Barren strips

02 Aug 2015


Curators at the National Stadium Karachi put finishing touches to a strip
Curators at the National Stadium Karachi put finishing touches to a strip

On its website the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) describes itself as “the governing body for cricket in Pakistan” and “responsible for the promotion and expansion of the game.” As a claim, it sounds impressive, but as the current state of cricket in Pakistan shows, or for that matter, the near miss on qualifying for the 2017 Champions Trophy shows, the PCB have fallen short of the job description they have defined for themselves.

The product that they are protecting and selling is not merely the international team but everything that leads up to it too. Alas it’s only when the performances at the top begin to decline that the world starts to notice all that is wrong underneath. And right now Pakistani cricket has reached a stage where it is prudent to question everything in the status quo.

After all, the state of the team has not been achieved in isolation, and what it is going through today is not a blip. Instead, it is the fruits of decades of negligence and short-termism which have brought the game in the country to this point.

Under the PCB’s purview fall two aspects of cricket, both of which the Board have sworn to protect: pitches and the balls used for the domestic game. Away from the myopia of immediacy, it is these two factors that explain the steady decline of professional cricket in Pakistani cricket.

“In England, a pitch is used for 10-12 days over the course of two seasons. “In Australia, this number is in single digits. In both countries, after about 60 days of cricket, the top layers of soil of a pitch are removed and a new pitch is laid. None of this happens in Pakistan,” explains former Test batsman Bazid Khan.

“Our grounds have cricket played on them regularly for eight months a year. The same pitch is used twice or more in a month. We don’t even have any first-class centres earmarked to be protected in the first place,” he argues.

Music isn’t the only place where you have to be pitch-perfect

Bazid, together with his father Majid, has presented a detailed proposal several times to the PCB, to overhaul the way the game is run in the country. Bazid played domestic cricket in Pakistan from the late 90s till 2012; perhaps he could have played more, perhaps less, but none of that affects him now — he is currently on what started as a one-man crusade against the lack of quality cricket infrastructure in the country, but has now turned into a movement of sorts.

To hear Bazid talk about infrastructure in England or Australia is to hear a man talk of his beloved, and one that he will never unite with. His proposal, that he has tabled to the PCB repeatedly, includes an economically feasible plan to revamp cricket in Pakistan, beginning with the pitches and the balls.

Much like everything else in this country that proposal has been affected by red tape, bureaucracy, higher ups who don’t think it’s in their interests, a lobby which wants to protect the status quo and a culture that wants messiahs rather than institutions that work.

“Islamabad, for instance, has only three or four grounds which are used for everything from school and club cricket to first class cricket. We play our cricket in the winter – unlike England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – so our pitches would require even more days off for rest,” explains Bazid.

“Instead, we have matches with gaps of hardly a day or two. Even if our pitches were re-laid every three years, constant usage would damage them too much. What we get in the end are uneven, substandard tracks, which results in Pakistan being unable to produce good batsmen or wicketkeepers,” he argues. “It makes seamers complacent too. Whereas once our flat, true wickets led to every domestic team wanting and needing a couple of express pace bowlers now all you need are wicket to wicket bowlers and the pitches will do the rest. Every problem in Pakistan can find its root in this one thing no one wants to talk about.”

Those thoughts are echoed by Shadab Kabir, former Pakistan cricketer and currently a coach at Port Qasim Authority’s cricket team, which finished third in the Quaid-i-Azam Trophy this year. Shadab, much like Bazid, has played league cricket in England and observed their system up close. He has also been involved in Pakistan cricket over these last two decades when the quality of domestic cricket has allegedly dropped. He believes he knows the reasons for this.

“I’ve been involved in Pakistani cricket for 20, 25 years now” says Shadab, “and things have only declined in this time period. Karachi has probably half a dozen grounds which are used for first-class cricket, and yet nearly all those grounds are also used by corporate teams. All the grounds are second-rate and overused. Even little things like the quality of covers or the treatment of the square aren’t up to standard. That is all before you even begin to question whether the ground staffs, particularly the curators, have any qualification or training for their jobs. As far as I am aware, that’s not really the practice out here.”

For Shadab, the concerns go beyond just the playing field though. “I know of instances where players refused to use the washroom at the ground, instead preferring to go back to their hotels, because the ones in the ground were unusable. That’s not something cricketers in other countries have to worry about, you know.”

Port Qasim finished last year just one victory away from playing the final of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy Gold League, the premiere first class competition in the country. This was done mostly on the backs of Sohail Khan and Abdur Rauf, the most potent pair in the domestic game last season.

Our grounds have cricket played on them regularly for eight months a year. The same pitch is used twice or more in a month. We don’t even have any first-class centres earmarked to be protected in the first place.

When I asked Shadab about them during the season, beyond the platitudes that a coach gives his players, he did show concern at how much their wickets had been dependent on the surfaces they played on.

For him these are things that can be solved by bringing money into the first class game. He, like so many others involved in Pakistani cricket – those who pine for better days, looks to PCB’s coffers and questions why the trickle-down effect isn’t even a fantasy here.

It’s something that the PCB, perhaps after constant needling, has realised is an issue worth focusing on.

Intikhab Alam, the incumbent director of domestic cricket at the PCB, talks at length about the changes the Board is making from next season onwards. “One of the things we’ve started doing from last season is to have as much of our cricket in December and January in Karachi and the south,” says Intikhab.

“Even the new system we are bringing in is informed by this. Last season, we had more than a 100 first-class matches. This season we are reducing that to between 50 and 60. This will give the ground staff time to prepare the wickets and the grounds, and will also give breathing space to teams, umpires, etc,” says Intikhab. “The aim here is to make our cricket as competitive as possible. What we want pitches which are firm, have grass, and help the spinners by the last couple of days – pitches which provide everyone a chance.”

The quality of pitches is something current Pakistan players complain about too. Shan Masood, for instance, talks of how his numbers would be far better if he played the majority of his cricket in Karachi rather than in north and central Punjab at the height of winter, when both swing and seam are easier to do than keeping yourself warm.

In theory, what Intikhab says sounds like the solution to all these problems but the current state of the wickets came about with similarly noble intentions. In the early 2000s, a directive was sent out by the PCB to all the cricket grounds in the country asking for wickets that helped seamers. The logic behind it being that this would improve fast bowling and the techniques of batsmen facing them. In practice it resulted in uneven, substandard pitches that have made first-class cricket into a crapshoot, ex players say.

In December, 2013, the Jinnah Stadium in Sialkot hosted two matches which both included Port Qasim. The first saw over 1,000 runs scored and ended with Port Qasim chasing down 144 in the fourth innings at a run a ball to win against ZTBL. The second saw the same team lose to Habib Bank, after collapsing to 65 and 163 when batting. The pitch had four days of rest between the two games.

Just a few weeks prior to that, consecutive matches held at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore resulted in similarly disparate outcomes. In the first, WAPDA were playing for a draw on the final day against Port Qasim. Then, less than a week later, Port Qasim would win by innings in a match where they failed to score 200.

All four matches involved Shadab’s Port Qasim side, proving that either they are more inconsistent than Pakistan team of the 90s, or that his fears regarding his players were true all along, and the result or even the style of a match is completely dependent on if there is a possibility for a good pitch or not.

More often than not though, that isn’t a likelihood — as proven by the fact that in the President’s Trophy 2012/13, only 10 of the 56 matches (including the final) resulted in combined scores in excess of 1,000 runs over four days, which are considered par elsewhere in the world.

The PCB’s attempts to solve this crisis centres on trying to hide statistical anomalies, as they did in 2014/15 with a first-class competition that had vast differences in quality amongst teams with both departmental and regional teams playing together. This resulted in the discussion centring on the quality disparity at the top level, rather than the lack of quality infrastructure.

Then there is the question of soil used: a current Pakistan player, speaking on condition of anonymity, narrated the tale of a curator who wanted to relay his pitch with soil that had clay content in excess of 50 per cent. What he got instead was soil with clay content of less than 10 per cent, because – and this is the crucial bit – it was cheaper. Obviously, this curator refuses to get his name out in public in fear of losing his job.

But Haji Bashir, who has been the curator at Gaddafi for decades, has no such concerns. He reassured Dawn that the PCB is finally on board in improving the pitches under their control – from soil tests to less usage of pitches is in the offing. He pointed to the pitches prepared for the Zimbabwe series as proof that the board is moving away from what has dogged the domestic game. Perhaps this could be the small step that becomes the snowball that changes everything, but it’s not something Shadab or Bazid are reassured with. For them, the plans of mice, men and PCB all have similar results.

The reason for the pessimism is that this is nothing new. Bazid tells the story of England’s 2005 tour to Pakistan when Steven Harmison wondered aloud how different the pitches for the side matches were compared to the ones they played their Test matches on. England were bowled out for under 130 twice in their two side matches, and yet their lowest score in the Tests was 175 (in completed innings) despite both Danish Kaneria and Shoaib Akhtar being pretty much near their peaks. In fact England played more overs in the first innings of each of the first two Tests than they did in their two innings in the side matches. The change from one style of cricket to another was one that England struggled with, yet it’s one every single Pakistani player has to deal with.

The simple fact is that just soil testing will not be enough. Not only do pitches throughout the country need to be relaid but everything around it has to be protected and improved too. Instead of bringing its major grounds to the twenty first century, the PCB, in recent years, has been far more inclined to make more nineteenth century grounds. Instead of protecting these grounds as sacred institutions where only the highest forms of the game are played, these grounds are home to whoever wants to play there, as long as the price is right.

The issue of pitches cannot be solved by any short term measures – both the soil and everything around it, the complete infrastructure around the game, would need to be prioritized far more than it is now, and would require changes in the schedule and a deeper understanding of the role of a curator. But what the PCB can affect immediately is the quality of balls being used in the domestic game.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist and commentator. He writes for Cricinfo, Wisden Asia, All Out Sports and other publications, and works with PTV Sports as a sports analyst, as well as on the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets as @mediagag

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine August 2nd, 2015

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