It is no secret that the standard of Pakistan over the years has gone down. Among many factors this can be attributed largely to a weak domestic structure that does not polish talent to the fullest. A few good players do show up here and there, but the flow is not consistent. What is needed is a system that readies players for the rigours of international cricket, is competitive and is permitted to persist. Currently the first-class structure is changed every two years which has not allowed a proper system to take root.
The changes in the system in my opinion need to be as follows. Firstly, the first-class system needs to be made more exclusive. Currently over 300 players in 16 teams play in the Quaid e Azam trophy (Pakistan’s premier first-class tournament), an overwhelming chunk of which is neither physically fit nor competent enough to be called ‘Professional Cricketers’. An exclusive system would be more competitive with better players facing each other and more closely fought games being played as witnessed in the recently concluded Pakistan Cup.
Secondly, the current system of departments and regions playing alongside needs to be completely abolished. This is one of the steps Prime Minister Imran Khan has been proposing for a long time as visible in his rejection of PCB’s new proposed structure. A major reason for this is that regional affinity would bring more interest to the games as seen with the PSL. Departmental teams have no affinity with the local population as people cannot associate with them in any way. Departmental teams also usually end up getting stronger players by offering better salaries than the regional teams. This guarantees them strong squads of existing players and does not incentivize them to develop new talent.
The most competitive domestic competition Pakistan has had has been the Pentangular (now discontinued) where provincial teams played against each other. The format of the Pentangular needs to be the format on which all domestic cricket is played. The new structure proposed by the Prime Minister would have six first class teams, two from Punjab and one each from Sindh, Balochistan, KPK and Gilgit-Baltistan.
While this proposal does make the system ‘exclusive’, I feel it runs the risk of becoming too exclusive in a country of 200 million that is mad about cricket. There should in my opinion be eight teams with another team from Sindh and KPK coming in. Each team should maintain a pool of twenty players who they look after and polish, and an exclusive coaching staff which should be aided by the PCB in every manner. Ensuring physical fitness and managing diet of the players must be a primary objective of teams. The teams should be allowed to search for corporate sponsors on their own to help them maintain themselves financially.
However, for this system to yield fruit, the grass root structure needs to be extremely strong as well. The first-class teams should be fed by a tier two domestic structure which should also be region based. Every year the top performers from the tier two system would make their way to the tier one system and the bottom placed performers from the tier one system would be relegated to the tier two system. Feeding the tier two system should be a strong club cricket and university cricket system which is something we can learn from our past and from Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka did not have a first-class system till the early 90s and their international team was selected from their club system alone! Pakistan too back in the 50s and 60s had a vibrant University Cricket League system and inter university matches attracted large crowds as well. The rivalry between Islamia College Lahore and Government College Lahore rivaled that of Pakistan and India according to many. We need to revamp our club cricket and university cricket needs to be brought back to life.
It is currently the right time for this change to be implemented. Departments have themselves started distancing themselves as seen by the withdrawal of teams by UBL and HBL. This trend needs to be taken to its logical conclusion and a system on the same lines as Australia’s shield cricket needs to be put in place.
While there are many intricate details that have been missed here that would need to be worked out, this is the general direction which our cricket needs to take.