Habib Bank Limited (HBL), one of the strongest domestic cricket teams in Pakistan, has scrapped its cricket department after 43 years of being an integral part of the circuit.
The bank's sports division was set up in the early 1970s, and a cricket team emerged in 1975. Since then, HBL has been a mainstay, not missing a single season of domestic cricket. But the bank has decided not to renew contracts with cricketers after they expired on March 31, effectively shutting down the sports division, which had already stopped investing in football, hockey, table tennis, volleyball and badminton earlier, by 2016.
The shutdown has been on the cards for a while, though it is not linked to recent moves to remove department sides like HBL from the domestic structure. Over the last six months, especially, the bank has pondered ways to cut costs - the cost of running the cricket team (departments finance their teams, while PCB sponsor the regional teams) was around $ 350,000 annually.
To continue to invest in PSL, and in the larger interest of cricket in Pakistan, HBL will redeploy its valuable resources from other avenues
HBL has, however, confirmed that though the cricket team will stop existing, the bank will continue to invest in the Pakistan Super League, which it has been the title sponsor of from its inception in 2016; the current deal is pegged at over $ 12 million.
"HBL's title sponsorship of the PSL, over the last four years, reflects our passion for the development of youth and the discovery of cricketing talent," an HBL spokesperson said. "The PSL has given an opportunity to countless young cricketers to display their talent at a national and international level. This has led to an unprecedented talent pipeline for Pakistan cricket and has played an instrumental role in discovering players like Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq, Hasan Ali and many more.
"With PSL, international cricket has returned to Pakistan. We are also delighted to see cricket facilities being uplifted in Pakistan and fans once again packing the stadiums to enjoy cricket. To continue to invest in PSL, and in the larger interest of cricket in Pakistan, HBL will redeploy its valuable resources from other avenues. This reinvestment will be partially achieved by exiting departmental cricket. HBL has had a long history in departmental cricket and recognises its valuable contributions to Pakistan cricket. Consequent to our enhanced focus on HBL PSL, the HBL cricket team will be demobilised."
The entry of banks in Pakistan's domestic cricket began in the early 1970s, with Abdul Hafeez Kardar, Pakistan's first Test captain and then board chairman, encouraging them to provide employment opportunities for players. AR Wadiwalla, a senior vice-president at HBL in the mid-1970s, was the pioneer of setting up the HBL sports division with the promise that HBL's name would be on every newspaper's "sports pages all the time".
Wadiwalla convinced players to choose the bank to further their careers, and helped them secure their future post retirement from the game. Big names such as Javed Miandad, Abdul Qadir, Mohsin Khan, Sultan Rana and others were recruited in the Wadiwalla years, and players like Younis Khan, Shahid Afridi and Umar Gul have since been regulars for the team. The last team included Fakhar, Faheem Ashraf, Ahmed Shehzad, Imam-ul-Haq and Abid Ali.
Till the end of the last millennium, players were employed with the company, but after the privatisation of the bank in 2004, players were handed contracts, which were renewed ahead of every season. With the latest development, as many as 26 players and six support staffers have lost their contracts.
"HBL will look after the interests of its cricket team members in line with its policies," a statement said. "It foresees a great future for cricket in Pakistan where PSL will remain a catalyst for bringing international cricket to Pakistan and enabling more matches to be played in the country."
HBL's move aligns well with the PCB's in-principle decision to scrap departments from the first-class structure.
The PCB recently put together a model in which department teams such as HBL, Water and Power Development Authority and Pakistan International Airlines would remain stakeholders alongside regional sides - although initially even the PCB had decided to strip departments of their playing rights.
But this idea was knocked down by Imran Khan, the Pakistan prime minister, who does not want departments in the system in any capacity. He has instead directed the PCB to rework the structure to include just six provisional teams - two from Punjab, and one each from Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Baluchistan and Gilgit-Baltistan.
Imran had been a strong advocate of a domestic structure with only regional sides for much of his playing career, enamoured as he was especially by the Australian structure. There are many now - as there were then - who believe such a model will not work in Pakistan, where the population is nearly nine times that of Australia.
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent