So the domestic structure is being revamped again? Imagine my surprise!
Well, yes, but this one might be different? Historically, the PCB has been revamping its domestic circuit every other year. The format of the first-class tournament has been tweaked with regions and departments playing separately one season and together another, like an on-off soap opera relationship. The number of teams participating has been the focus of fierce discussions, with the final number so exotically varied over the years it might as well have been picked randomly; they have ranged from eight in one season to as high as 26 in another.
But this time - and don't we always say that? - it might be different. The entire structure - if you could call it a structure - has been effectively dismantled, on the insistence of the current prime minister Imran Khan. With him also being the patron in chief of the PCB, this newer model, which he had passionately championed, looks set to be given a trial run starting this winter.
So you're saying this time there's an actual change? I've been fooled before - anything I should be remotely interested in?
Well, at the risk of sounding drastic - and when have we ever been accused of that in Pakistan cricket? - the entire pathway for a player making his way to the national team has been overhauled. Departments like HBL and Sui Gas - mainstays of the domestic scene and dominant forces in the Quaid-e-Azam trophy - which have been operating since 1972 - have been snipped out of domestic cricket altogether, with regions set to take centre stage, much as they do in domestic cricket across several major Full Member nations. Put simply, there will be six provincial teams It's more simplified than ever. There will be a model of 6 provincial teams playing every form of cricket on the domestic circuit.
Six? Like just half a dozen?
Yep, that's about the size of it. Pakistan is divided into four provinces - Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, along with two autonomous territories (Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan) and one federal territory (Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan).
The new cricket domestic structure splits the teams along provincial lines. Punjab is the largest province with over three-fifths of the population residing there. The sheer size of it (Punjab's population alone is twice that of England's) means the PCB has decided to split the province itself into two, Central Punjab and South Punjab. Sindh, Balochistan and KPK will have one team each while Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit Baltistan and Islamabad will have one association.
There is, in theory anyway, a structured pathway for the players in each region. Players will have to compete and perform at club cricket to get selected for respective city teams in the province. There will be intra-city cricket tournaments in six provincial cricket associations from which six respective provincial teams will be selected by the provincial selection committees based on the performance of players in these tournaments.
The intention is to turn provinces into provincial cricket associations. The association will be run by a management committee, with each having its own Chief Executive Officer. All six associations will become legal entities responsible for running all cricket in that province right from the grassroots level, including Under 13, Under 16, Under 19 and club/school cricket.
So no role for the departments at all? I can't imagine they were too happy with that arrangement.
Your scepticism is well-placed. There was much resistance to the idea, but after repeated back and forth and Imran Khan's unwavering insistence that departments had to go, it appears the necessary legislation has finally been passed. All private departments have been disengaged while eleven government departments - SNGPL, WAPDA, PIA, SSGC, State Bank, National Bank, Pakistan Television, Pakistan Railways, Pakistan Customs, ZTBL, Civil Aviation Authority have been asked to support the provincial set up in the form of sponsorship and administrative support from grassroots level to national level. All players signed up by departments will be released back to their regions and eligible for selection in their provincial teams.
But wait, wouldn't this drastic reduction in teams means lots of players who made careers from cricket lose their jobs now?
Correct, and this was by far the strongest objection to these changes. But the new model ensures that young, performing players remain in contention. Their livelihood will likely not be impacted as 32 players from each respective province will possess an annual contract. Mind you, these 32 will not include international players, which for the purposes of this article means anyone with a central contract. That adds up to just under 200 non-international cricketers till being retained by the system. Cricketers close to retirements will be afforded opportunities to return into the system as coaches, match referees and umpires.
National centrally contracted players will be made available to represent the six provincial teams but will not be eligible for provincial contracts. They will be considered for selection under a set formula that provincial associations must abide by to ensure one side doesn't become too disproportionately stronger than the other. There will be financial incentives for the players, who earn domestic provincial contracts by way of having monthly retainer-ships, match fees, enhanced prize money and individual prizes for each tournament. A domestic player playing all the matches can potentially earn up to PKR 2.5 (approx $15,600) million per season.
And what about the Quaid-e-Azam trophy? How will that be affected by this?
Thirty-two domestically contracted players will be made available for selection in the first-class team and could participate as and when required for their respective provincial teams. But a squad of only 16 players out of 32 will be chosen for Quaid-e-Azam trophy, while the other 16 will form a second-string team playing non-first class (three-day) cricket. Both tournaments will be run simultaneously across the country. This will provide a bigger pool of players to the respective provincial teams to replace players according to their strategic demands and nature of playing conditions, allowing greater flexibility for teams and potentially improving the standards of competitiveness.
There will be 31 first-class and 31 non-first-class matches. Each team gets to play ten matches before the final takes place. Matches will be played on a home and away basis and each team will play one home and one away game to allow them to get the experience of playing at different playing conditions and times. However, exceptions could be made depending on the availability and weather conditions at different venues.
Presently, the new structure is being laid down in the constitution to give it legal cover. For the first three years, the PCB will provide support to implement the new structure and try to attract potential sponsors in the hope that long-term, domestic cricket can become financially self-reliant. The PCB will spend Rs 1.1 billion of its own in this time on domestic cricket, while from the fourth season onwards, all provincial associations will be expected to generate enough revenue to be self-sustaining.
Will this work?
Make no mistake, this is not a tweak but a radical overhaul. Whether you think it'll work or not might depend on how jaded you've become by Pakistan's attempts to have their domestic system catch up to the rest of the professional world.
At least, for once, there might be a reason to tune into the domestic season this time, eh?