Revamping domestic cricket structure still high on Imran Khan's agenda

Revamping domestic cricket structure still high on Imran Khan's agenda

There may be any number of pressing matters to attend to in the country, but revamping domestic cricket remains top of mind for Pakistan's prime minister - and cricket legend -. How much it matters to him was clear from a press conference he held on local government affairs on Monday, which turned briefly into a policy statement on why the PCB must adopt regional cricket.

By dint of being the country's premier, Imran is also patron-in-chief of the board and so his words - the first he has spoken about domestic cricket publicly since becoming PM - hold considerable weight. And as he has done through much of his cricket career, he continues to insist that a regional-teams-only system is the way forward.

"Pakistan is the only country where sponsors play their teams, it doesn't happen anywhere else in the world," he said. "It doesn't happen anywhere else in the world. Everywhere in the world, only regional cricket is played. When I used to play, I used to insist that the PCB correct the structure."

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The PCB has been working on a plan to scrap departments such as PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) from the structure, at Imran's insistence. The plans have not gone down well with a number of stakeholders. Domestic cricket in Pakistan has been played among departments and regions for nearly 50 years, starting in the early 1970s, when Abdul Hafeez Kardar, Pakistan's first Test captain and then PCB chairman, encouraged organisations like Habib Bank Limited, Sui Southern Gas Corporation, Water and Power Development Authority and others to provide employment opportunities for players. Since then, the top players have been contracted by the departments in question and given full-time jobs.

The role of these departments in helping Pakistan cricket and cricketers has been significant, but it ended up depriving the regional sides from making use of their top players.

"The problem is that the system in place here doesn't allow talent to come through," Imran said. "Now we are changing it to make it a purely regional one. You have seen the recent PSL - regardless of the fact that not a single player in the Quetta [Gladiators] team was a local, the whole city still followed their team.

"Everywhere in the world, it's all about regional cricket, and here they are making noise because we are abolishing departmental cricket."

The PCB is now working on tweaked model with six provincial teams: two from Punjab, and one each from Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Baluchistan and the northern side of the country - Gilgit-Baltistan. If it gets passed, these six teams will play top-tier domestic cricket. But this idea has been strongly opposed by former cricketers including Javed Miandad, and a few government board members have also rejected the proposal.

"Javed has his own thinking, but I don't see any example in the world where banks and sponsors play their teams (in first-class cricket)," Imran argued. "Why is Pakistan the only country doing this? Why are banks giving jobs (to cricketers). There are a lot of multi-national companies in the world, they can import any player from anywhere to play, but they don't. So why is only Pakistan playing departmental cricket?

"There is a lot of money involved in cricket, but the corrupt system is the problem. I can guarantee that nobody can beat this country if we just fix the system."

Until last season, there were 16 teams in the domestic circuit, playing the country's premier first-class tournament, the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy. Eight of these were from the provinces and the other eight from departments. It is yet unclear yet if the PCB's new model can be implemented in time for the start of the 2019-20 season on October 1.