The final of Pakistan's premier first-class tournament concluded recently, surrounded by empty stands - as it has for many years - and without television coverage (it was due to be broadcast but the channel is currently off-air). Match reports appeared in the sports pages but were glossed over. Even cricket nuts, the kind who set 3.30am alarms to catch New Zealand v Bangladesh, did not take notice. Karachi's centrally located National Stadium hosted the game. Entry was free and there were no security barriers. A number of Test heroes, including Misbah-ul-Haq, Shahid Afridi and Danish Kaneria participated. Yet the event felt like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, leaving you wondering if it made a sound.
All the same, there is no shortage of people - players, administrators, analysts, observers and casual fans - offering opinions on Pakistan's domestic game. Imran Khan, one of its most trenchant critics, keeps calling for a radical overhaul, while Javed Miandad, one of its foremost supporters, argues for preserving its basic ethos.
Administrators are either sanguine about its prospects or - like an ex-PCB chairman who recently said there was nothing wrong with it - in denial about its flaws. Journalists lament that it is no longer a nursery for future stars. Fans blame it for the chronic maladies that afflict Pakistan's national side.
First-class cricket in Pakistan does have some unique peculiarities. In addition to regional teams there are outfits representing corporate organisations such as banks, airlines, and energy companies. Few of Pakistan's internationals participate domestically. And there is not one first-class tournament but (in most years) as many as three, arranged in a structure that never sits still.
"In 60 years, no two domestic seasons have been the same," says Abid Ali Kazi, a statistician and Wisden contributor who has compiled an authoritative reference work on Pakistan's home seasons. The number of participating teams, competition formats, criteria for promotion and relegation, and even the number of tournaments, varies yearly. This bewildering complexity is in striking contrast to other countries. Australia, for example, has one first-class, one one-day, and one Twenty20 tournament, all competed in by a fixed number of regional teams in an unchanging configuration.
The leading tournament is the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, which has traditionally comprised regional teams. Alongside that has been the Patron's Trophy, which typically features corporate teams. Often the top five teams from the two have also competed in a Pentangular. There is also a one-day tournament and, since 2005, a Twenty20 tournament. Apart from the Twenty20 games, which are televised, generate water-cooler talk, and fill stadia, little else gets noticed.
One of the chronic ills of Pakistan's domestic season is believed to be its lack of intensity, which ill-prepares players for the international circuit. Imran blames it on the presence of departmental teams. He has frequently said that teams representing corporate entities are sterile competitors, because they cannot generate excitement or inspire fan following.
Yet these corporate teams, the brainchild of Pakistan's first captain, Abdul Hafeez Kardar, serve a crucial purpose. Kardar realised that Pakistan's cricketers would have a very limited professional base if they relied only on district cricket associations, because these bodies inevitably struggled for financial viability. Rather than take up an impractical crusade against corruption and nepotism in regional cricket bodies, he convinced a number of government and semi-government companies to employ cricketers by developing and fielding teams in first-class cricket in the early 1970s. It may be a contrived formula - imagine Barclays Bank and British Airways playing alongside Sussex and Surrey - but it has been the economic key to sustaining cricket infrastructure in Pakistan.
A number of leading players, including Miandad, support this system, further arguing that since Pakistan's domestic game has thrown up a fair share of world beaters, it must be doing something right. Miandad often cites his own example. A proud product of the local system, he more than held his own around the world, and cannot see why the same is not possible for any other hardworking lad with a reasonable amount of talent and luck. Miandad is the archetypal example of what is best about Pakistan's first-class system. He spent his formative years in the thick of it, and developed a close relationship with his employers, Habib Bank, that continued fruitfully until well after his playing days.
If anything, contrasting views on Pakistan's domestic game confirm that the system is ripe for meaningful reform. Nasim Ashraf, the PCB chairman, envisions a not-too-distant future when Pakistan will have a single flagship first-class tournament in which 16 teams compete. A strictly enforced system of relegation will add prestige and intensity. Ahsan Malik, the board's marketing director, explains that this will incorporate both departmental and regional presence, as was the case in this year's Quaid-e-Azam trophy. "We are aiming to develop regional teams partnered by corporate sponsors," he said during a training camp recently. "We are even considering opening team ownership to private investors as a franchise, along the lines of the business model seen in American sports and European football."
These ideas are promising, yet hurdles exist. Convincing national-level corporations to become identified sponsors for one city or region won't be easy. In parallel, an efficient administrative structure must develop to promote and maintain world-standard facilities for domestic cricket in every corner of Pakistan. External circumstances must also be favorable. There might not be a Twenty20 tournament this year, for example, because when President Musharraf declared a state of emergency last November, he also banned the local television sports channel that had successfully bid for domestic cricket rights. Without TV coverage, sponsors aren't interested.
Despite all this, cricket followers continue to hold out hope for a permanent and successful reconfiguration of Pakistan's first-class season. The odds are against it, but sometimes that is just how Pakistan prefers it.