One of the oldest questions in Pakistan cricket has a new answer. Not whether Lahore has contributed more to Pakistan cricket than Karachi (the new answer is Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Or who was the better captain, Imran or Javed (ditto, Misbah). Or even which one of the two Ws was better (Asif… kidding).
No, this season, for the first time, to the question of whether departments or regions should dominate domestic cricket, the answer is regions. For the first time, Pakistan's domestic cricket will be played without a single departmental team; the first time, in other words, that Imran Khan's long-held belief that Pakistan should have fewer, region-based teams playing has been implemented. Given he is the Prime Minister and openly demanded this model, it isn't a surprise.
Hitherto, every single first-class season had at least one department side playing - whether that is Pakistan Railways or the Public Works Department in the earliest years, or banks, the odd airline, agricultural firm or TV channel thereafter. Some years, regions and departments played together, some years they had separate tournaments. But every year, both were there.
The PCB has, of course, trumpeted the changes, and while there are aspects to laud, there is significant impact on the most important stakeholder in this: the player himself.
Are cricketers worse off?
What has alarmed cricketers most, naturally, is the new pay structure.
In this model, all first-class cricketers will be paid a monthly salary/retainer of PKR 50,000 (approximately USD 319). Additionally, they will receive match fees of PKR 75,000 (USD 478) for Quaid-e-Azam (QeA) Trophy games, PKR 40,000 (USD 255) for Pakistan Cup (50-over) games and PKR 30,000 (USD 191) for National T20 games. They will also be paid a daily rate while playing of PKR 2500 (confirmed, as of now, for the QeA). So, over the course of a year, if a player plays all ten QeA trophy group matches (which go four days), five Pakistan Cup games and five T20 games (assuming both are single league formats), he will earn approximately PKR 1.8 million (USD 11,500). Potentially, with various forms of prize money, that could go up to PKR 2 million (USD 12,742). That, however, is only if he is an all-format pick and plays as many games as that. And there are credible reports that the PCB have paid that amount, possibly more, for just the design of the new QeA logos.
That has led to a number of players who were with departments, informally and privately complaining of the hit in their earnings. Departments were simple. They employed players and paid monthly salaries. These varied per department and depended on seniority, going from as low as PKR 32,000 per month at PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) to PKR 200,000 - 250,000 (USD 1274 - USD 1595) at a couple of departments. UBL (United Bank), which disbanded its team two seasons ago, paid as high as PKR 400,000 (USD 2548). At SNGPL, Pakistan's most successful modern team, some established internationals were on PKR 750,000 (USD 4778). At HBL (Habib Bank) minimum salaries were PKR 100,000.
That leaves Pakistan's top players worse off. As many as 17 of this year's 19 centrally contracted players were with department sides. They have not only potentially lost out on those salaries but will also not be paid the provincial monthly retainers because they have national contracts.
Indeed, as many as 81 of the total 114 players who are part of the provincial squads, played for a department side last year. Very few would have been on less than the PKR 50,000 monthly retainer they will receive now, but almost all of them would have been used to a range of additional perks and benefits. Most departments had healthcare coverage that employees - and their families - could avail. PIA gave employees benefits with their air travel. Power and gas companies waived off their bills. Most departments didn't pay match fees but most had good travel allowances and built-in bonuses and incentives for wins.
A cut on the wealthiest earners, you could argue, is not the worst thing in unequal ecosystems, especially if that wealth is being redistributed to those in need. That is not the case here. Department salaries had nothing to do with the PCB - if anything, they picked up the slack in ensuring players earned enough to become professionals. That money is out of the system and it doesn't seem like it is going to be replaced anytime soon.
A cut would also ignore a global context where Pakistan's top earners are already historically among the lowest earners.
Who is better off? Potentially those cricketers who played only for regions last year and are now in one of the six squads. Last year, they would have been paid only match fees, whereas this season they will be paid monthly retainers and their match fees have been increased. But even a number of those would play for a regional side in the QeA trophy and be contracted to a department team - and paid a salary - in the Grade Two (non-first class) division.
Quality, but what of quantity?
The other way cricketers have been hit, of course, is that there are going to be less of them playing first-class cricket. Just six provincial sides with 19-man squads means that if no players are added, there will be 114 first-class cricketers in Pakistan this season. By comparison, last season there were 16 teams and as many as 353 players who played a first-class game.
The trade-off between quality and quantity has been at the forefront of domestic cricket discussions in recent years. In 2013-14, for instance, there were 25 teams playing first-class cricket, albeit across two tournaments. And, as players for one didn't play in the other, that's near enough 500 first-class cricketers.
That, clearly, was a bloated system and needed rationalising. And, to be fair to the PCB, two of the scene's biggest departments - UBL and HBL - have shut down their teams in the last two years. There's no guarantee others would not eventually have gone that way - in fact, over the years, a number of departments, such as Allied Bank (ABL) and PNSC (Pakistan National Shipping) have also pulled out.
But are six teams too few for an essentially single-sport country of over 200 million people? Australia, a country of just 25 million people and multiple sports vying for attention, has six teams. England and Wales, with a population of just under 60 million, has 18 counties. New Zealand has less than five million people but six first-class sides.
There's plenty to look forward to this season. Because of a thin international season, the QeA will showcase the cream of Pakistan's talent against each other, playing for identifiable teams in a schedule that isn't designed to break cricketers physically. There are three-day gaps between games and sides play ten games in 92 days, a far cry from recent seasons where teams played as many as seven four-day games in just 41 days.
Bringing in a no-toss rule, as well as Kookaburra balls, should help alleviate two of the biggest concerns of recent seasons, of conditions geared to ruin batting and reward mediocre medium-pace bowling on under-prepared wickets. Average first-innings scores in the QeA have been the lowest anywhere in the world though, so until direct action is taken to improve the nature of pitches, that statistic won't change readily.
The success of this will depend on the buy-in from its players, and right now, there isn't much. This season, those players are significantly fewer in number and a lot of them will make less money than before. In fact, by not guaranteeing extra money to underpin this model, by not finding commercial partners - by not ensuring that players are better off - before the restructure, the PCB seems to be working against the very sustainability of that system. In this light, it isn't surprising that most departments seem to think this system might undergo change again next season - as the PCB hasn't stipulated as such that departments should release players, one has opted to extend player contracts by another year on the thinking that departments will be back next season.
If not, the PCB may find itself hearing more stories like that of a department player who has been selected for one of the provinces but is driving a Careem cab in the off-season to offset the loss in earnings.