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Pakistan Grassroots Cricket - Up in the Air?

Salim Parvez with Tariq Fareed

The people of Pakistan looked towards Imran Khan, as the saviour in a desperate attempt to hold on to its sovereignty and avoiding complete collapse of institutions.

When he took oath as the Prime Minister in August 2018, it was understandably followed with a fair share of optimism along with the slogan of ‘change’ and the concept of ‘new’ Pakistan.

As the country’s greatest all-round cricketer and now its Patron-in-Chief, it was only natural to assume that the game, with his esteemed patronage, would be revived to make it more organised, competitive and meaningful. Always critical, in the past, of Pakistan domestic cricket and himself having experienced County Championship in England (1971-88) and Sheffield Shield in Australia (1984-85), he appointed - Ehsan Mani as Chairman and Wasim Khan as the CEO, from U.K. with full authority to apply radical changes to first-class domestic cricket. The fundamental changes, Imran has always advocated, was the regional cricket associations to play leading role and for departments to eventually, pull out altogether.

Two years on in 2020, the picture does not look very rosy. In fact all the major decisions undertaken by PCB, to overhaul and modernize the game, not only have backfired, it has not found much support amongst, former cricket players and administrators. The choice of just six provincial teams to participate in the 2019-20 Quaid-e-Azam was hard to comprehend for a cricket mad country like Pakistan with a population of 220 million. Although Ehsan Mani promised to introduce a Pakistani model but in shrinking the number of first-class teams, it is a step that might need reviewing sooner than later.

Former Test batsman, Haroon Rasheed, in his capacity as director Domestic Cricket was able to get approval from all concerned in the PCB, for a futuristic structure of the game in the country, kicking off with the 2019-20 winter. In making six provincial teams, it seems an Australian model of six state teams competing for Sheffield Shield title and producing world-class cricketers, has been adopted but completely ignoring the fact that Pakistan has a population, ten times bigger in comparison. The home of cricket – England, for the population of 66.5 million, has 18 counties competing for County Championship in two divisions. It is hard to get one’s head around this equation.

Tariq Fareed, Ex-District Secretary, Faisalabad Cricket Association and Regional Co-ordinator, has serious reservations, about what is unfolding.

‘I am on record of openly supporting PM Imran Khan on the political front and his vision to restructure our cricket and I have no reason to doubt his intention. He is our greatest treasure and continues to lead and inspire us to lift Pakistan. Contrary to our expectations, the present PCB management, in my view, with all the best intention in the world, have been found completely out of touch with the ground reality. The model constitution for cricket associates in 2019 and now club affiliation and operations rules 2020, are all very well in terms of corporate culture and international image building in the corridors of ICC but sadly is not addressing the grassroots cricket in Pakistan.’

‘We are all heartbroken to hear the stories that have emerged since all leading departments, i.e. PIA, Habib Bank, United Bank, Khan Research Sui Gas, etc. have no part to play in domestic cricket. All the players employed by the departments are no longer required and in majority of the cases are no longer on the pay rolls. Economically it has been devastating for both the players and the management staff. We all know the quality of cricketers that emerged from regional cricket in the 1980s and 1990s and were snapped up by the departments, offering them both the financial security and a platform, to fulfil their dreams to represent Pakistan. It was a two-tier system that worked so well for decades with Patrons Trophy being contested by the departments and the prestigious Quaid-e-Azam Trophy played by the regional cricket associations’

‘After the controversial axing of departmental cricket in 2019, another blow has been dealt with by a revamped club cricket structure. The scarcity of playing fields and the obsession with smart phones by the 21st century youth are two well-document major challenges, faced by the club cricket management Now with the streamlining of club cricket, I doubt very much if this will have a positive impact on the game at grassroot level. We should have allowed club cricket to flourish as in the past for it can continue to feed the talent for selection for various age group competitions, i.e. u-13, u-16 and u-19. In the new guidelines issued by PCB it could have done more to eliminate the fake clubs and not just focus on taking all minor decisions from their headquarters in Lahore.’

‘I met the present PM, back in 2011 and his main concern was to make Quaid-e-Azam Trophy competitive enough to prepare players for international cricket. He has never been keen on departmental cricket, although himself represented PIA till 1981, and always stressed the need for crowd participation and their ownership of local players and that in his view could only come about through regional cricket associations competing against each other. Lahore vs. Karachi, Hyderabad vs. Sialkot, Faisalabad vs. Quetta, Peshawar vs. Rawalpindi, etc. are the combinations that appealed to him.’

‘Yes, Imran Khan has always stressed the need to our domestic cricket but to my knowledge he never suggested any changes at club or district level. The present PCB management has not only restricted the teams to six but gone too far in actually selecting their 22-men squads as well, which in fact had made the cricket associations, completely redundant. This is unprecedented and all of a sudden the experience of hundreds of cricket administrators is likely to go to waste. How tragic. These measures are all leading towards centralized power for the cricket Board and is unlikely to help in the resurgence of the game at grassroot level. All the more demoralising for the schools and universities, except few chosen ones, can no longer be seen as the nurseries for spotting and polishing of young talent’

‘Historically speaking, the inaugural Quaid-e-Azam Trophy in the 1953-54 winter consisted of three provincial – Punjab, Sind and North West Frontier Province and two cities – Bahawalpur and Karachi, teams and unfortunately even after so long, we are still experimenting and not letting a well-thought out domestic structure to enjoy a continuity of 4-5 seasons.’

‘The six regional teams –Balochistan, Central Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Northern, Sindh and Southern Punjab - in the 2019-20 season picked 1st XI (first-class) and 2nd XI (non-first-class) for participation. Although, under the umbrella of this system, districts and division system would continue, even then it will fail because the youth is not given the opportunity at grassroots level. In my view there is enough cricket being played in the country to have 12 regional teams in two divisions with promotion and demotion system, in place.’

‘In the 2019-20 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, I also felt that all the leading Pakistan players were assembled in two Punjab teams and the surplus players from that region found places in other squads. The six-region formula has provided financial security to let us say 240 top players in the country but thousands of players were ignored and neglected by this system, at all levels. By doing so PCB has overlooked the fact that the local talent will be suppressed if Baluchistan region has players predominately from other parts of the country. The local talent must not feel isolated and feel near enough impossible to break through.

‘We must energize our efforts to fire up the enthusiasm of the youth that is looking up to us. It is our good fortunate that in spite of no international teams prepared to visit Pakistan for a decade, cricket still remained the most popular sport in the country.’

‘In my humble view there is a strong lobby, a few members of which thankfully are no longer employed with the Board, that has successfully convinced both Ehsan Mani and Wasim Khan, that a revamped structure of cricket presented to them is the answer to all the ills. Their vested interest has been seen as the root cause of National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Lahore, not being as effective and productive as it could have been. And there was not enough will, it seems, in building regional cricket academies, in other major cities of the country. A co-ordination between the national and regional academies is a scenario that could have witnessed more talented players appearing on the horizon and going on to contest more vigorously for Pakistan u-19 and Pakistan A. Sadly, we have lost a generation of players, who simply were not given enough opportunities to play the game and shine.’

‘In the end my suggestions with strong backing from Chaudhry Anwar, Ex-President Regional Cricket Association Faisalabad and Member Governing Board PCB, and Malik Zulfiqar, President Sialkot, include to make the regional cricket associations stronger and giving them the powers to organize tournaments for registered clubs only. By rooting out all fake clubs and ensuring the registered clubs to adhere to the democratic values in its administrational set-up, PCB can take a major step, in cleaning up our game at grassroot level. We must open the door in local clubs for the youth to come and express themselves. Provided the right environment, I am hopeful the youth will not be lacking in passion and commitment.’

The governing body of the game, Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), has time to time outlined, both its short and long term vision for the regional cricket associations.

In a statement issued from the Board’s headquarter in Lahore, the PCB explained it had included its staffers in the six Cricket Associations as a transitory and administrative step with the sole purpose of facilitating and expediting the registration process, and the staffers will resign as soon as the interim committees are constituted. It also added that this temporary administrative arrangement had been adopted as this was the most time efficient, reliable and logistically convenient mechanism for the registration of all six Cricket Associations.

It also reiterated no PCB staffer will be a member of the interim committees when these are put in place to run the day-to-day affairs of the Cricket Associations till the elected personnel take over. This is important because PCB’s vision is that these bodies will run their cricket independently with PCB overseeing as a regulatory body and assisting where required only.

Contrary to the misleading impression being created, the PCB vehemently denied it had allocated or released any funds to the cricket associations that, in turn, will be managed by the PCB staff. The present?PCB management?is internationally admired, recognised and respected for its integrity, competence, professionalism and achievements. This is also the set-up, which is in the process of decentralising and democratising domestic cricket, and for the first time in the PCB’s history and as part of good governance practices, introduced the?Code of Ethics.

As such, the PCB believes it was unfair to malign, accuse and criticise it of breaching the PCB and Model Constitutions on selected, misleading and incomplete information. The PCB firmly believes in transparency and meritocracy, and will continue to display these with its actions and performances.

All images are from Faisalabad District Cricket Association from the 2018-20 period.