It was, on paper, a reliable marketing flourish: get Abrar-ul-Haq, geography teacher-turned popstar - and Punjabi to his core - to play live during the final of Pakistan's first-ever Twenty20 tournament in Lahore. It was, corporate bods exulted, a sure crowd-puller. Saturday evening, pleasant weather, quickfire cricket, a concert to boot - how could it not succeed? But not for the first time, the marketing people got it completely wrong. They weren't complaining, though. The concert was cancelled because there were too many people at the ground - approximately 32,000 inside it and roughly 10,000 outside waiting to get in. Over 40,000 for a domestic match in Pakistan? Had the world gone bonkers?
ABN AMRO Pakistan, the sponsors, and the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) were surprised. Salman Butt, consumer bank head and a self-confessed cricket fanatic, said, "We hadn't expected this response in the first year at all; maybe later but not right now." The crowds, according to the PCB, went "well beyond our expectations."
And yet, this time last year, an indifferent skepticism had greeted the PCB's ambitions to give domestic cricket another facelift. Was it really necessary? After all, rarely a season went by when the structure didn't undergo a cosmetic change. And the increasingly tiresome, albeit intrinsic, debate about regional and departmental cricket again lay at the heart of the battle; the PCB promising to shift the emphasis onto regional cricket, find ways to make it financially feasible, and even bring back crowds.
Audaciously, they managed to pull most of it off. A mid- to long-term sponsor was found. Domestic cricket was renamed National Cricket Pakistan (NCP), regional teams were re-branded, regional players were contracted for a season for the first time, and even the Quaid-e-Azam final attracted roughly 3500 to 4000 people over four days.
How did it happen? For once, the sponsors brought considerable marketing savvy - "every tournament was treated as a marketing event" in Butt's words - and a bigger budget. Sources reveal that up to Rs (PK) 17 million was spent on marketing the entire domestic product - NCP - and nearly half of it was spent on Twenty20. A new logo emerged, new names for teams, and billboards, newspapers, TV and even radio were increasingly peppered with ads about various domestic tournaments. For the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy final, a float drove through Faisalabad to attract crowds and give away tickets. Never had cricket, let alone domestic cricket, been as ubiquitous as it was this season.
Ten Sports got involved with the Twenty20, and as the PCB says, "that changed a lot of things". Quality production, a star commentary cast, and suddenly, booming viewership. It helped too that big-name players, like Shoaib Akhtar and Shoaib Malik (infamously), Yousuf Youhana and Abdul Razzaq (discreetly), and Moin Khan and Umar Gul (bombastically) and others took part. Previously unknown players, like Asif Hussein, Haaris Ayaz and Saeed Ajmal (Man of the Final) flirted with fame. Twenty20 was the icing, albeit an extremely rich and crucial one, on the domestic cake.
Predictably, there were those, like Javed Miandad, who thought the whole thing was a circus, destined to eventually lower the tone of cricket, as swearing does to conversation. Other purists are aghast that such a game can even exist. But that is to misinterpret the ethos of the format. The tournament - everyone from purists at the PCB to ABN AMRO and even Rashid Latif agrees - is designed purely to attract crowds and especially those that wouldn't watch domestic matches. "It can affect cricketers adversely and many don't enjoy playing it. But it reduces the time element of cricket and so attracts people who normally wouldn't have the time to go. And that is not a bad thing," says Latif. In other words, as the PCB says - and 40,000 affirmed - "it served a purpose".
Which makes everything, unusually for Pakistan, hunky dory? Not quite. As ever, it is Latif who wakes people up to smell the caffeine. "Twenty20 was a huge success but it shouldn't mask the fact that during the domestic season there wasn't that much change. Still, there are problems with pitches, the umpires are the same as they were years ago and still as bad. Facilities at grounds for players and spectators remain poor, there is no dining hall in most stadiums for players. Sure, there was money, but that isn't the only thing players need to feel comfortable."
To their credit, the sponsors are at least aware that much more needs to happen. More sponsors are needed to support regions, although many have expressed interest. More established players need to play in the domestic season as well, and the schedule for next year will be designed keeping in mind the availability of these players. The next season will be crucial. But for now, with some sponsors ready and more interested, with crowds returning, broadcasters willing, and a marketing budget, domestic cricket finds itself in unusually good health.