A question of stability
When Inzamam-ul-Haq expressed his desire to see a central-contracts system put in place for the Pakistan team, he was only publicly rekindling a debate that has been almost politely played out between a number of senior players - including four captains - and the Pakistan Cricket Board for nearly two years now. Former captain Waqar Younis first raised the issue in August 2002, when - having attended an ICC meeting for Test captains at Lord's - he spoke of his unease at the fact that he was one of the few captains present whose team didn't have the luxury and stability of a contracts system. At that point, the PCB was on the verge of announcing such a system for up to 20 players.
Disastrous results against Australia and South Africa sidelined the issue till after the World Cup when, with a revamped team under his command, the new captain Rashid Latif brought up the issue again. Latif drew up a detailed proposal outlining a central contracts system and presented it to the PCB chairman at the time, Tauqir Zia. Since then, Inzamam and Yousuf Youhana - who has played as stand-in captain - have both called for the introduction of central contracts.
But if they were keen before the World Cup - when a spate of cancelled tours had deprived them of substantial revenue - then, under a new, financially comfortable chairman, the PCB has been hesitant and unsure for a couple of reasons.
Despite making an estimated $21 million from the India series, Rameez Raja has repeatedly stated that there will not be enough money to pay annual contracts for up to 25 players. Each player, according to Rameez, stands to make US$320,000 per year from a central contract (players are currently paid per match according to a grading system based on seniority). This money, he has argued, would be better spent on revitalising domestic cricket.
Shaharyar Khan's concerns hinge on less tangible - and thus more controversial - objections. In the riotous press conference after the Rawalpindi defeat to India, Shaharyar frankly confessed that he was in two minds about the issue. Central contracts enhance stability but, he argued, they also breed complacency among players who become safe in the knowledge that their position, and financial status, is secure for at least a year.
But both arguments overlook the numerous benefits that accompany a central contract. For one, it offers players mental and financial stability; they are part of the Pakistan set-up for a certain period of time. Knowing that they will not be dropped from squads based on a couple of bad performances enables them to worry only about improving their game, and not about holding on to a place in the team or their financial future.
The financial security, as Youhana has argued, also allows players to rest in the off-season, instead of playing abroad to earn money. And it reduces the risk of players picking up injuries, as so many Pakistani players have done in recent years. In a notoriously short-sighted country like Pakistan, central contracts help engender long-term planning, by identifying a core group of players who can play for at least a year, if not beyond.
But above all, the system paves the way for the PCB to manage its players much more effectively. Pakistan has a number of key players who have contracts with English counties. Central contracts, while not stopping players from going abroad in the off-season - especially given the board's keenness to send young players for a season of county cricket - will at least allow them to monitor their players and ensure that they aren't being overworked or, as in the case of Shoaib Akhtar, possibly playing while injured.
In short, the board can look after its assets. Otherwise, we have the shambles that is the current national training camp for the Asia Cup. No-one - not the captain, manager or selectors - is quite sure which players are arriving when, whether they are injured, or as with Shoaib, whether he is arriving at all.
In the end, any decision will be, despite the Chairman's apprehensions, made keeping in mind the financial viability of the system. To be able to sustain it in the long term requires more than just one money-spinning series against India. That $21million is not small change, but neither is it, in the light of the losses the board has incurred over the last two years, the lottery windfall it is made out to be. There is depth in the argument that the money might be better spent on professionalising the domestic game, and offering contracts to domestic players, instead of the national team.
But as Australia, South Africa and England have proved, in the long term, the benefits of such a system outweigh the considerable financial costs. England's turnaround, in particular, partially rooted in the introduction of central contracts a few seasons ago, exemplifies what can be achieved with this system. At some point, the PCB will have to bring in central contracts, if it is serious about bringing professionalism into the national team. A few more matches against the auld enemy and the time may be sooner rather than later.
Osman Samiuddin is a freelance writer based in Karachi.