Leave the domestic game alone
About the only thing that brings about more discussion and hand-wringing than international cricket in Pakistan is the state of the domestic cricket. Such is the frequency of introspection, especially among ex-cricketers, administrators and journalists, that Abid Ali Kazi - a leading authority on the local game - reckons that since the inception of first-class cricket in Pakistan in 1947-48, no two seasons have ever followed the same format.
With that in mind, and the fact that the domestic structure has had three major overhauls in the last four seasons, the Pakistan Cricket Board held seminars recently in Karachi and Lahore ... and again it was the domestic game that was under the hammer. The seminar - attended by a kaleidoscope of local administrators, past and present cricketers, journalists, and school and university staff - was ostensibly held to gauge opinions on the current domestic format. In reality, it was an exercise to test the water about yet another structural change - one that goes right to the heart of the local set-up.
Commercial sides, such as Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and Habib Bank, have been an integral part of the local game since Abdul Hafeez Kardar brought them in, back in the 1950s. They have also been the focal point of stinging criticism from some - Imran Khan, for example - who feel that players and crowds alike feel no passion and place no emotional attachment to a game between a national airline and a bank. Critics also argue that such outfits don't breed cricketers, as regional academies and teams would, but instead cherry-pick the best players from elsewhere.
Rameez Raja, the PCB's current chief executive, basically agrees with Imran and co., although his marketing background has injected a degree of financial realism into his deliberations.
The current domestic structure, a revamp from last season, was carried out on the advice of an independent committee which was set up to investigate the disastrous World Cup performance. They finally heeded Imran's long-standing call to rid the game of departmental teams, and in a move marketed as a radical shift - although actually it has happened before - decided to separate the commercial teams from regional associations. Two tournaments, the Patron's Trophy for departmental teams and the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy for regional ones, were pencilled in, along with a qualifying round for the Patron's Trophy. Eventually, said Rameez, the departmental teams would be phased out altogether. However, the seminar showed that this would be an unpopular and unnecessary move.
In practice there seems little wrong with the current format. Ex-Test players like Haseeb Ahsan and Sadiq Mohammad spoke in favour of it, as did administrators in the shape of Siraj Bokhari and Aslam Sanjani, the current and past presidents of the Karachi City Cricket Association. Let departmental teams have their own tournament, they said: their players receive an income and a job - the overriding raison d'etre for the idea in the first place - and everybody is happy. Regional cricket has the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, and if sponsorship is eventually found (domestic cricket has been without one for four years), then the regional players will also be paid well.
The seminar pointed up some other flaws too. Poor umpiring standards (a Pakistani puzzle as old as the day is long) were discussed, as were the facilities and maintenance of most grounds and pitches. Gul Hameed Bhatti, an eminent sports journalist who misses little on the local scene, pointed out how few of the big-name players took part in domestic tournaments anyway these days. Bhatti, an avid cricket statistician, revealed that Wasim Akram played only around five Quaid-e-Azam Trophy games in a career spanning 20 years. A visibly surprised Shaharyar Khan, the new PCB chairman, wondered aloud about a system in which the leading players would not be guaranteed selection in the national squad unless they appeared in domestic cricket at some stage. But the West Indian stance - where if you do not play domestically, you are not considered for the Test team - was quickly ruled out.
The inability to find a sponsor has severely hampered the domestic game. Some argued that if sponsorship could be found, then TV coverage would also follow, and that this development could be crucial - presently domestic cricket is not even considered worthy of a couple of minutes of coverage on the evening news, let alone an entire live broadcast. As Zaheer Abbas said, with crowds for international matches dwindling, the chances of attracting people to a local game, whether it be Habib Bank v Pakistan Customs or Lahore v Karachi, is negligible. Which means televising games - even if only brief highlights to start with - is essential.
Sadiq Mohammad, in a suggestion as dashing as his opening once was, called for the company teams (who, he pointed out, aren't short of funds) to shell out for two cameras - one funded by each side - at every match, thus ensuring that, at the very least, a video archive could be kept of all domestic games. The PCB and the regional teams (which are generally under-funded) could share the cost of the cameras for regional games.
But it was to the private sector that we had to turn for a glimpse into what will probably be the way forward. Jamal Mir, the CEO of Prestige Advertising (a leading ad agency in Pakistan), argued the case for cricket to be treated not simply as a game but as an entertainment industry, similar to the treatment of sports in the United States. Citing the success of franchises in American sport, Mir envisioned a plan to attract businessmen to sponsor a region, and bring merchandising into the game. Marketing the game, then, would be as important as the mechanical or structural sides of it.
How many of the suggestions so eagerly noted down by the PCB will see light of day depends mainly on the energies of Shaharyar Khan and Rameez Raja. What they can take from the seminar is clear: departmental teams, as much as some may argue otherwise, clearly have a place in the domestic Pakistan game. Any move to try to phase them out would be as unpopular as Aamer Sohail - and without sponsorship or an alternative source of funds, financially suicidal. The current structure is set so stay untouched for next season, and perhaps that is what is needed. Leave aside the changes, cosmetic or deep-rooted; bring back the star players; get on the telly; and market yourself.
Osman Samiuddin is a freelance journalist in Karachi.