other senior officials, would resign but he sidestepped the question to say only that an investigation will take place. "We will do a full investigation. Not one done by PCB staff but we will speak to the Board of Governors and instigate an investigation in to where we went wrong and what did we not fulfil. When such situations come up everybody questions themselves. Now is a time for reflection and we will see what happens after that. Right now this is about making sure players leave and leave safely. And making sure we limit the damage as much as possible for Pakistan cricket. This is far-reaching and we need to make sure we control it, we manage it. so that we can rise again as we have in the past."