Who changed the rules ... again?

After the initial matches of Pakistan's premier domestic tournament ended last week, the air remained thick with criticism and controversy

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
After the initial matches of Pakistan's premier domestic tournament ended last week, the air remained thick with criticism and controversy.
The Patron's Trophy is contested solely by companies and organisations, such as Pakistan International Airlines and National Bank. This year there was a qualifying competition before the first round proper, and it threw up some surprises. Habib Bank and National Bank, who are usually among the best teams on the domestic scene, failed to qualify for the main tournament for the first time, which would have deprived them of first-class status this season.
But instead of acknowledging the vagaries of competitive sport, in which winning and losing is inevitable, both banks made appeals to the Pakistan Cricket Board to let them go forward anyway, by changing the format of the competition to include more teams. The PCB accepted, and four teams were added - four teams which had failed to qualify for the tournament in the first place.
This unparalleled decision, taken ostensibly to ensure that the Patron's Trophy is competitive and that players do not get axed by their organisations for poor performances, not only sets an unhealthy precedent, but makes a mockery of the very soul, spirit and essence of sport. For a start, what does changing the format of a tournament after it has started say about the PCB's much-trumpeted domestic-structure revamp at the beginning of this season? That it wasn't quite right to begin with?
The PCB argues that the tournament should not be deprived of its best players, and that their inclusion will make it more competitive. These players had the same chance as every other player, big name or otherwise, in the qualifying rounds to do well and ensure their team qualified. That they didn't is unfortunate, but little else - this is, after all, supposed to be competitive sport. The players claimed that many of them would lose their jobs if they didn't play in the main tournament itself. But was that not motivation enough while they were trying to qualify?
Jalaluddin, the former Test fast bowler who now coaches Pakistan Customs (who did qualify properly) tried to lodge an official protest, and then wanted his team to play PTCL (another beneficiary of the late amendment) with black armbands on. "We wrote to the PCB and told them of our intentions. It is ridiculous that this can happen," he said. "The big players in the teams that didn't qualify put pressure on the PCB, arguing that they needed to play first-class cricket, and the PCB caved in. Maybe they should have done more when they were trying to qualify."
The PCB asked Jalaluddin not to protest officially, saying that the matter had been looked at and that such a situation would not arise again.
But what happens, as is eminently possible, if Habib Bank reach the final of the Patron's Trophy and play Customs, or PIA, and win? Won't the losing team feel aggrieved that they lost to a team that didn't even qualify for the tournament on merit? Jalaluddin, clearly resigned to the reality, suggests that, for now the show must go on.
Before this shemozzle the season had been a breath of fresh air. New teams such as DHA and PTCL had made the qualifying rounds interesting, with spirited performances against traditionally stronger teams. They ultimately missed out on qualification, but earned respect for their spirited efforts. In the end they qualified after the rule-change, but at what cost?
The cost, as always, is the status of domestic cricket, which has been ridiculed, criticised and disowned over the years. It now seems that even the body in charge of nurturing and developing it has reduced it to a farce - and an unfunny one at that. Abid Ali Kazi, the leading authority on domestic cricket in Pakistan and a man who's not unfamiliar with its peculiar quirks, is not surprised. "It is a complete mockery - why have a qualifying round at all if you simply let teams qualify who make a bit of fuss about the whole thing?"
He claims something similar has happened in the past, when the seemingly straightforward concept of relegation and promotion was skewed to such an extent that some relegated teams created a fuss, raised a financial stink, and were miraculously returned to the top division.
The essence of the banks' arguments lay in their long-term association with the game, and services rendered to cricket in Pakistan. They have indeed poured funds into the game, and they have provided a livelihood, when none was forthcoming, for players such as Javed Miandad. But to tamper with the very essence of competitive sport so whimsically is disturbing.
And exactly what sort of "contribution" and "service" to the game are these companies offering if they deem it necessary to fire players on the basis of one bad season? They might make a more meaningful contribution if they didn't take part in the competition, for by holding cricket hostage and forcing a change of rules to accommodate their wishes, they are only further eroding the already diminished status of domestic cricket in Pakistan.
Osman Samiuddin is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.