5 talking points from first round of Quaid-e-Azam Trophy
All the three matches in the first round of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy 2019-20, the 62nd edition of Pakistan’s premier first-class tournament, ended in a draw this week. The three games were played between Sindh and Balochistan at UBL Sports Complex Karachi, Central Punjab and Southern Punjab at Gaddafi Stadium Lahore and Northern and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at Abbottabad Cricket Stadium.
The tournament has undergone a major revamp this season with the Pakistan Cricket Board doing away with the departments and reducing the number of teams from 16 in the previous season to just six provincial teams. There have been plenty of talking points from the three games and the tournament.
What are the changes?
The facilities in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy had been under scrutiny for many seasons. The tournament in the recent editions was played on underprepared wickets, with substandard balls and a crammed schedule.
Last year, SNGPL (a departmental team) in the first 18 days of the domestic season had 14 playing days, two traveling days and just two rest days. In the season before, some venues hosted seven four-day matches in six weeks. As the curators didn’t have ample time to prepare wickets, the average first innings total in the QEA Trophy 2017-18 was just 235, the lowest for any first-class tournament in the world in that season. The locally manufactured Grays and Dukes balls made batting more difficult.
With just six teams featuring in the first-class tournament in Pakistan this season and only 31 matches taking place, the curators will have a chance to produce better pitches. As the tournament enters in the winter season, most of the games and the final will be played in Karachi to avoid the foggy and wet conditions of the northern cities (which wasn’t the case in the previous seasons).
A notable change this season is the introduction of the Kookaburra balls. Pakistan absurdly was the only team in the world that was playing its first-class cricket with one ball (locally manufactured Grays or Dukes) and home Test matches with another (Australian-made Kookaburra). Since the Kookaburra ball does not have a pronounced seam and requires more skill and pace to be effective, most of the fast bowlers have struggled in the opening round. That has been the major factor behind three draws.
But how do drawn games solve the problems?
A draw is not an ideal result in cricket but to solely focus on it will be missing the bigger picture. While the general perception is that the pitches were a reason behind three draws, it was the bowlers’ inability or lack of experience with the Kookaburra balls that has played a larger role. 3096 runs were scored at the loss of 60 wickets across three matches making it 51.60 runs per wicket. It’s early days but to have an idea about the runs to wickets ratio in the last two seasons, it was 25.28 and 22.68.
3096 runs were scored at the loss of 60 wickets across three matches © PCB
In the past, the seamers didn’t need pace or extraordinary skills to take wickets because of the pitches and the balls. This the reason why many Pakistan bowlers who were taking wickets for fun in the domestic cricket struggled at Test level where the conditions don’t give you a margin of error.
The bowlers may be struggling with Kookaburras in the QEA Trophy but it will eventually help them to develop pace and wicket-taking skills to compete at the Test level. It will also be a learning curve for the curators who need to find a right balance between bat and ball considering the matches are no longer played with the Grays.
Spinners coming into play
The slow bowlers also have an important role now. Since the games were getting over in 2-3 days in the past and the conditions favoured medium pace bowlers, it affected the development of many spinners because it prevented them from bowling long spells. For example, Bilal Asif delivered only three overs in two first-class games before making his Test debut against Australia last year. This season, in his very first match for Central Punjab, he bowled 50 overs in the match.
Yasir Shah playing for Balochistan bowled 47 overs in an innings, the largest spell by a leg-spinner in Pakistan in five years, whereas Shadab Khan bowled 44 overs for Northern, the most he has bowled in a first-class innings.
Points system brings context to draws
There may have been three drawn matches but teams are not equal in the points table. The tournament playing conditions encourage teams to be proactive and avoid defensive cricket. With the current points system, one can differentiate between teams even if the game is drawn.
For instance, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan both played a draw in their respective games but the former is at the top of the table with 13 points while the latter is at the bottom with 7 points. That is because teams get one point for scoring 200 runs at the 110th over mark in the first innings, two points for 250, three for 300, four for 350 and five for 400. Similarly, bowling teams get one point for taking 3 wickets at the 110th over mark in the first innings, two points for 6 wickets and three for nine.
Both KP and Balochistan earned five points for a draw but since KP scored 400plus runs at 110 overs they got five bonus points for batting and three more for taking 9 wickets before 110 overs. Balochistan, on the other hand, managed only two bonus points – one for scoring 200 runs and one for taking three wickets in 110 overs.
Any disadvantages with the current structure?
There are a few. The number of teams is very less for a country with 210 million people. Pakistan wanted their first-class system to mirror with the Sheffield Shield but Australia is a country with nearly nine times less population than Pakistan. In the current system, only 96 players will be able to play first-class cricket which means fewer opportunities in four-day cricket. Ideally, there should have been ten or at least eight teams based on cities rather than provinces. The PCB perhaps wanted to experiment with fewer teams and could increase teams in the future, as they did in the Pakistan Super League.
The other issue is monetary rewards for the players. Even though the four-day match fees has been increased from 50,000 Rupees to 75,000, most of the players were better off with monthly retainers from the departments. A case in point is Misbah-ul-Haq and Mohammad Hafeez who were getting 750,000 Rupees a month from SNGPL. Both were marquee players but even the low-key ones were getting 100,000 to 200,000 Rupees a month.
Most players were better off with monthly retainers from the departments © PCB
In the current system, every non-contracted PCB player, irrespective of seniority and experience, will get 50,000 Rupees a month plus match fees. It is extremely rare but even if someone manages to play all games in the season, including first-class, 50 overs and T20s, he will be earning about 2 Million Rupees, an amount which Misbah and Hafeez were crediting from three department salaries and is less than what Shadab Khan made from one match (2.5m rupees) in the CPL this month.
While it is true that no first-class competition can pay players as much as T20 leagues, Pakistan will need to find a way, perhaps by bringing in sponsors for first-class teams, to at least match the money that players were making from departments.