If you ever want to study on the products that have gone from bad to worse, look no further than the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, the so-called premier first-class tournament of Pakistan. You will be amazed to see how every year the competition finds a new way to draw criticism. In the latest development, the players and the coaches have expressed shock over the scheduling of the tournament that is starting from September 1.
Last season, Quaid-e-Azam Trophy was heavily criticised for its substandard pitches and crammed schedules. Some venues hosted seven first-class games in six weeks, 11 matches produced a result in less than 180 overs (equivalent to two days), and teams were given only two days gap – one for travelling – between the matches.
This season, in an attempt to improve the scheduling, Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) decided to run first-class and 50-over tournaments simultaneously. Both players and coaches have expressed shock at the fixtures under which players will have only two rest days in the first three rounds. The broad officials behind the scheduling think that if a player can play after one day's rest, he should be able to play without any rest too.
A case in point is Sui Northern Gas Pipeline Limited’s (SNGPL) fixtures. The department will kick off the season on September 1 with a four-day match in Lahore. It will have a rest day on September 5 and play a 50-over game on September 6. After that, the team will have a seven hours journey to Abbottabad, and then from September 8, it will start its next four-day match.
A long story short, in the first 18 days of the tournaments, SNGPL will have 14 match days, two travelling days and two rest days.
Sui Southern Gas Corporation (SSGC) will have a similar 18 days pattern except that it will have longer distances to cover as it travels from Rawalpindi to Karachi and Karachi to Multan.
It is pertinent to mention here that PCB this year set a budget of Rs916.36 million for domestic cricket which is 90 per cent more than the previous year.
It is not the first time that the board has scheduled events without thinking about the physical demands of the players or the people involved in the games.
Cruel though it may seem, the board in 2014 scheduled four T20 matches on one day at National Stadium Karachi. Nobody spared a thought for the cameramen who had to stand in the hot and humid weather of September for 160 overs without a proper break.
In the T20 tournament in the twin cities in 2015, Karachi Blues were made to play six matches in six days, including semi-final and final. Overall, they played 11 games in 15 days. As a result, Anwar Ali, who only a month ago had been Pakistan’s best player in the T20I series in Sri Lanka, picked an injury and missed the series against Zimbabwe. In the same tournament, after playing five matches in five days, a player joked that they just finished a Test match of T20s.
Another problem the players are facing this season is the lack of time to prepare for the tournament. With Eid-ul-Azha falling in the last week of August, the teams have not been provided suitable time for the pre-season camp. Moreover, many players, reportedly close to 100, who are busy in league cricket in the United Kingdom have been forced to leave their foreign assignments due to an early start to the season and also risk their future contracts. The board has perhaps forgotten how many players survive on the income from the league cricket. If not for these contracts in the UK, even a player as good as Saeed Ajmal would have hung his boots way before his international call-up in 2008.
PCB needs a stern reminder about the impact of poor first-class cricket on its Test team. Pakistan at the moment is at number seven in ICC Test Rankings, and there is no batsman or bowler from Pakistan in the top ten players. At the start of the last year, Pakistan for the first time in its history lost 6 Tests in a row. Last year, Pakistan also lost a home series for the first time in 10 years. There is not a single established player in the team who can claim to be a product of first-class cricket of the last eight years. Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq, Sarfraz Ahmad, Yasir Shah, Mohammad Abbas, Mohammad Amir all made their first-class debuts before 2010.
At times it seems that the board is just not willing to fix the problems pertaining to red-ball cricket. When the limited overs team was on the wane, PCB managed to put it back on the track by creating tournaments like Pakistan Super League and Pakistan Cup. It immediately bore fruit as the team won the ICC Champions Trophy and became number one in the T20I rankings.
But the situation of first-class cricket is worsening with every passing year, and no one seems to have a solution for that.
Bazid Khan, the cricketer-turned-commentator with a keen eye on Pakistan’s domestic cricket, believes that if first-class cricket were not mandatory for Tests Pakistan would be the first country to stop playing four-day cricket.
Not only the officials, even the players, coaches and selectors are least interested in first-class cricket. Knowing that the players have regularly skipped first-class matches at the expense of foreign T20 leagues, the coaches and the selectors are happy to pick players for Tests on the basis of PSL, the sponsors and broadcasters do not have any interest, the entire system of first-class cricket appears to be useless and nonsensical.
Last season when the PCB Board of Governors had a meeting to discuss various issues to related to cricket, a member of the BoG asked if it was possible to scrap the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy and have a red-ball free cricket season. It is not clear whether his question was out of naivety, ignorance or sarcasm. Whatever it was it seems the only way to kill this nonsense.