"Indian cricket has invested everything in first-class cricket not just in the last few years. In Pakistan, we’ve hardly done anything about our first-class system and change it every year. Our first-class cricket was run by a random journalist for some odd reason, I don’t know why."
It was with those words that Wasim Akram finished his tirade at the end of Pakistan’s latest loss to India. It’s a topic that Pakistanis are reminded of only in such nadirs — for most of the time they turn a blind eye to the decrepitude of anything underneath the domestic game.
To understand the state of Pakistan cricket, you need to look back at its history. In the 1950s and 60s the first-class game didn’t really exist in the domestic game. For instance, in the 1961-62 season, the Ayub Trophy (the first-class competition in the country at the time) contained a grand total of seven matches — a knockout competition that began with the quarter-finals.
Thus, a Lahore team that included Majid Khan played only one first-class match that season. Over the following decade, the domestic game was expanded. But the results were obvious — a decade (1950s) where Pakistan beat each of India, England, Australia, New Zealand, and the West Indies in Test cricket was followed by a 17-year period (from 1959 to 1976) when Pakistan won only three of their 50 Tests: All three of those victories coming against New Zealand, the minnows of the time. The reason behind this decline was that the generation that had grown up in pre-partition Ranji Trophy gave way to a generation that grew up with the Pakistani domestic game.
From the mid-1960s onwards, the domestic first-class game in Pakistan expanded. But the turnaround from bottom of the table in the mid-70s to being the lead competitor to the West Indies atop the rankings a decade later owed as much to county cricket as the domestic game. First-class cricket in England became the graduating school for Pakistani cricketers. For instance, the XI that beat Australia in Sydney in 1977 (Pakistan’s first win against any team apart from New Zealand in 18 years) included eight players who plied their trade in the county circuit. The late 70s also saw a revolution in the domestic game with the introduction of departments to domestic cricket, a concept somewhat unique to Pakistan.
The introduction of departments (like private banks, the national airline, etc) was seen as a boon for domestic cricket. It allowed players to have a job (and therefore earnings) in the off-season, increased their remuneration and allowed them a permanent station for their post-retirement needs. In the absence of a players union and no safety net throughout the state, it allowed Pakistan cricket to cover up the cracks in the society outside its walls. And many a player benefited from that. For example, Wasim Bari (Pakistan’s highest-capped wicketkeeper) was the Vice President Human Resource Development for Pakistan International Airlines in 2007.
Thus, over the following quarter-century, through a combination of regional cricket which produced players, departments that made them financially secure, and the county game which honed the skills of the Pakistani players, the national team was able to compete with the best.
Over the past two decades, however, as the world has gone from one revolution to another, Pakistan have been stagnant. The finances and the workload of the international game, as it emerged in the 1990s, meant that county cricket was no longer a destination. County cricket itself put limitations on the number of foreign players, especially those who were available throughout the season, meaning Pakistanis were no longer a priority for them. This was followed by a T20 revolution, led by the IPL, something that Pakistanis were ostracised from too.
All that would have meant that staying stagnant in a moving world was a problem, but that’s not really what Pakistan did. From the turn of the century, Pakistani domestic cricket actually regressed.
From the 1990s when the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy never had more than a dozen regional teams in it, the number ballooned to 22 by the 2007-08 season. This restructuring was done along geographic lines rather than historical cricket divisions, meaning a handful of quality teams were left surrounded by a lot of dross.
Over the last decade, the domestic game has been in constant flux with the number of teams in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy ranging from 12 to 22 at various points before settling on an even 16. I won’t go further into the details behind that because it bores even the cricket tragics in Pakistan — but the result of all this has been a decrease in quality all across the domestic game.
To worsen it, Pakistan cricket moved from the tradition dustbowls of the domestic game to green tops all across the country. It was seen as a change that would allow Pakistani batsmen to learn how to play the moving ball. Instead, it became one of the reasons behind the decline of pace bowling and wrist spin in the country: On pitches that just require wicket-to-wicket bowling, all spinners became darters and all pace bowlers became medium pacers. And instead of improving batsmen’s techniques, those pitches resulted in there being no difference between the elite and the mediocre — if the conditions are such that there is a ball with your name right around the corner, how exactly are you going to develop your game?
One of the reasons the Pakistan Super League (PSL) has been as successful as it has is that it is a reminder of a domestic game long gone: Where there were few teams, allowing more concentration of quality, and pitches that require extra pace, and the ability to spin the ball. Yet, the T20 league can only work as the finishing ground to the domestic game. As long as the foundations are rotten, no number of columns or pillars will hold the roof.
To finish off, going back to Wasim Akram’s quote, while it is true that non-cricket personnel (like Shakeel Sheikh, the person he was referring to, who has been the President of the Islamabad Regional Cricket Association for more than a decade, and has found himself on most “committees” in the PCB) have been one of the keys to this decline, ex-cricketers cannot escape judgement either.
The likes of Haroon Rasheed and Intikhab Alam have continuously been involved in this decline; a decline that was precipitated under the auspices of Rameez Raja as the CEO of the PCB.
The more you learn about the domestic game in Pakistan, the more you realise how much of a miracle it is that just over the past five years, Pakistan have topped the ICC Test and T20I rankings and won the Champions Trophy. Yet these are oases in the desert. While India have spent the past quarter-century creating a green new environment, Pakistan have held onto these oases as crutches. But for how much longer?