October 9, 2015

Majid's plan for Pakistan cricket

Along with his son Bazid, the former Pakistan batsman has come up with a proposal - though hardly the first - to decentralise domestic cricket in the country

Majid Khan: "We are not cutting the departments out. You are looking after the game itself. That's the way it should be" © Getty Images

Majid Khan wants to talk. Historically, on a scale starting at impossible and rising to the full and final destruction of all nuclear weapons, Majid Khan wanting to talk is off it. But he does. To this end, he has even been on national TV, which, despite once working for Pakistan Television, he is loath to do; it is far too public an excursion for the man.

It matters so deeply to him, he has even approached and spoken to other journalists about it. I'm no statistician but journalists, traditionally, have been likelier to speak to King Tut.

Forget that: it matters so deeply to him he even spoke to the Pakistan Cricket Board about it, which, well, given his general opinion of most PCB administrators, must have been #Awkward.

He wants to talk about domestic cricket, and more specifically a reimagining of the game he has drawn up with his son, Bazid (Majid says the plan is "Bazid's baby").

You may or may not have noticed that the PCB has revamped its domestic format this season. If you did not, that's fine - it is likely to change again anyway. A brief recap: there is now one main first-class tournament - the Quaid-e-Azam (QeA) trophy - with two divisions and 26 teams. Regional sides and departments will once again play together, but sprinkled across the two divisions.

There have been so many iterations of domestic cricket that long ago there was no new permutation left to uncover. This current revamp, for example, was also a revamp in 2007-08 (and mixing regions and departments in one tournament and multiple groups goes much further back).

The more important development, though, is that the PCB is attempting to find corporate sponsors to, in effect, take over regional sides. Earlier this year the board invited bids for its 16 regional teams.

The plan - or, you know, the neo-capitalist dream - is for regions, such as Karachi or Lahore, to be run by a joint board of elected regional cricket administrators and executives from the sponsoring company (with a finance manager appointed by the PCB). The entity - known, at this embryonic stage, as the Sponsored Regional Cricket Association - will work to the model regional constitution the PCB unveiled earlier this year.

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The PCB's plans are actually a version of that of the Khans. That plan, as you can see here miraculously defies the generally shallow scope of Powerpoint presentations. It goes deep, redrawing regions as the divisions they used to be when Majid played. In fact, one of the persistent modern criticisms of domestic cricket - and the Khans are not alone in making it - is that regions as they are currently drawn are too geographically contrived; they have subsumed and emasculated smaller districts that historically had strong set-ups and uncovered talent regularly.

There have been so many iterations of domestic cricket that long ago there was no new permutation left to uncover. This current revamp, for example, was also a revamp in 2007-08

The Khans call for a rationalisation of size, limiting first-class cricket to 11 divisions (instead of 16 regions) that will play ten matches each season. Below them will lie lesser-developed divisions - Hyderabad, or Quetta for example - playing non-first class matches, but with the opportunity for the top team to be promoted every season.

Further down, they recognise the importance of smaller districts, envisaging them as the feeders for division teams. Each division is made up of four districts, each an autonomous, self-sufficient unit in the same model as a division, all of them playing non-first-class cricket.

The detail is admirable; not just clear outlines of how each division and district should be structured but also designated match fees for players and officials; type of balls to be used; right down to which side should pay for lunch fees and hotels.

The vision gathers as you progress down each slide, so that ultimately, because the transformation begins at the very root, it builds overpoweringly to the transformation it will effect at the very top: an organically democratic, accountable and streamlined PCB. By this point, the logical force of it is impossible to withstand.

Here, for example, is a corollary. "With this plan you employ over 600-700 people, ex-first class cricketers, as umpires, coaches, scorers, groundsmen, selectors, CEOs at divisional level," Majid says. "All these jobs are open for first-class level, and that is where the work is, not at PCB level. The board is just coordination, overseeing these things. Their life will become easier. People will look to divisions not board."

It is not complicated, though the devil will be in the implementation. How easy will it be to find sponsors, for instance? "There is huge willingness," says Bazid. "I know for a fact there is in Faisalabad and Sialkot, and you should be fine in Karachi and Lahore. But the problem is when sponsors come, they have to go through the board and they then back down. They would rather go directly to the association."

Neither will the personnel to run these divisions emerge overnight. "When money is involved, when sponsor gets in, there will be a lot of pressure on the division," says Bazid. "The sponsor's treasurer will be in. If I'm Ufone [a Pakistani telecom] and I pick up Islamabad and after one year nothing has happened, then I will ask questions. I will look at Faisalabad, Sialkot, see they are doing so well and I will be pissed."

To even get to the stage where those are the only problems to worry about will require overcoming the biggest obstacle: the departments and the formidable constituency that are their defenders, ready to pounce like some kind of lobbying group at the merest threat to their status.

Majid knows the opposition from the departments will be fierce, but he does not see them being removed altogether. "We are changing their role, to sponsoring a region. We are not cutting them out. You are not now going to look after individual players, you are looking after the game itself. That's the way it should be."

The PCB has begun work towards increasing corporate involvement in first-class cricket © PCB

All he wants, though, is for there to be debate. "No one, not a single journalist or player has talked about this plan. We have put this on the table. You want to reject it, fine, but at least start a discussion about it. Is this a good plan? Is it a bad plan? Let's talk. But no one is interested."

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Ever since the follies of Tauqir Zia's centralisation became evident, the PCB has been trying to empower regional associations - not in the best way always, or with the greatest conviction, but trying.

That process, over the last decade, has brought about a convergence with what Majid has long felt. He says he could not do anything about it when he was a powerful chief executive of the board in the mid-'90s because the board did not have enough money; in match-fixing, he also had bigger fires to put out. But for at least two decades, if not more, this plan was clear in his mind. At a PCB workshop in November 2006 designed to help Pakistan strategise for the 2007 Word Cup (that went well), Majid turned up, spoke in detail, without interruption, about this very plan. As soon as he finished, he walked out, metaphorically dropping the mic. It was as blistering a performance as the pre-lunch hundred against New Zealand.

The conviction with which he speaks of it, and its rightness, is not just a family trait. It is born of a lifetime of cricket around the globe, celebrated stints in county cricket, but also, as important, in Australia. He speaks of the structure of domestic cricket around the world, and its ethos and culture, with intelligence and authority.

He has played cricket in Pakistan before the age of departments and after. He felt nothing, he says, playing for PIA. "The standard was there but the passion and affinity wasn't. When you play for Pakistan, you feel ownership, as you should for Lahore or Karachi. It's the support which gives you that fillip."

He understands that departments offered financial security but "the long-term impact of that nobody foresaw. In India they play on provincial basis. All Indian cricketers were employed by the corporate sector but played first-class cricket in Ranji.

"We went to England before the mass induction took place of the corporate sector, and got an idea that we are playing for an area, with its own supporters. But the new generation that came in, they had no idea. For their security they did right. But they still don't know the after-effects of that system."

Bazid was one of its products and he noted early in his career the disconnect of being a resident of Islamabad but basing yourself in Karachi for the season to play for PIA.

During the PCB's administrative limbo in 2014, when Zaka Ashraf and Najam Sethi were embroiled in a legal battle for control of the board, Majid's and Bazid's ideas made their way to the board.

The plan is not complicated, though the devil will be in the implementation. How easy will it be to find sponsors? Neither will the personnel to run these divisions emerge overnight

"Zaka Ashraf came to me, I gave him this plan," says Majid. "Sethi came and I gave this plan. I said, put this in. He said, to implement this you should become chairman of the [domestic] committee. I agreed but said, don't announce it till the court cases are over.

"He wanted two more people. Sadiq Mohammad I had spoken to and he was on board. Third person, I will tell you. [Sethi's] favourite is Zaheer Abbas. I should've said, all right. But I am a blunt man and said, Zaheer doesn't know anything. After the court case, he made Zaheer chairman of the committee."

Sethi acknowledges the meeting but not the offer of a position. In any case, has spoken of his desire for region-based cricket to thrive since and he does at least remember Majid affirming his own views in the meeting (to be fair, though Majid and Bazid's plan is the most thorough yet, it's not as if nobody has talked about empowering regions before). Soon after the meeting last year, though, one of the members of the committee, Haroon Rasheed began talking about a restructuring in which departments would each "adopt" a region, much like in the Khan plan. It was shot down then, mostly because the news was spun as the end of departments altogether.

Now, though, we are here on the brink of potentially the most radical restructuring of the domestic game, and just at the moment it matters less how we got here. According to some reports, six buyers have been secured for regions, but Sethi says they are aiming to privatise four through this domestic season.

The near-simultaneous birth of the Pakistan Super League, which also requires regional franchises to be bought, will not help, potentially complicating - or diluting - the value of both a PSL franchise or a regional domestic side. And there is still an element of top-down administration, with sponsors having to deal first with the PCB rather than with regional associations; the latter would allow a more organic relationship to grow.

Ultimately, though, it will be a start. Privatisation is mere dilution; the PCB could do worse than work towards the scenario of the Khan plan to as full an extent as possible. That will mean a full divesting of their central authority, a tectonic shift from how they have operated in the modern age.

When I asked them to assess the chances of such a plan being implemented, father and son both laughed.

Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National and the author of The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket

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