The abolishing of departments from the domestic circuit, not to forget the Covid-19 pandemic, has hit women's cricketers harder than their male counterparts in Pakistan, leading to the number of active women cricketers coming down alarmingly in the past few months - only 45 are left now.
Until 2017, there were over 200 women cricketers playing in the domestic circuit for regional teams. They were signed up by departments, which allowed them to earn a livelihood from playing the game. Now, of the 45 remaining, nine are centrally contracted with the PCB, and another nine are in the emerging players' category, for which they receive a monthly retainer of PKR 50,000 (USD 300 approx.).
Around 400 male cricketers lost their jobs after the PCB revamped the domestic structure by removing departments from it. The new structure has six regional teams, with 192 cricketers given annual contracts. Replacing the old structure with the new one was a decision driven by the current prime minister Imran Khan, also the patron-in-chief of the PCB. He has long been an advocate for a domestic structure with only regional sides, wanting Pakistan to adopt a structure similar to Australia's.
So far, much of the focus of the new structure has been on the impact on male cricketers. But the impact on women cricketers has been more profound. As many as 17 have lost their jobs with State Bank and more than 12 out of 18 could lose their Zarai Taraqiati Bank Limited (ZTBL) contracts. The Higher Education Commission (HEC) has lost its playing rights, and Omar Associates and Saga Sports shut down their teams a few years ago over management issues.
The women's game in Pakistan remains by and large in the developmental phase, although over the last few years more and more girls from colleges and universities had started to play as a professional option. Subsequently, the pool grew with regions and corporates stepping in to invest in women cricket. After 2013, there were five departments offering women playing contracts and jobs. By 2017, the PCB had three tournaments for women: one with 12 regional teams - though the number was as high as 16 just a few years prior - playing a preliminary tournament to qualify for a five-team national one-day tournament, and another with four departmental teams playing a one-day tournament. All taken, over 200 cricketers were fielded every season.
Presently, there are only two tournaments and only three teams - PCB Blasters, PCB Challengers, PCB Dynamites - and that allows only around 45 cricketers to play; this, even as the PCB has upped the value of the central contracts in the last two years. ZTBL is the only department that has not terminated their contracts with women players, but that arrangement is unlikely to continue for long. The signs are that only a handful of the top players, who have full-time jobs, will retain their positions. But only if they don't give up their jobs.
"We are not really sure about our future," a woman cricketer who played for HEC told ESPNcricinfo. "Cricket has been our passion and our ambition was to play for the country, but it is all confused now. The system has always been inconsistent and every new head comes with their own plan and never lets one structure run properly. We leave our studies to play cricket but we can't have a future. They want us to grow but they don't create the environment and infrastructure for women cricketers.
"Unlike the men, we do not have long careers or enough freedom, but so many girls want to play cricket. They don't know how to make their way. There is no set pathway. There are challenges, and parents need to be convinced: they need to be told that they need to encourage girls to play cricket, and departments offering jobs was a big breakthrough. Even if a girl isn't able to have an international career, they can play for the departments and earn a decent amount of money to show their parents that they are doing fine. But now there is nothing left. The girls don't even get an annual contract from the PCB at domestic level."
In the last two months, to fight the economic challenges brought about by Covid-19, the PCB has provided a three-month financial support package for 25 unemployed national women cricketers. In this scheme, the players who meet the eligibility criteria and are without a contract for the 2020-21 season as well as a means of earning money, receive a monthly stipend of PKR 25,000 (USD 150 approx.).
That will end next month.
While all this has been going on, the PCB has continued to look for ways to bring the focus on quality over quantity.
"The pipeline is redefined as our focus is on our five basic zones in Rawalpindi, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Multan, where we have the academies in place. These are the points where we will be growing our pool of players," Urooj Mumtaz, chief selector for women and a PCB cricket committee member, said. "They are already operating with coaches, working in evening shifts, and we are slowly growing. We have started picking girls from age groups, and admitting them in academies at every centre.
"The pathway is changing and women's cricket is growing, but currently underdeveloped. But it has started to get its due importance. We are increasing the number of tournaments but number of teams (three) will remain intact for now. But we are paying every cricketer in PCB tournament and in fact have doubled the price of match fee at any age group. So there is incentive. We are also adding an Under-19 tournament every year and making it a part of the structure to prepare for the ICC events."