Imran Khan, Pakistan's Prime Minister and patron of the Pakistan Cricket Board, has rejected calls for reviving departmental cricket in the country. In a brief meeting at Khan's residence, a delegation that included Misbah-ul-Haq, Azhar Ali and Mohammad Hafeez, made a bid to change the premier's mind about the new structure, which has already cost over 400 cricketers their jobs, but could make no headway with Khan insisting that the new regional model was "the right way".
The cricketers who met Khan cited the reduced earnings for players under the new model, as well as the reduced opportunities for younger cricketers to pick up the game.
"The new structure didn't make any difference from its first year (2019) to the second (2020), which has been affected by Covid-19 too," one member of the delegation said. "The pipeline of cricketers coming into the system has been drying up. We understand that Imran Khan has a point about having competitive cricket in Pakistan, but you cannot implement this in one go, without giving an alternative to cricketers."
However, Khan stuck to his stand, and said he had convinced the cricketers "with great difficulty" that the new structure needed time.
"I have convinced with great difficulty Misbah, Hafeez and Azhar that the new cricket structure must be allowed to grow and become strong," Khan said later. "I told them that every new system had its teething problems and it takes some time but I can assure you once it is established, it will ensure the raw talent we have in cricket will come through polished and groomed for international cricket."
He added that whatever success Pakistan had so far was in spite of the old system, and not because of it.
"I am hopeful that we will be able in a position to field a very strong team for the next World Cup and do well in it thanks to this new system," he said. "Despite this system we won because of the immense raw talent we have. Nowhere does a player graduate straight into the national team from junior or club level cricket."
Khan had been a strong advocate for a domestic structure with only regional sides instead of departmental sides for much of his playing career too, wanting Pakistan to adopt a structure similar to Australia's Shield cricket. Since becoming Prime Minister, a position that automatically makes him the patron of the PCB, Khan set about putting his ideas in place. He instructed Mani to restructure the domestic model with six regional teams in the system, which would be the only feeder for the national team. The decision effectively ended the role that departmental cricket had since the 1970s, but it also saw 400 cricketers lose their livelihoods because they had held jobs with departments only by virtue of playing for those teams. The PCB offered contracts to only 192 cricketers, apart from match officials. For many those contracts are much lower value than what departments were paying cricketers, where they often benefited from other perks.
"Despite this system we won because of the immense raw talent we have. Nowhere does a player graduate straight into the national team from junior or club level cricket."IMRAN KHAN, ON PAKISTAN'S OLD CRICKET STRUCTURE
ESPNcricinfo understands the meeting was also marred by PCB officials contradicting players and not letting discussions flow smoothly. One of the players told ESPNcricinfo that Khan asked for patience with the new model, saying that Khan argued that such "transition" was always going to be difficult, but that for the national side to benefit, there needed to be competitive domestic cricket. No successful model in other cricket playing countries, Khan said, has departments (or corporate teams) playing at the highest level in domestic cricket. Khan also argued that players' development stopped once they got jobs with departments, because the security bred complacency.
The new structure is meant to empower the six province associations to operate from the grassroots level to the domestic level, and they will be responsible for regulating club, city and regional cricket. But while sound on paper, it's not been easy to implement the new model in practice. Clubs that were supposed to be registered under the new model haven't been, while players have played for the clubs for the past 18 months in a kind of vacuum - with the old structure gone and without the new structure in place.
Domestic cricket in Pakistan has been played among departments and regions for nearly 50 years, starting in the early 1970s, when Abdul Hafeez Kardar, Pakistan's first Test captain and then PCB chairman, encouraged organisations like Habib Bank Limited, Sui Southern Gas Corporation, Water and Power Development Authority and others to provide employment opportunities for players. With the new model, most departments have already suspended contracts they had with cricketers. Those who were permanent employees were asked to pick desk jobs, effectively ending their cricketing aspirations. These were players hired mainly for their cricketing skills, and given their lack of qualifications for other jobs, they have had to pick non-executive jobs with lesser pay.
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent