April 24, 2014

All change in Pakistan's domestic structure. Again

Change has been the only constant in the country's first-class system. And a recent set of proposals - worthy as they sound - only serve to reinforce that

Brace yourselves. Pakistan is about to revamp its domestic system again. A plan has been floated that envisages the scrapping of departmental teams, such as Habib Bank (HBL), and instead proposes the departments adopt a region each, such as Karachi, in the role of sponsor. Currently, in case you've lost track, departments have their own tournament and regions have their own. This idea, the brainchild of Haroon Rasheed, now the PCB's director of game development, is an attempt to streamline two parallel structures, and at a glance seems to carry some sense.

On the one hand, it encourages regions to eventually become self-sustaining again and stop relying on PCB handouts. On the other it is also trying to ensure that departments, which have contributed so richly to Pakistan cricket, stay involved, not just by attaching their name to a region but by being on the executive council that runs the new entity. Ultimately the idea is that these units will become profitable too, so that everybody wins.

Rasheed is a product of departmental cricket himself. He knows first-hand the benefits a stable, secure job and income provides to a domestic cricketer. He has clearly put some work into the proposal. What has driven him are concerns about the demographics of the talent pool at Pakistan's disposal. Of the 235 players, for instance, who played for the 11 department sides, Rasheed calculated that 162 are already over 25 (and given the widespread fudging of ages, that probably means 27-28 or over). That means the pool of young players is severely limited.

Meanwhile, the new rules that prevent contracted department players - the country's best players - from playing for regions mean that this year's Quaid-e-Azam (QeA) Trophy, contested only by regions, was where the rest of Pakistan played cricket. That tournament was populated mostly by completely new players, none of whom had yet been picked up by a department side. Obviously not a single one of the 302 players who took part for the 14 regional sides played for Pakistan; in other words, that is no pool of talent for Pakistan.

It is not cheap staging two vast tournaments. The PCB spent close to Rs 105 million (approx. US$1.07m) on the most recent QeA. The President's Trophy is not a cost burden on the board, in that each department picks up the majority of costs, spending somewhere in the region of Rs 25-30 million ($250,000-300,000) per tournament. Why not, Rasheed's thinking goes, halve the costs, metaphorically, and enhance the talent pool by coming together?

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For as long as I can remember, domestic cricket has been not a subject of nerdy debate but of an ideological battle. Only two schools of thought coexist, and with friction: you are either Imran or Miandad.

For long, Imran Khan has insisted that cricket in Pakistan must be played along regional lines. He looks to Australia - and at one point, but no longer, did to England - as examples to be emulated. There shouldn't be as many teams as there are, and sides should be geographical entities. The thrust is that regional sides look after their players better, they go and hunt talent, nurture it and then feed the Pakistan team. Additionally, matches between regional teams will pull in more crowds and involve more people. Nobody really supports a bank or an airline, after all, do they?

Javed Miandad is very much a believer in the power of the departments. He believes that they have helped sustain Pakistan and her cricketers all this while. The argument is simple. In such an economic landscape, where people struggle to get by, where there is so much poverty, a player needs to have the financial security to be able to concentrate on cricket. Sides like Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad simply don't have the resources to keep players playing, clothed and fed. Lesser sides, like Quetta or Multan, have no hope in hell.

The clash is one of idealism with pragmatism. Imran tells it like it should be and Miandad simply tells it like is. It is understandable why they take those stances. Imran is from a milieu - and a time fractionally but crucially before Miandad's - where money wasn't really a concern. He played cricket because he enjoyed it and could afford to. It was an extension of what he did at school. He was educated in England and if he hadn't pursued cricket, he would have fallen quite comfortably into some other pursuit.

Miandad was not as blessed. The ethos that drove him was of a different, more aspirational, kind. Work hard, do well, secure a job; for him to have played cricket, where he came from, it was essential that some kind of financial security came with it - the kind provided by HBL, with whom he remained happily for his entire career. Miandad played three times as many matches as Imran did for first-class teams in Pakistan (over 40 for HBL). And though that doesn't sound like a lot, he was very much a man of the system, its values and ways. He is exactly the kind of player Abdul Hafeez Kardar, as the figure who brought departments into first-class cricket, had in mind when he was doing so. (Or Mohammad Yousuf, who said some years ago: "I never thought of playing for Pakistan. I just wanted a job in an organisation with a first-class cricket team, and to make a living.")

There are obvious merits to both, and equally obvious faults. Imran's emphasis on regions blithely discounts the decrepit state of most such associations. Most are crippled by the pettiest politicking, corruption, and a very basic lack of finance. In that sense, they mirror very much the age-old tensions between the centre and the provinces; they have only as much power, authority and independence as the centre allows them. How then will their cricketers be paid?

Though Miandad readily cites socio-economic conditions as a reason for the presence of banks in cricket, he maybe doesn't know that until recently India was similarly afflicted. Yet such departments never flooded into that first-class structure. Instead, until Jagmohan Dalmiya brought untold riches into the Indian game, the country had an eminently workable system in place, which would have done the unthinkable and found a common ground where both Imran and Javed would be happy.

Corporate organisations employed first-class and Test cricketers - as an extension of the earlier system of princely patronage - so that the financial stability of their situation freed them up to play first-class cricket regularly, representing state teams that paid them poorly and haphazardly. But the organisations did not become first-class sides themselves; instead they held their own, well-organised, competitive club tournaments, where their cricketer-employees would also play.

Now it barely matters: the BCCI pays out over a quarter of its vast revenues to its first-class cricketers.

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Rasheed's ideas have had previous airings, informally at least for a decade or so. In 2009 I met AR Wadiwalla, a veteran banker, who was one of the driving forces when Habib Bank first set up a sports division in the mid-'70s and introduced their cricket team. He was a senior vice-president in those days and had it not been for him, who knows what would have come of Miandad, Abdul Qadir and Mohsin Khan, to name just three of many the bank employed and nurtured.

Given that he was one of the fathers of the department system, it was a little surprising to hear Wadiwalla - an IPL fan, incidentally - say that it was time for corporate entities to change the nature of their involvement. "I think the time has come now for big business entities to sponsor a team, not make a team... They will get popularity and they will get back whatever gate money they will share, adverts they will share, TV money they might share.

"Departments were necessary at the time, but they are not now. There is so much money in sport. Cricketers don't need a daily job anymore, they need sponsorships. One Pepsi advert gets them 10 lakh dollars. Think of it - ex-cricketers are match referees, umpires, commentators, they are all making money from the cricket industry. They don't need to have jobs anymore."

Pakistan still does not know what system serves its purposes best because they have never stuck with one long enough

There has already been opposition, and there will be more, to Rasheed's plans, from former cricketers and administrators affiliated with department sides. That is not surprising. The ideas are not without problems.

Why would a corporation want to take on the many financial and political headaches of a regional association? Which corporation would want to invest in a historically weak region, like Quetta or Balochistan? (In any case, domestic cricket's regional demarcations need serious rationalisation.) What would a corporation get in return from mere sponsorship, although the counter to this is: what do they get now from fielding a team? At the very least, they can ensure similar returns as they do now.

Above all will loom the prickly question of what to do with the many cricketers who, in the streamlining, will lose out: fewer teams in just one tournament will mean a vast reduction in the number of first-class players. It will be as messy as layoffs usually are. And what would be the exact financial situation of the cricketers who are retained? Presumably these new entities will be earning enough to place them on central contracts, which will replace their salaries (but will not necessarily secure their future).

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The start of every new season was usually an annoying time for statistical documenters such as the late Gul Hameed Bhatti and Abid Ali Kazi. It would mean getting their heads round yet another set of format and rule changes: no two seasons, they always noted wearily, have ever been the same.

Of all the many tournaments that have come and gone, only the QeA has remained from the start. The Pentagular came, went, came again, and went again. The Ayub Trophy went, the Patrons came, and now it is the President's Trophy. There used to be a Sikander Ali Bhutto tournament, a Kardar memorial, there has been a Cornelius Trophy, Gold leagues, Super Cups, various bank-sponsored tournaments: tournaments are added to the calendar as arbitrarily as they are subtracted.

Formats are as open to change. Tournaments are single league, then knockouts, then double league. Sometimes there are groups with relegation and promotion. Rules governing wins are constantly tinkered with, and the number of points awarded for a result keep changing. Qualifying tournaments for a tournament, or a super league after a league, are not unknown.

No tournament has ever had any identity or shape. The Patrons/President's Trophy has been a department-only event, a region-only, and a mixed one allowing both. Similar disrespect is paid to the QeA. Since 1975-76, the rules for what teams can participate in the QeA have changed more than ten times, and for the Patrons/President's Trophy, which was briefly scrapped after 2006-07, over eight times. To the simple query of what kind of tournament each is, there is no simple answer.

No one is even sure what constitutes a first-class side. Regions have played, cities, districts and provinces. Nobody has settled on how many teams there should be from the major metros, such as Lahore and Karachi. Often there is one, sometimes there are two, and there have even been three. New teams crop up each season, and if not, old ones are revamped. Reasonable estimates would place the number of teams who have played regular first-class cricket at between 50 and 60.

The problem is not really with Rasheed's proposals, or those of Imran and Javed, which they marry. They all have advantages and disadvantages. The problem is that even if these proposals are implemented, there is no guarantee the domestic structure will not undergo another revamp tomorrow.

The problem is that 60 years on from the first properly scheduled first-class season, Pakistan still does not know what system serves its purposes best because they have never stuck with one long enough. The depressing way to look at it is as part of a broader malaise, for nothing is fixed in Pakistan, certainly not taxes, only death. What's a piddling first-class structure if the terms upon which a country is run are still not settled upon? Sadly, that might constitute the only real way of looking at it.

Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National

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