It isn't a novel take to suggest domestic pitches in Pakistan are not up to the standard a major Test team requires from its first-class cricket. But what happened in Faisalabad on Friday was, even by the lamentably low standards of the Quaid-e-Azam (QeA) Trophy, something of an eyebrow-raiser. Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited, winners of five of the last six QeA titles, found themselves bowled out by Habib Bank Limited for 35. This is a team that tops Pool A this season with four wins and a draw in five matches; a team that has 39 points, 15 clear of next-best Peshawar. A team that, for heavens' sake, counts Taufeeq Umar, Misbah-ul-Haq, Adnan Akmal and Bilawal Bhatti among its ranks.
You can imagine what the scorecard would look like, but it is worth rehashing, if only to illustrate the forlorn nature of the contest itself. Bilawal was the only man who made it to double figures, scoring 15. Ali Waqas, who faced more balls than any other batsman - 35 - managed to limp to 9. No other batsman crossed 4. This is a scorecard from the premier first-class competition of a country that, just two years ago, was ranked the best Test team in the world. It would be more at home in the Cricket 2004 video game.
The QeA may think it's inoculated against criticism of its pitches, so accustomed is it to snide barbs at its expense. But even so, this has been a week of frightfully bad publicity for the tournament. On the same day in Islamabad, Mohammad Amir struck Mohammad Saad, the third-highest scorer in the QeA last season, on the helmet from a delivery that pitched on a length. WAPDA captain Salman Butt, at the non-striker's end, complained to the umpire, and the match was abandoned after 58.4 overs.
Last year, the tournament was lambasted for how hostile the pitches were to batting, with 25 sub-100 totals through the season. This year seems to be no better. There have already been nine such innings, four of them having occurred in the previous two rounds. What's more, the totals are getting lower and lower. Two of these four scores have been sub-50 ones; National Bank of Pakistan were bowled out for 44 last week. There was only one sub-50 score in the QeA last season, when the now-relegated PTV were dismissed for 37 by Khan Research Laboratories.
Over the last couple of years, the state of domestic pitches has attracted increasing attention and criticism, without any indication that things are on the upturn. Last month, newly elected PCB chairman Ehsan Mani said revamping domestic cricket was one of his foremost priorities, and while he did not mention the state of the pitches, it is evidently one of the key aspects that need urgent improvement. Reducing the number of teams that play domestic cricket was raised as a possibility, with former cricketer and newly elected Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan apparently favouring "the Australian model" of domestic cricket.
"I have set my priorities to fix domestic cricket and make it stronger than ever, because this is the place where cricketers come through," Mani had said. "I met with the patron [Imran Khan] and publicly expressed my wish to have fewer teams compete in domestic cricket to ensure greater quality. [Imran wanted] an Australian model but we instead have to invent a Pakistani model. We have different circumstances but, in principle, it's only quality teams that should be playing first-class cricket.
"This won't happen overnight; we have to conduct a thorough review and consult with all stakeholders. We cannot ignore departments who are the major contributors in our domestic structure. They are undoubtedly the major employees for our cricketers and we cannot keep them out of the loop. I am forming a management task force who will identify the problems and suggest how we can make the structure stronger. There are a lot of challenges but we have to empower the regional set-up."