<
>

Has Pakistan domestic cricket got better? Kind of, but not really

Pakistan's first-class competition is still far from its glory days in the early '90s AFP

It's difficult for a Pakistani mind to wrap itself around the idea that things might actually be looking up. One of life's core tenets here is the notion that the past was simply better. This view is perhaps best illustrated by a quote that the late great columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee often referenced: "Mark my words, each successive government of Pakistan will be worse than its predecessor." Those were words supposedly said to Cowasjee's father by his friend Muhammad Ali Jinnah. In 2009, Cowasjee wrote: "And so it has been - such is our fate."

And yet, things might be on their way up. The country itself is recovering from being an epicentre for terrorist attacks: 2016 had the fewest civilian casualties in a year since 2006, and 2017 is on course to be better (one still hesitates to consider this an improvement or a fact worth celebrating, since surely even a single death by such means is one too many).

Pakistan cricket, meanwhile, has recovered from the nadir of 2009 and 2010, hosting two short international tours in as many months this year, with potentially another to come. And even as the Test team - which kept the game afloat for so long - falters, cricket will continue to prosper with the limited-overs exploits of the PSL generation.

Heck, even the domestic game has removed one of its millstones from round its neck. The replacement of the locally made Grays balls with the English-produced Dukes was met with scepticism initially, but players have been won over since.

A local batsman described the differences between the two: "The Grays ball didn't last long. After 40 to 50 overs, mostly you had to change it. With this [Dukes], the stamp on it is still there even when the ball is 40 overs old. So all you need to do, even with the old ball, is just to time it well and you will get boundaries. With the Grays, after 30 overs you needed brute force to even get it near the boundary."

One international fast bowler also saw its benefits. "With the new ball it is obviously easier to bowl with Grays as it is pretty much unplayable because of the extravagant swing in the first ten to 15 overs. But then it loses its shape and swing. It gets bloated and is bad for both bowling and batting.

"The Duke, on the other hand, consistently swings, whether it's old or new, or it's conventional swing or reverse. It retains its shape and remains hard throughout, so it helps bowlers with pace too. Overall it's far better for both batsmen and bowlers, but it's best on true, hard pitches."

And that's the key. Those true, hard pitches are rarer in Pakistan than middle-aged uncles who don't believe in conspiracy theories. A trifecta of problems has long plagued the domestic game. Solving one (the balls) can only do so much without any real changes to the other two - the state of the pitches and the organisation and structure of the cricket (i.e. the scheduling, format, number of teams). And it is borne out in the numbers.

The tables below reveal something about the state of domestic cricket in Pakistan last season. The first tells us that the majority of grounds produced fairly similar low scores. The second shows the comparison between last season's Quaid-e-Azam Trophy (QeA) and its equivalent in England, Australia, and the premier first-class competition in Pakistan in 1992-93, the Patrons Trophy (generally considered the peak of Pakistani domestic cricket). Discount the conditions and talent in England and Australia but how can one deny the differences in the Pakistani domestic game from before the changes made at the turn of the century.

*Cities with at least five matches

Considering the PCB has introduced better quality balls, and has, according to its Twitter feed, "replenished" domestic pitches, you would think that there would be a significant change - for the better - in the numbers for this season. Not exactly.

The average first-innings score in the QeA last season was 279. With seven match days of the main round of the tournament now over in the 2017-18 season, the average first-innings score is 233.72. More than 60% of the first-innings scores in this season's first round have been under 250, and not even Malcolm Tucker could give that a positive spin.

On Twitter, the PCB explained the low scores as the natural result of newly laid pitches.

A tangent here: on the surface, that looks like the ideal solution. Along with the change in balls, re-laying the pitches at the major grounds would solve two of those three main issues. But then there is the tale of the Pakistani curator at a major ground who - in his words - asked for soil containing 60% clay content, and was delivered soil with 25% clay content and told to make it work. The reason was that it helped cut costs. They tell you to make lemonade when life gives you lemons, but how do you make lemonade if you don't have lemons?

For argument's sake, let's take the PCB's word at face value. By its reasoning, surely, after the struggles of the early season, things should have got better. That first-innings average of 233.72 must be coloured by low scores in the first couple of rounds, right?

Apparently not. Not only are the scores going down as the season goes along, but they fare badly in comparison to even last season's QeA. Before the ball- and pitch changes were brought in this season, the numbers indicate that the conditions and equipment were better.

Considering the season started earlier this year than the last, you can't even blame the cold northern winters for this decline in numbers. Five of seven rounds of matches this season have had lower batting averages than any round did in 2016-17. How any of this is helpful to producing fast bowlers who can succeed in difficult conditions, or batsmen who can score big and quickly, or spinners who can bowl long spells is anybody's guess.

All of this could be explained by the simple nature of cricket in Pakistan. In a tournament that has as many as 16 teams, it's far easier to have two quality fast bowlers than five quality batsmen, thus making it easier for bowlers to dominate proceedings. Habib Bank can put out a four-man pace attack of Umar Gul, Usman Shinwari, Junaid Khan and Fahim Ashraf and still not be considered the best in the country (that would be Water and Power Development Authority, who open with Mohammads Irfan and Asif and can call upon Wahab Riaz too).

Meanwhile, a handful of departments (United Bank Limited, Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited, National Bank of Pakistan) aside, none of the batting units could ever be considered international class. It could be that Pakistan simply has a surfeit of quality pace- and medium-fast bowling, but that there is very little depth in batting beyond the very top layer. Hasn't that always been the case? However, even that doesn't quite explain the drop in numbers from last season.

Maybe the real change has been in the scheduling - last season, it took 45 days to complete the first round of matches; this year, 41. Perhaps something as little as four extra days was enough for the curators to be able to produce better pitches. That notion is supported by what happened earlier this week, when a game that was supposed to take place just across the road from the PCB's headquarters could not begin because the curators didn't have enough time to prepare the pitch. Maybe these are just birthing pains.

But there are two problems with these explanations. First, if the problem is the scheduling and the inevitable dilution of quality that comes with too many teams, then who is responsible for that? Cricket in Pakistan is highly centralised and the PCB has nigh on unlimited powers as far as the domestic game is concerned. If its changes are not bearing fruit, then it is because the board's own actions are negating these changes.

The second is that you can believe what the PCB and the regional cricket associations say and accept that things are on the way up, that together with the balls, the issue of pitches has been sorted out. But in this era of "pic or it didn't happen" how does one deny visual evidence?

(Try to spot the pitch in the image above, from day one of a QeA game.) What difference will new soil make if this much grass is left on the surface? The fact that this is the norm rather than an exception shows the reality of the situation, even as Pakistani commentators might still like to sell the idea that pitches in Pakistan are similar to those in the UAE.

Which is where we are right now. Of the three issues with the domestic game, one has been solved (balls), one has allegedly been solved even if the evidence suggests otherwise (pitches), and the third has been made worse (scheduling). The result is that the overall situation is more or less the same, or worse than it was before. Perhaps Cowasjee was right all along. Or perhaps, as the Punjabi saying goes: "Jithay di khoti, othay aan khaloti" (a non-literal translation: The arc of Pakistani cricket is long but it bends back towards where it began).