THE fourth chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), appointed by former President Pervez Musharraf over a period of nine years, resigned last week. In the preceding three years of the Nawaz Sharif government, the PCB had three chairmen. So, we have had seven chairmen over 12 years or an average tenure of less than two years each. Not long enough to make a meaningful impact on the structure of cricket in Pakistan, but long enough to do considerable damage, in some cases, to the fundamental structure of the game in the country.

While candidates aspiring to take up the mantle of the PCB chairmanship lobby with the powers that be, it may be worth considering the challenges facing Pakistan cricket and the qualities and skills required in providing the leadership for cricket in Pakistan. Leadership which should develop the huge potential that Pakistan has to be a world-beater.

The ultimate measure of the performance of any PCB chairman is the performance of the Pakistan team on the field. In recent years, the performance of the team has been disappointing. Today, Pakistan is sixth in both the Reliance Mobile ICC and ODI Championship Rankings. Time and again the team has faltered when it mattered most; for example, take the performance of Pakistan in the 2003 and 2007 ICC Cricket World Cups, and the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 in South Africa.

It is not surprising that countries that do well at the international level have a sound domestic structure. In Pakistan we have meddled with the grassroots structure to the extent that it has become almost irrelevant. In the 1960’s, I played club cricket for the Rawalpindi Club in the Pataudi League. As a teenager I would play every week with or against current and former Test cricketers of the time such as Maqsood Ahmed, Miran Buksh, Gul Mohammed, Javed Burki, Ijaz Butt, Col. Shuja, Munir Malik, Javed Akhtar and others.

The standard of the game was high and talented youngsters were exposed at an early age to playing with cricketers who had played at the highest level. Often after a match or in the nets these international players would spend time with us pointing out flaws in our techniques or just getting us to think about our game. Lahore had the Wazir Ali League and Karachi had a similar structure. Like Grade cricket in Australia, this was the real nursery of cricket in Pakistan.

Rawalpindi had a number of grounds apart from the Pindi Club Ground on the Mall Road. Gradually these grounds have disappeared. The Army ground is now the parking lot for the GHQ, the T&T ground is now a housing estate; others have simply disappeared as commercial and residential developments took over the vacant spaces where children could just turn up and play. Regretfully, this has been the case throughout Pakistan.

Cricket requires not just a large area to play on but also properly prepared wickets on which budding players can develop their skills. The infrastructure required to support not only cricket but all sport is severely lacking; every spare piece of land is deemed as a potential building plot rather than a recreational facility. Without investment in playing facilities a large pool of talent will be lost.

Sport in school was very much part of one’s education. Where schools did not have their own play grounds public facilities were used. Today we have a situation in Pakistan where the vast majority of schools do not have sports as part of their curriculum. We seem to have forgotten how important a part sport plays in character building; developing team work and personal skills.

The recent shameful performance of Pakistan at the Beijing Olympics sums up how far behind the rest of the world Pakistan is in recognising that unless there is a sound grassroots structure, the performance at the top will always be a hit and miss affair.

Cricket is no different; it needs to attract cricketers at a young age and provide the opportunity to develop their talent. Organised school cricket is an essential element of grassroots development of the game.

Cricket today at the international level is a professional sport. Pakistan has lagged behind countries such as Australia, England and India in making it a professional sport at the domestic or first-class level. The average first-class cricketer in Pakistan cannot make a living out of the game. This is not because Pakistan cricket lacks resources, it is simply a lack of vision on the part of those who have had stewardship of the sport in the country.

Australia, who has dominated cricket for over a decade, pays each one of its first-class cricketers a wage on which the players can live, even if they never play for their country. This enables talented players to stay in the game and has provided a depth of resource which is unmatched. In the past year we have seen the retirement of great players such as Glen McGrath, Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist and Justin Langer without any impact on Australia’s dominance on the field. Some of the replacement players are in their 30s; battle hardened by playing in the toughest domestic programme in the world, they have stepped up to the international level seamlessly.

For years players such as Majid Khan, Imran and others have been complaining about the structure of domestic cricket in Pakistan. Their pleas have been ignored. Unless a robust and competitive domestic structure is put in place players who come through will do so in spite of the system rather than because of the system. But overall Pakistan will continue to be an average side; some very good players supported by a number of fairly average ones. One only has to look at the Reliance Mobile ICC Players Rankings to put this in perspective.

If structured properly, there is no reason why Pakistan’s domestic tournaments should not attract overseas players as does the county championship in the UK. This would enable emerging players to play with some of the best international players in the world.

The selection of players raises another huge question mark. Players are picked and discarded without any rationale. The criteria for playing for one’s country should be simply merit. Merit means strong performance in the domestic tournaments. Participation in the domestic programme should be mandatory; without this a player should not be considered for international cricket. Far too often, either the Pakistan captain or some selector has a ‘favourite’ player or players who are preferred over more deserving players. When this nepotism occurs a great disservice is being done to Pakistan cricket which is not represented by its best team.

Education of players is a huge problem in Pakistan. There has been a fundamental shift in the dynamics of cricket around the world. From being an elitist game it has become a game of the masses; this has been tremendous for the game but it has also created its challenges for cricketers from underprivileged backgrounds, particularly in Pakistan.Some cricket Boards spend considerable resources on the personal development of their players; this includes media training, personal hygiene, coping with being a celebrity, handling fans, dealing with money, avoiding corruption and a spate of other issues that surface when one becomes an international celebrity overnight.

(To be concluded)

The writer is a former ICC president