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CRICKET: REBOOTING DOMESTIC CRICKET

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Last season’s final took place at the National Stadium Karachi under spotlights and played with a pink ball. Although established stars and young guns were both on show, departmental teams remained unable to fill the stadium | PCB photo
Last season’s final took place at the National Stadium Karachi under spotlights and played with a pink ball. Although established stars and young guns were both on show, departmental teams remained unable to fill the stadium | PCB photo

MERELY A BAND-AID

Bandages are crucial for Pakistani society. A bomb blast you say? One million rupees for the dead. A season of drought? National prayers for rain. A failing domestic cricket system? Draft selection to the rescue.

The draft system of selection has been a hit with the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) as its use in the Pakistan Super League (PSL), Pakistan Cup and now the Quaid-i-Azam Trophy shows. The draft system seems to be presented as the panacea to all.

Let’s be clear: when it comes to domestic cricket, the draft system is merely a band- aid being used to mask the frailties of what exists at the grassroots.

Departments have been unable to engage the larger public, it is time for them to own franchise cricket instead

Prior to his recent election as the PCB chief, Najam Sethi had been arguing the case of getting the departments to back regional cricket. At the time, he was pleading the need for greater investment into the domestic structure, which in turn, would lead to greater professionalism. Departments had more money, they could offer job security, and also owned their grounds — all of which could help raise the infrastructure standards for the regions. And most crucially, Sethi rightly argued that in order to get the wider public involved in cricket, it made more sense to have teams that people could identify with. Peshawar Panthers for instance will always be able to gather the wider public’s support but people might well punish the Wapda Warriors for continued power load-shedding.

The departments resisted the suggestion at the time. They hit back with the claim that regions could not match them for finances or professionalism. They argued that it didn’t make sense for a larger entity to be swallowed by a smaller one. And they feared a loss in identity, in say over cricketing matters and in responsibility.

Which brings us to this point once again: pitting departmental cricket against regions with some financial clout. The poorer regions have no place or representation in the premier domestic cricket competition. Once again, a bandage has been pulled out to cover the wounds.

There is some justification to the argument that the best method to level the playing field is the draft system. A redistribution of talent will mean less lopsided encounters. And more competition as players tend to improve with better players around them.

But to focus on the draft system alone would be unwise. The draft system pertains to a competition alone while the ills of our domestic infrastructure go far beyond the merits and demerits of a system of selecting players.

The larger question revolves around empowering regional cricket.

The glimmer of hope now provided through the commitment of the World XI team to visit in September and the Sri Lankan team in October means that the PCB is set to be financially rehabilitated. The PCB has been pledging money to regions in various forms because it believes that these tours will happen and international cricket will resume in Pakistan. But is it worth reinvesting this money into a system that is failing?

Consider the case of Karachi’s regional cricket association. In theory on firmer financial footings, the outgoing KCCA chief, Ijaz Faruqi, was reported to have invested money from his pocket into the system. Only that the money was spent on the wrong things and more bandages, without really putting in finances towards the betterment of grassroots infrastructure at the least. And while the pressure from the bottom was to get PCB’s permission to increase the number of teams from Karachi, he failed in that too.

Ahead of the new elections, the name being forwarded as the most likely to win is Nadeem Omer, owner of Omer Associates and the Quetta Gladiators. Omer’s panel lost the elections the last time (2014) but his success at the PSL seem to have given him more weight and clout. Among a section of Karachi’s cricket administrators, for example, the belief is that he’ll have greater experience in shaping a more successful system and raising more successful teams.

Now consider if Nadeem Omer or Ijaz Faruqi were to team up with Habib Bank, United Bank, and National Bank to raise not one but at least three teams from Karachi that can genuinely compete for the Quaid-i-Azam Trophy. That means a professional coaching set-up, fitness set-up, scouting and talent development, and the likes. The departments are erring if they believe their influence will decline if they team up with regions; their workload is bound to increase if the regions are to go modern and professional.

Meanwhile, the PCB is playing on the back foot if it believes that the departments will pull out of domestic cricket if pressed to adopt a regional team. Why is that banks can roll out a Shahid Afridi or Younis Khan at will but a regional team can’t? National cricketers are prime assets of the cricket board but the board till now has been unable to harness the potential provided by these assets. No bank would like to lose out on a Shahid Afridi or a Sarfraz Ahmed; marketing compulsions drive their involvement in sponsoring cricket and cricketers.

The departments therefore need to be pressed to become franchises, which work with regional associations to identify the best local talent, to mix them up with other talent picked through draft selection, and to have them coached by professionals. Not only does this lessen the burden of finances on regional associations, it will allow them to focus on school-level, college-level and club-level cricket.

Regions ought to be the administrators and regulators of cricket, rather than a body responsible to select and play a team. That should be the job of franchises — for instance, a Karachi Dolphins team could be sponsored by Habib Bank while United Bank can stake claim to the Karachi Zebras. And much like franchises across the world, a franchise should be able to secure extra sponsorship in an attempt to remain profitable.

Departments’ insistence on the world collapsing if they are asked to revise their involvement in cricket is a zero-sum game. In fact this year’s Quaid-i-Azam Trophy has seen departments’ return to the top tier because of their reluctance to switch to a franchise model.

We need to remember the great lesson of the PSL: the draft system of selection adds intrigue and strategy, but franchise cricket is what makes it all tick.

The writer is a member of staff.

He tweets @ASYusuf


THE FIRST DRAFT

After the first edition of the PSL in early 2016, the PCB revamped its premier List-A tournament, the Pentangular Cup, into the Pakistan Cup and introduced a PSL-esque draft process for the tournament.

Just like its predecessor, Pakistan Cup is based on five teams from all four provinces and the capital city.

During the first draft in 2016, Misbah-ul-Haq, who participated in the process as Islamabad’s captain, walked out in anger in the last round after his region pocketed the mediocre Arsal Sheikh.

Its not the format of selection that corrodes the system, it is those who select players

Arsal is a 19-year-old spinner and, more importantly, the son of Shakeel Sheikh, who represented Islamabad region in PCB’s Board of Governors.

Shakeel happens to have a great deal of influence in the board’s matters and is currently responsible for shaping domestic cricket in the country.

A month ago, he spearheaded a radical change in the country’s premier first-class tournament, the Quaid-i-Azam Trophy, and introduced drafts for the regional sides participating in the tournament despite Karachi region’s strong reservations.

After some animated discussions — as the then PCB Chairman Shahryar Khan decided to refer to the heated discussions and Karachi’s eventual walk-out during the BoG meeting — the cricket board signed off a new selection process for the regions.

This season will see 10 players, out of a total of 22, being picked through drafts. The remaining 12 slots will be filled up with 10 players picked through the traditional manner and two brought in from the under-19 level.

“We want to end political influence and favouritism with the implementation of this draft system,” Shakeel said in a press conference which followed the meeting. “These 10 players [for each region] will be selected from the pool of 150 best cricketers. There has been a great misbalance between the regions and departments in the past, but now I am expecting the regions to put up a great show.”

This seems promising: no political influence and no favouritism. After all, this is the need of the hour. The selection process at the domestic level had been longing for meritocracy.

Moreover, with regions becoming stronger this season, as the PCB suggests, they would finally develop spine to stare back at the departments. Only twice in this decade, regions have won the Quaid-i-Azam Trophy.

But hey hold it! Come back to reality. Here’s how Pakistan cricket works.

During the draft for the upcoming National T20 Cup recently, Shakeel’s Islamabad region once again picked up Arsal in the ‘Emerging Player’ category. In seven List-A matches this year, the off-spinner has taken six wickets at an average of 50.

He donned Lahore Whites’ colours during the National T20 Cup last year and played only two T20s which happen to be his only games of the shorter format.

Favouritism, nepotism, and corruption in the selection are not going away anytime soon.

The draft system would also deprive the youngsters of their rightful first-class games and in some cases debuts. The first 10 slots, that are to be filled in the traditional manner, would go to the cricketers having the backing of the major clubs, districts, and associations.

The next 10, to be picked from drafts, are to come from the pool of 150 established cricketers, most probably from the departments.

Hence, the youngsters, who look to secure the last slots after favouritism and nepotism fill the early ones, would be deprived of first-class cricket.

After a youngster had toiled for a whole season at club and district level to achieve a dream that he saw in his adolescence — when he still slept hugging his cricket bat — and is ready for his first-class debut, his region would tell him that he cannot be accommodated as there is no place for him.

I may be told that I shouldn’t have opened this piece with the infamous incident during the first Pakistan Cup draft as Inzamam-ul-Haq’s selection committee would select the regional teams.

But there are going to be regional representatives in the selection process.

They are strong and influential. Strong enough that Pakistan’s most successful Test captain and then winner of Pakistan’s most celebrated T20 tournament had to leave in protest.

During the Pakistan Cup draft last year, the young cricketers, that had shone brightly in the under-19 World Cup earlier that year, were totally ignored. After an outburst in the media, the PCB included another round in the draft and Islamabad picked Shadab Khan.

Shadab picked up five wickets in three matches at an average of 26 during the tournament and when Kamran Akmal led Islamabad against Balochistan in Misbah’s absence, the leg-spinner was dropped to accommodate Arsal.

In an interview for Cricingif, Shadab revealed that Misbah had developed a liking for him during that tournament. The leg-spinner was duly picked by Islamabad United for the second edition of the PSL and turned out to be the find of the tournament. Handed a Pakistan debut immediately after the PSL, Shadab has been at the forefront of Pakistan’s every major win.

In the Caribbean Premier League, Shadab, donning Trinbago Knight Riders’ colours, was named the Man of the Match in his first two matches.

It is not how the players are picked up in the domestic circuit that is a hindrance in the growth of the game. Rather what keeps the game from flourishing are the people who pick them.

It is may be too early to predict how the draft system would fare in the first-class system. But it is safe to forecast that it is not a solution for Pakistan cricket’s woes and wouldn’t bring any sort of meritocracy in the selection matters.

This, however, shouldn’t be a worry.

Change — whether in the schedule, the tournament’s structure, and now selection procedures — is a constant in the Quaid-i-Azam Trophy.

So if the system doesn’t work (read: board receives heavy criticism for its implementation) the PCB will have no qualms in reverting back to its old selection procedure.

The writer tweets @ahsannagi

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 27th, 2017