Every time Pakistan loses an international series, be it the Tests, ODIs or even a T20 match, our domestic cricket is immediately put under a spotlight and is at the center of criticism. This is nothing new.
Same is the case now as it has always been that whenever the national team performs poorly, all criticism is heaped on how poorly the game is handled domestically and how unproductive it has become.
Pakistan’s recent outings and their failures at all levels in South Africa as well as the 5-0 whitewash against Australia has once left the critics with no choice than to lash out and criticise Pakistan’s already much maligned first-class cricket and its set up in which the departmental teams as well as regional teams have been participating since long now; a unique arrangement which is not practiced anywhere else in the world.
The system was introduced in the 1960s by none other than the former Pakistan cricket captain Abdul Hafeez Kardar, who having observed the plight and lack of opportunities for the players in career building, started it. His system worked well and the game rapidly had spread to every corner of the country.
When the first first-class tournament - the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy - was introduced in 1953-54, only seven teams contested in it. But when I made my first-class debut for Sindh in 1956-57, the number of teams had swelled up to thirteen and most them were regional teams besides the Pakistan Railways and Combined Services.
There were star figures like Hanif Mohammad, Fazal Mahmood, Waqar Hasan, Maqsood Ahmad, Hafeez Kardar were on the show and yet not many turned up to watch the matches.
I have watched domestic cricket of all the countries except Bangladesh and I can assure you that no matter whatever type of regional cricket you may try to establish in this country, attendance and support of the teams will be lacking.
This was the reason why ECB had to introduce T20 format for the first time in the world to popularise the game as well as bring in the crowds at domestic first-class level.
Pakistan domestic cricket’s most vociferous critic has been the legendary all-rounder Imran Khan, now the Prime Minister of our country, who at no stage of his life favoured the prevalent domestic cricket system. But we all know that it is this very domestic cricket system that has produced world class cricketers over the years, and that too despite the lack of a sound infrastructure.
This is a fact of life too that those who were responsible to run the game professionally at domestic level - and that included the regions - and the departmental management teams were not professional enough to establish even a home ground for themselves or an academy to produce a chain of talent for future.
Fake clubs within the regional associations, misrepresentations by inept officials to recommend non-cricketing views to cricket board officials have all contributed to what we are faced with at the domestic level now. And that is main reason why Imran as patron of the PCB is keen to change it.
His sincerity to reform the domestic set up cannot be doubted, but somehow it also is worrying for me and for many others that with only six regional teams at first-class level, this country would not be able to produce so much talent that has been on view for so many decades now.
Have the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) or people who run the game in this country ever made the effort to discover for themselves if the commercial organisations who are expected to sponsors the regional teams would be able to dish out funds for the teams and the players or for the facilities related with it?
I think first we should ascertain in advance as to how much and how extensively the sponsors can back a regional team before jumping the gun and making any hasty decision about changing the domestic set up. Secondly, Isn’t it disturbing to think that a huge city like Karachi with its near 20 million population will have only one team to show and Punjab with only two?
It is important that we should strengthen cricket at club, school, college and university level to unearth fresh talent rather than blindly going about altering the current domestic structure.
Imran’s view point on this subject has also got to be respected too if he insists. His recent rejection of the planned proposals for domestic cricket rings alarm bells, though. But if he is so keen to put into practice what he thinks is best system, then why not give it a go to find out whether it would be practically viable for Pakistan and if that yields the desired results to make us a team of world beaters.
Published in Dawn, April 14th, 2019