Ahead of the upcoming Pakistan domestic cricket season, one of our very well-respected posters gives a detailed list of measures the PCB can take to make Pakistan amongst the top sides in international cricket once again by uplifting the standards of domestic cricket.
By MMHS (18th July, 2017)
For any sports to continue at highest level, the most crucial aspect is the domestic system which scouts top potentials from every corner of the country and gradually grooms them into pro sportsman. There are factors like sports economy, mass people interest, physical structure, food habit etc., but still the biggest factor is the domestic system which varies from sports to sports. However, the fundamental of any functional domestic system is identical and it has few core scopes.
- The system has to be fair, robust and spread-out enough that filters the best talents from grass root level - in this case accumulation of talents into a pyramid tiers, where only the best reaches and competes against each other at the highest level.
- The system has to be advanced enough to develop players in terms of skills, fitness, intellectual and mental aspects. It has to be modern and up to date in terms of infrastructures, technology and related educations. In cricketing terms, it should provide up to date and diverse facilities for the highest level in terms of training, playing fields, wickets, gears, technology, diet etc.
- The system has to keep the mass market interested, for the game to survive and for the next generation to remain passionate. This has to be done through exciting domestic competition, home and away culture which will lead a brand loyalty for domestic teams and a loyal fan base.
- The system has to provide financial security so that there is a professional class who can survive on the game as a career. This could be the very few top tier players, but those must have the financial and social security to focus entirely on the game, which eventually will motivate the next generation so that best young talents are not lost to other careers, secondary to their core interest and talents.
Public interest, future player pool, in fact survival of the game itself are extremely correlated with the performance of the national team, which is a function of successful implementation of these four core scopes. Looking at the Pakistan domestic system, I actually don’t see much of these. May be few things gradually coming in terms of infrastructure, facilities and financials, but PCB still is falling behind simply because other countries have moved forward at a faster rate. I believe most people following Pakistan cricket actually can identify the issues in regards to those core areas; therefore here, my objective is not to point fingers regarding what’s not there. Rather, on a positive note, I would like to identify a few issues that are essential to be implemented to keep Pakistan as an elite team in a small cricketing world. The discussion should give indications of what’s not there or what’s wrong there.
I start from No. 4, which is the first and foremost essential for any entertainment industry. Unless there is financial security, I don’t think only superstar image is enough to keep mass youth interested in a game risking hopeless future. I am sure already there are few plans in this regard, I can just reiterate a few.
- PCB has to come up with a financial model that secures at least top 1% cricketers of country (around 250). It’s not about what the top 20% of these selected bunch earns, rather more important is the bottom 80%, who must have a financial security that covers their post retirement career.
- Depending on PCB’s budget, I would suggest a sort of central contract for top 125-150 First Class/List A cricketers and a decent match fee as well as revenue sharing.
- On top of that, life insurance, medical benefits, pensions, family members’ engagements etc. can be added one by one as long as the budget supports.
- Establishment of a professional players union, that has the bargain power for players and being the watch dog on behalf of PCB.
However, No. 4 is still not a quick fix, because it has a long list of recurring expenses, therefore it has to be a gradual plan depending on income. Coming to the other thre points, I do believe that these are relatively quick fixes and are possible within the current financial ability to a certain extent. Besides, PCB is gradually overcoming from its lowest point of 2010 to 2015 period in terms of financials; therefore I do believe that the other three points have a realistic scope.
The core of any domestic system has to be through decentralisation, that’s spreading the game all over country at grass root level and bringing as much % population as possible under national scope. In terms of Point No. 1, there are quick fixes possible within the current set up. Here are my thoughts.
- First, the Pakistan domestic system needs a proper seasonal calendar. At present, it’s unorganised and often influenced by international schedules. There must be a proper domestic calendar, regardless of international schedule, which should try to facilitate participation of international players as much as possible, but not essential. Only exception should be PSL, which we can look at during the discussion of point 3. They do have a calendar, but it changes every year and the schedule is not suitable for First Class games.
- First Class cricket in Pakistan is most neglected. We can ignore the quality, but in terms of quantity, this year the highest number of matches that a player played is ten, which is too little. If I add the duration of the matches, it’s almost nothing cricket.
- Ideally, Pakistan domestic season should start in September, till May and the First Class tournament should run across the whole period with gaps for T20 and List A tournaments in between. Mid-November to mid-January isn’t the best time for First Class matches in Pakistan, therefore Limited Overs tournaments should be slotted in during that period.
- The hierarchy of any cricket system should be Club>Smaller Zone>Larger Zone> National level. I believe there are about 96 cricketing Zones in PCB’s current structure which is fine; one just needs to accumulate those zones in a balanced way in to a proper hierarchy, which eventually should lead to few regions covering the whole country.
- From junior cricket, club level to FC cricket, the structure should sum into respective regions, which does not necessarily need to be aligned with administrative boundary. Rather, PCB should have its own regional demarcation considering the balance of population, talent, infrastructure and other factors; with a base (HQ) for every region.
- In the current context based on all factors, I can suggest 8 such regions with the HQ: 1. Karachi Metro (Karachi), 2. Rest of Sindh (Hyderabad), 3. Southern Punjab (Multan), 4. Central Punjab (Faisalabad), 5. Lahore Metro (Lahore), 6. Northern Punjab (Sialkot), 7. Federal Territory, FATA, Azad J&K (Rawalpindi), 8. KPK and Balochistan (Peshawar/Quetta). Maybe in future, they can expand it to ten regions, with Balochistan and Northern Area promoted to regional Status. These regional teams must be a complete cricketing set-up, like the national team.
- Top players will participate in highest level under these eight regions with some sort of qualification. Talent is not uniformly distributed across any country therefore there has to be a proper system for players from one stronger region to qualify for a weaker region, so that the standard of teams are balanced and inferior players don’t reach top tier through flawed qualifications.
The 2nd point is infrastructure, facilities, development and administration, which I think is the easiest part to fix because unlike Bangladesh, Pakistan has 100+ years of history. Lots of things are already there in place, one just needs to align that with a vision. I find it more to do with lack of initiative and good-will rather than lack of resources for this one. Again, I’ll summarise this one under the regional structure.
- It’s not possible for the PCB to improve facilities in every ground of Pakistan. Rather, PCB must identify two grounds in each region, that’s 16 in total, which will be used as home grounds. Already there are more stadiums than required; therefore, it’s just about a task of alignment. Gradually, PCB has to increase the number of grounds and improve facilities, so that the second tier gets the facilities and so on.
- Domestic wickets are the biggest problem in Pakistan cricket. I don’t think there is enough technical expertise, good will or initiative for this one. For me, this one is one of top two priorities – PCB must appoint a qualified, professional curator at national level, under whom initially those 16 grounds and it’s wickets will be managed by respective groundsmen, whom gradually to be groomed into proficiency at their task. Normally, the soil mix of any good wicket is similar, it’s the soil content and climate that brings diversification in wickets in different parts of a country which should be same for Pakistan as well if the basics are correct. I think PCB needs external technical inputs in this regard.
- The most irritating issue for me is the duration of First Class matches. Four days of match for a maximum of 75 overs per day isn’t the ideal preparation for players, which I have explained several times. One issue is the winter day light, for which I have suggested rescheduling of FC matches in longer days. Ideally, FC matches should be played for 6.5 hours and 105 overs per day. This will help the players developing physically and mentally, as well as improve Pakistan’s dismal record of over rate in internationals. Cricket skills are learnt in match condition – it needs minimum match time to master the art, for which 400 overs are minimum for a four-innings long match.
- Another small issue is the balls used – we’ll have to find a balance between the financials and quality. My solution is again same - facilitate the top tier with best available balls/kits and gradually go down according to financial muscle. However, Pakistan having a history of making quality cricket gear; ideally PCB should work with the government to bring top brands in Pakistan to produce best quality balls locally. Raw material, manpower and market are already there in abundance, only need is technical expertise to start with; I don’t see why Sialkot can’t produce Dukes Test quality balls in a years time from scratch.
- Regarding R&D, PCB already has a functional NCA at Lahore – what it needs is a cascade of this NCA in every Regional HQ, eight of them. Ideally, NCA Lahore should be converted into National Centre of Cricket/Sports Excellence (NCCE), where very best of the country and national team will train. There will be high performance pro coaches to work with cricketers to improve their overall game, not to teach fundamental skills, while regional academies will be focusing on fundamentals – identifying and nurturing the talents by teaching fundamentals of the game and habituate them into a lifestyle of pro sportsman.
- Maybe, gradually, PCB can add a few more such academies in every region and convert the first one into Regional Centre of Excellence and so on. But, the entire system has to be an extension of National Centre of Excellence, so that there is a continuation of every technical aspects of the development program. In football, we can see that most top national teams has unique style of their game, which often is reflected in their domestic leagues as well, because the players are groomed into a countywide system of similar football philosophy.
- Gradually, NCCE should start programs for support staffs of the game – Umpires, Groundsmen, Level 3-4 Coaching programs – trainees from such programs should gradually integrate into the countrywide system. The entire program is only possible with a 5-10 year plan, otherwise financially, it’s not viable at one go.
- One major issue in Pakistan cricket is the systematic age cheating. It’s not a monopoly of Pakistan only, but one has to address it such that, players are picked and given chances to develop at right age. I put this one under technical and development section rather than administrative scope because learning has an exponential correlation with appropriate learning age – NCCE can come up with best coaching programs for different age groups, but it can only be fruitful, if appropriate genuine age class is maintained. Any country can play over aged players in ICC tournaments, as long as ICC is reluctant, but from self-development perspectives, PCB has to be strict with age regarding development programs.
- In modern sports, fitness is one of the most important aspects, which is neglected in current system. Part of it is because of upbringing of the players who are not groomed into a pro sportsman’s life style, but the main reason is that there is no such system of check and feedback. Players are playing in domestics almost like mercenaries and are paid match by match, therefore the clubs and coaching staff don’t have the imposing power on players. It’s also true that players are not financially secure and are not guided by proper system, therefore often are not able to maintain the standard. Going forward, at least those centrally contracted First Class cricketers must have to be brought under strict fitness and diet regime. It’s more of cultural issue – just after a few years of methodical approach, things will change. Already, we can see players born in 90s and later are much fitter. The fitness standards and methods for the First Class cricketers must be administrated centrally by PCB and NCA.
- Leadership is a big problem in Pakistan cricket – most of the top players are not natural leaders, because they are not brought into leadership at right age – this has to be addressed at domestic level. No suggestions here, because the idea is obvious.
- Last but not the least is keeping clean image of Pakistan cricket regarding fixing, for which I am sure scouting starts at domestic level. PCB has to come up with a comprehensive plan in this regard, including rules and regulations on and off the game - may be with the support of ICC, but it has to be implemented at least from FC level. There is no point in being surprised to see top internationals involved in dodgy acts for amounts less than their match fee, because most cases these players are entrapped at domestics on future potential, before they are even national regular.
The 3rd point is domestic tournaments, brand building and marketing of the events. I feel, this is the most lagging point in Pakistan cricket, which actually is far behind even BCB and Bangladesh. One part of the problem is proper marketing strategy, which I don’t see any problem in a cricket mad country with large population base. But, the 2nd part has lots of baggage to carry. One by one, we can have a look at this from School/Junior, Student/Age level, T20, List A up to FC cricket.
- First and foremost, PCB should arrange a countrywide school cricket program (which is synonymous to U16 cricket). I won’t go to functional details, but ideally thousands of schools should participate. But, there should be at least five schools/colleges (till 12th class) in every region, which has proper cricket facilities including a pro coach. These schools will gradually accumulate best kids from U13/U14 level from various schools into a system that allows those multi-talented kids to focus on cricket along with studies. At 15, hardly any guardian will allow kids to leave studies for cricket, but there should be a system that keeps these kids in game, few of them eventually will represent national team with a decent educational background.
- At least one university in every region should be there with proper cricket infrastructure and they will intake students in players’ quota. These universities must have their cricket tournament in between so that talented players with an ambition to carry on studies are not lost by the age of 19. Some of those can finish studies and still make a successful comeback in pro cricket, like many cricketers do in UK, while in US almost every pro sportsman comes from college teams. This is different from age level cricket, rather it’s more of an opportunity for players to carry on cricket while they finish studies and may be come back to cricket few years delayed.
- At one point, Pakistan had very good junior level cricket tournaments – U13, U16 and U19 tournaments. I am sure, at present there are few such tournaments going on, but this needs to be polished. I think, there should be 2 national tournaments, again in the structure of Zone (96) and Region (8) – U16 and U19, if possible, U13 as well. Ideally, there should be grass root level tournaments that filter best talents for national competition from genuine U13/14 level. PCB must focus on a few aspects:
- Proper age bracket is strictly followed
- There are enough matches for the top of the pyramid - Maybe preliminary level can be knock-out, but the top tier must have a proper tournament with adequate number of matches
- These kids must play in three day formats, may be LO as well, but two innings game is essential to develop cricketers at junior level
- T20 is the ground reality of modern Cricket context. I might not like it, but it will be there and it has to be there as money making machine which should feed the entire system. I read lots of comments that other formats are not financially viable, popular, won’t survive etc. but, we’ll have to see it as a combined business model – T20 is there to make money, while the other formats are to supply the players.
- Too much T20 isn’t good for grooming a player. There should be two T20 tournaments in a calendar year – PSL and domestic T20. PSL is being arranged excellently, just one more team and it’s perfect; only thing PCB must restrict that it doesn’t grow to more and more teams – may be eventually eight, that’s the maximum. Only qualitative addition in PSL I can suggest is more of a marketing effort than cricket – I’ll introduce a PSL All-Star at the midway point of the tournament, like the North American games. The idea is fans will be voting online for 2 x 11 teams till the cut-off date and the highest voted 22 players face-off. We can make it in any dimension – North vs South, East vs West, Local vs Foreign - doesn’t matter as long as it keeps the fans engaged.
- For the domestic T20, ideally the timing should be November-December, when day light is minimum and this will be used as a scouting opportunity for PSL teams a month later. The idea is simple – 16 City/Corporate based franchise with local players - teams playing in two divisions with four to be promoted and four to be demoted every year (this makes the tournament extremely competitive till last ball of preliminary rounds). Maybe a couple of foreigners can be allowed in each team, but this is not a money-making tournament; rather it’s to scout players from grass roots. This can be used to keep players honest in terms of age, by adding a clause that one has to be at least 19 to qualify for this tournament (the more you cheat, the more you are delayed).
- List A is the most critical format of the game which is based on tactics, strategy and combination. It’s not about the best 11 players, rather best combination of 11 players is often the key. This is the format that needs the most care in Pakistan cricket. Ideally, there should be three List A Tournaments in a season – one for mass players, one for top tier and one for the very best, a Gala event.
- The first List A tournament may start as the season opener, which is a countrywide 25-35 days tournaments with lots of teams in 3-4 divisions, covering 600 players+, may be played simultaneously at different venues, for 40 to 50 overs. The second one is standard List A competition, aligned with the eight regional teams for home and away 50-over matches across the season.
- The 3rd one is a Gala event, which BCCI used to arrange as a selection tool for national team. It’s a short but impactful tournament between perhaps four teams, playing double/triple leagues over three weeks among the best few players cascading Pakistan national team in terms of strategy and combination. The idea is that PCB’s central selection committee will identify available 64 top players over the season and this 64 will form 16 sets of 4 players each in every skill that Pakistan National team should need. After a closed draft (each team picks 1 player from each of 16 rounds), there should be 4 almost identical teams, each one should reflect a mini Pakistan ODI team in terms of combination and skill set. Four teams to play double/triple league in a particular venue, under supervision of individual team coaching staff and national set ups (coaches, selectors). Six to nine hard fought 50-over matches in three weeks against similar opponents, under close monitoring – these teams should be a reflection of the national team, while the national team is just an accumulation of the very best among the best performers. Also, being a selective draft, the average age of these four sides are at national coach, captain and selectors' hand – they can decide whom to call for the draft. Open drafts are not effective because often nepotism creeps in and the talented junior players miss out.
- First Class cricket is the mother of all crickets – it identifies players, grooms them and polishes them into professionals. Cricket is a game very similar to snooker – extremely skilled, but slow in nature, you need time to show your skills. Just like pool players can’t ever make a decent transition to snooker (But, Ronny will beat any Pool player with few day’s practice – he did that many times), T20 can’t produce quality cricketers, who has to be groomed through FC games. Today we see T20 superstars like Gayle, Pollard or Afridi, because they started T20 after completing their baptism in FC cricket.
- For First Class cricket, I’ll have to mention a few limitation of Pakistan’s system, which at present status, actually is inferior to Zimbabwe. We are already aware of the odd season for FC cricket, the short duration of the match, the balls used, and over all competition level. I’ll add a few – in Pakistan, FC matches are played in a rush, whole tournament in three months’ time and it’s almost nonstop with a four-day match scheduled on every sixth morning. If we take one day for travelling, this doesn’t allow players any time to work on their game at nets or nurture any injuries. Since there is no central contract, players keep playing hiding injuries which becomes a chronic habit. Also, that short span of FC season isn’t ideal for emerging players who might miss a couple of weeks or fail in a couple of matches, which could be end of their season. Besides, the current system doesn’t build loyalty among players or fans as there is no association with the team.
- Ideally, the season should be spread over seven months, from September to May with gaps for winter season (Mid-November to mid-January, when LO tournaments can be played), for PSL and for the List A Gala event. It should be like 2-3 back to back matches, then couple of weeks break so that players can work with their coaches, and so on.
- I am not sure how to keep the Corporate teams in regional concept. Ideally, these Corporate teams shouldn’t exist, but these Corporates have established systems, facilities and they are serving Pakistan cricket for seven decades; eliminating Corporates isn’t fair on them either. Besides, they are the biggest source of employment for cricketers. In that regard, we can’t abolish the Corporate structure entirely; on the contrary, unless the regional model is incorporated, the core of the system will always remain flawed.
- The fundamental of every functioning Cricket system in United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India or West Indies (Now in Bangladesh as well) is built on the structure I discussed here. Also, before writing, I have actually gone through both the structures suggested by Majid Khan and Imran Khan which is similar to this, therefore I don’t think PCB has any alternatives – they have to bring a regional model that covers entire Pakistan. Corporates can sponsor regional teams and integrate their infrastructure to their respective FC Regions, but that serves only eight brands. Also, not every regional team will be lucrative enough for sponsorship at the start.
- I can see two possible solutions here – first one is that PCB can arrange the FC Cricket in a regional structure and run the List A/Domestic T20 tournament under Corporate structure.
- The second solution is more appropriate, considering the population base and available player pool – PCB can run two FC tournaments simultaneously with a higher tier (Regional) and Lower tier (Corporate). The idea is may be 8 (or 16) Corporate teams will participate in FC Tournaments (rest in Grade Cricket as qualifier, just like Patron’s Trophy in current system), as a shadow of the eight regional teams (1 each for 8 team single league/division; 2 each for 16 teams two league/division). Every regional team and attached Corporate team(s) should have a total pool of 35-36 players, may be 15-18 under central contract and rest to play FC and List A match by match. Every round, top/selected 11 will start for Regional teams (higher tier), next bunch will start for the Corporate League at same time and both matches are FC/List A status.
- This way, it’s possible to include over 250 players without sacrificing the quality of top tier. Also, it can happen that an outstanding 14-year-old kid can be fast tracked, in mid-season from lower level. This concept is used in County Cricket, where they run second team tournament (but not FC status), while in Australia, they do the same with Grade cricket (players not selected for Shield match returns to Grade cricket, which is not FC Status). This is the best possible solution, because Pakistan with 200 million population base can’t operate with only 8 FC teams; at the same time it shouldn’t sacrifice quality with 48 FC teams and over 600 FC players playing each other.
- One of the best FC match I like to follow and I actually watch is the Irani trophy. I like the concept, which should be introduced by PCB as well – defending FC champions taking on the rest of the country in a five-day match, it’s like a FC Season All-Star game at the start or end of the season.
Ideally, a regular player should play at least 15 FC matches in a year. If we go for the dual tournament model, a player should play 16 (14 in league, the Final and may be the season opener) matches. Also, this structure allows player to have a sort of promotion/relegation between Regional and Corporate tournaments, which should keep them honest always.
One problem I have seen in Pakistan cricket is that the same player plays in different level, which isn’t the right way because top tier players can over perform with less efforts and they’ll remain complacent. The domestic system has to cater this issue and ensure that the top bunch is kept honest in terms of competitiveness; otherwise, Pakistan domestic stats will remain meaning less like now. Ideally, majority of a squad should be automatic choice based on domestic stats; a national selector should identify ready players for a combination or a particular condition for national team rather than try to find talent for a particular role. That will be possible only when the system filters out the best talents and the stats are meaningful, which is impossible now and that makes the job of PCB’s Chief Selector most challenging.
Going back to the seasonal calendar - if we consider a nine-month season from September to May, that’s about 265 days, or around 38 weeks excluding few festival breaks. It’s quite easily manageable to slot 6 weeks for PSL, 5 weeks for domestic T20, 3 weeks for List A Gala event, 5 weeks for the mass level List A tournament; still it should leave 18-19 weeks for the two prime tournaments – FC cricket and Standard List A tournament.
Last of the lot is selling cricket in Pakistan, for me which had been the biggest surprise. What I feel is PCB never tried to market domestic cricket as a commodity and never thought of associating emotions with club/team brand. This is one core area that the PCB must address – maybe appoint a professional from FMCG industry with vast experience of brand management is the way. That gentleman will find ways to sell the most sought-after product in Pakistan and keep his high paid job safe. There is everything ready for it – even PTV has a sports specific terrestrial channel, there are stadiums ready in every big city, there are large middle class populous cities all across Pakistan. The opposite is actually bigger surprise for me - unlike India, Pakistan is relatively restricted society for mass entertainment other than sports, which suggests that Cricket should be sold better there.
On a positive note - within several limitations, to be fair, PCB has done some fantastic work in the last two decades – central contracts, academies, modern training facility, certified coaches etc. I do believe that the cricket infrastructure in Pakistan is multiple times better, spread-out and systematic than what it was 35 years back, when it was all about talented youngsters finding a County – they’ll do the rest. Problem is, it was so poor then and the rest of the world (including some minnows) has advanced so much that Pakistan’s system still looks non-functional and obsolete. PSL is a catalyst for Pakistan cricket if PCB can maintain it successfully. I am sure we'll see a fast forward progress in Pakistan's cricket with the success of PSL, with the professionalism and money that it’s bringing in the game. Besides, Pakistan's players are kept isolated from IPL, which is the T20 version of 80s County; but once ECB starts its own T20 league, I am sure many Pakistani players will compete there with global stars, which will help them developing the mental aspects. Unfortunately, cricket can’t be developed through T20s, therefore PCB has to improve the FC system. Pakistan has a long history and tradition of producing outstanding individuals, if the fundamentals (skill and mass interest) are there - it won't take long for a turn around, if the domestic system functions properly.