One of the revered posters at our forums reviews the 2017/18 season of the premier first-class cricket tournament in Pakistan, the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy.
By Mansoor Khan (20th December, 2017)
There is only one constant in Pakistan’s premier first-class competition – change. In the 1993 film Groundhog Day, the main protagonist played by Bill Murray relives the same day over and again. Much like the pattern of the film, Pakistani cricket fans have become used to the daily condemnations of the domestic system from ex-players and commentators after every defeat or even minor calamity on the field. The call to “reform domestic cricket” has become part of the Pakistani cricketing lexicon like reverse swing or batting collapses.
Clearly the administrators have felt a similar desire for change, regardless whether the change has any merit, change is believed the only cure for Pakistan’s domestic cricket ills. Hence, a dizzying number of changes have been made to the format of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, balls, playing conditions and pitches over the years. The 2017/18 season was no different. This year, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) introduced a draft system for regional teams. In a 20 man squad, eight cricketers were selected via a PSL-style draft from a list prepared by the national selection committee. The PCB justified this encroachment on the turf of regional associations as a move to reduce nepotistic selections and minimise disparities between departments and regions. Given the departments remained dominant over the regions in head-to-contests by a margin of 3:1, with the final being an all-departmental affair, the department’s stranglehold over FC cricket remains untouched by the experiment.
This wasn’t the only change. With a tour to England on the horizon next May, the Dukes ball has been adopted this season after years of complaints about the substandard Grays ball. Where the Grays ball offered prodigious swing up front before becoming torn up by 30-40 overs, the Dukes consistently swings and retains its shape. Despite early complaints about the hardness of the Dukes, players have generally supported the switch to a more durable ball.
What is depressingly familiar is the woeful state of pitches. Those hoping for a fairer contest between bat and ball will be disappointed with the average 1st innings total DECLINING from 279 last season to 233. To draw a comparison, the average 1st innings score in Division 1 of the recent English County Championship was 285. With tracks often appearing indistinguishable from the outfields, wickets have not been hard to come by for seamers who can trundle up, pitch the ball on a length and let conditions reign supreme. This is evidenced by the fact 13 out of the 15 leading wicket-takers in the competition are seamers. These conditions do not encourage genuine quicks or spinners –the cornerstone of Pakistan’s bowling success in international cricket. Nor do they encourage batsmen to build long innings based upon fluent stroke-play. Survival is the name of the game, but with the number of 1st innings totals below 100 increasing from 3 last season to 8 – teams aren’t doing a good job of that either.
The farce peaked in the match between Lahore Blues and SNGPL. After a marathon four and a half sessions, all four innings were completed. They read as follows: 89, 92, 70 and 70-4. This is not a game from the recent T10 tournament, but a game in the penultimate round before the final of Pakistan’s premier domestic competition featuring 7 internationally capped cricketers. For all the complaints about overcast conditions in the North - this contest, if it can be termed as such, took place in the south in Hyderabad. The PCB have claimed these low scores are due to relaying of pitches, but what use is relaying given the amount of grass left on these surfaces?
Furthermore, the PCB’s scheduling has not enabled sufficient time for curators to prepare pitches with only 86 days allotted for the entire competition. The Lahore City Cricket Association faced an embarrassing situation when it had to abandon the game between Lahore Whites and Karachi Whites midway through after the pitch and the area within the circle as excessively damp. The LCCA accused the curator of negligence with the affair proving indicative of the wider culture of negligence, lack of accountability and inadequate resourcing that ails Pakistan’s domestic cricket.
These criticisms aren’t to diminish the efforts of several bright performers this season. Left-hander Saad Ali continues to stake a claim for Pakistan’s Test middle-order which finds itself in a state of flux after the retirements of Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq. The 24-year-old hailing from Karachi topped the batting charts this season, cracking three hundreds, two of them against departmental attacks, and three fifties. What’s more impressive is his strike rate of 72 given fluent stroke-play is not easy on uneven, seam friendly surfaces.
Meanwhile, old sages continue to shine. Fawad Alam, long lamented as an example of the Pakistani system ignoring consistent domestic performers, continues to maintain his outstanding FC average with two hundreds to his name this season. It remains one of the many mysteries why Alam has never been able to add to his tally of three Test caps, but with a recent call-up to the National Cricket Academy, the 32 year old may be set to return to a Test batting lineup sorely lacking consistent, experienced performers. As for the bowlers - Mohammad Asif and Aizaz Cheema, at the ripe old ages of 35 and 38, continue to torment batsmen but given their age and in Asif’s case, past indiscretions, it remains unlikely whether either will be seen taking the new ball for the national team again.
With whom a Hollywood film of redemption could be made is Raza Hasan. The left arm spinner from Sialkot was tipped to be Saeed Ajmal’s heir apparent he made his debut in 2012. However, an injury and a failed drug test in 2015 ended any prospects of a return to Pakistani colours. What happened after the drug test is murky – with suggestions that the youngster was running with the wrong crowd and of continued substance misuse. However, having cleaned up his act and with 32 wickets at an average of 25, Hasan looks to be on the right path.
No well-wisher of Pakistani cricket begrudges the success of the Pakistan Super League. It has brought joy and excitement, and a revival of Pakistan’s limited overs teams through the exposure of young talent, to millions of fans. Closely fought and entertaining matches, additional revenue streams for the PCB and the League’s expansion is to be welcomed. It’s in stark contrast to the apathy, substandard organisation and poor quality of cricket associated with the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy. But the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy is the proving ground for future Pakistani Test cricketers. The golden era of domestic cricket, from the mid-1970s to 1990s, is long gone. Abdul Hafeez Kardar, Pakistan’s first Test captain and later to become President of the PCB, ensured the domestic season began at fixed times and playing regulations were standardised. Kardar arranged Pakistan’s domestic and international commitments three years in advance in the mid-70s. One only dreams of such organisational discipline and foresight today.