Pakistan’s County Cricket

Pakistani cricketers have always played for county teams. It was often encouraged because playing in the environment didn’t just improve the players’ skills, it also helped them become gentlemen. Cricket is a “gentleman’s sport”, after all.

Recently, Pakistan’s cricket board created a new Managing Director position for Mr. Wasim Khan, who had been a Chief Executive of an entire county team in the UK. This doesn’t imply that Pakistan’s cricket is at par with one county team. Because if it did, such a parallel would extend to PCB’s new chairman, Ehsan Mani, who ran the entire ICC as their head for a few years.

His appointment doesn’t mean that to run the PCB, you need to manage the affairs of cricket’s only international body as a prerequisite. Although, Pakistan is cricket’s second-largest market and that may as well be true. But it’s actually not because there’s a thing called the “Big Three” and Pakistan isn’t a part of it.

That isn’t the topic of discussion here, however, so maybe we can leave that for another day. For now, the question is, can Mr. Khan’s knowledge and experience bring our domestic cricket at par with the league he has left behind? The domestic structure has already been overhauled in line with Australia’s Sheffield Shield, as per the wishes of our Prime Minister.

The domestic cricket teams are now based on geographical regions within our borders as opposed to state-owned enterprises. Presenting a comparative analysis between the old structure and the new would be outside the scope of this very specific blog post. So I’ll assume that those reading this already know the difference or they’ll take out time to figure this out on their own. I mean they’ve come this far, so why not go a bit further?

Back on Mr. Khan: The biggest challenge he faces now is to create a fanbase for each team. This new structure was introduced because fans are expected to cheer on their favorite region in the country instead of a state-owned enterprise. The question in everyone’s mind, therefore, is, can MD Khan really fill up our stadiums, sell merchandise and get thousands of viewers for each game?

In other words, can he create a self-sufficient, revenue-generating model for each team in this new structure? This structure was designed with the assumption that since fans are far more likely to develop an affinity for a regional team than they would for a state corporation, they’ll ‘consume’ the sport in far greater numbers.

Fortunately for Khan, he doesn’t need to introduce the sport to a completely new audience or even find new talent. As already mentioned above, Pakistan is the second-largest market for cricket in the world. We also happen to have one of the youngest populations on the planet with more than half of the people living in our country, under the age of 30. With so much interest in the sport and so many young people playing in almost every street and neighborhood, he won’t have much of an issue finding talent, either. In fact, our new national selector and coach didn’t start his full-fledged international career till after 30, so the “under 30” demographic isn’t the only group that churns out new players.

It seems, therefore, that his only job is to simply connect this massive market to the product he is now in charge of selling. Can his knowledge and experience, as referred to above, play a part in helping him bridge this gap?

Well, one of the major differences that he probably already understands is that before, he was in charge of just one team. Now, since he has become the MD of an entire country’s cricket board, he is in charge of six. Some may have led him to believe that he was still only going to manage one team with the only distinction being that his current team is a national team, unlike the domestic team he used to head.

But that really isn’t the case. At least not now, anyway. The national team now has a new MD or Chief Executive. And his name is Misbah ul Haq. He was described above but given how many powers he has been bestowed, it was intimidating to mention his name in passing. He deserves this new authority, though and it would also be good for Pakistan Cricket. Again, this is a discussion for another day.

Khan now has to see himself as a Chief Executive of six different domestic teams. He needs to run each individual domestic team as he ran his County team. He will need to transfer all of the skills, knowledge, and experience he had and make them successful, marketable, profitable and of course, all of that means: self-sustainable.

It is quite unfortunate that in Pakistan, people are quick to judge foreign professionals, which includes expat Pakistanis. His detractors believe that his position was given to him, unfairly since no such role existed in the board and he is being given a hefty salary only because he flew into Pakistan from a land far away. Maybe they’re not at fault, either. The culture and system in Pakistan is such that regular, everyday people have to work much harder to succeed than they would in any other society. Upward mobility is an alien concept unless it’s aided by nepotism or corruption.

Those who work hard, day in and day out, barely ever get rewarded. Then, there’s the standard of living. Pakistanis look at expats and foreigners as having had it easy. They think the system in a developed country is based on meritocracy and the standard of living is so high that there can never be a level-playing field between a local resident and an expat or a foreigner.

Some Pakistanis will acknowledge that there are unique challenges that people from our society have to face when they emigrate to foreign countries, ranging from discrimination to glass ceilings. But the vast majority aren’t willing to accept that someone like Khan would’ve had to face anything comparable, in spite of him being the first Pakistani to play for a UK team.

While breaking barriers and raising the glass ceiling is quite an achievement, people still wouldn’t think he dealt with issues like harsh weather or severe financial constraints as a player, and manager after that. Even if he did, it would be assumed that it was nothing by Pakistani standards.

The local coaches and players and the associations they comprise have been supporting teams and organizing games on such meager resources that it would make one think they’re working as volunteers for some kind of a humanitarian organization providing relief to the needy.

They feel perfectly justified in thinking their new MD has no credibility and they wouldn’t hesitate to blame him for anything that goes wrong.

This is really unfair to him but this is something he’ll need to keep in mind for the future. He may not be blamed for the national team’s defeats now that Misbah’s running the show but if the domestic structure doesn’t take-off, they’ll apportion all the blame on him. This doesn’t mean he should work under a great deal of stress but he also needs to be pragmatic.

Those were his detractors. He, obviously, also has supporters.

Those in his favor, often argue that Pakistan looks at Khan as an investment that’ll bring great returns in the near future. Being a part of that school of thought, I’ve already presented what the ROI looks like: Pakistan getting six domestic teams that are close to being as good as County teams. If our domestic structure, like the PSL, starts to generate enough interest and revenue as our national team does, international games wouldn’t be a ‘be all, end all’ for the fans or the players.

Mr. Khan simply needs to look back at his time in his County team and try to do a “copy-paste” while keeping Pakistani psychographics, in view. If he keeps asking himself how his County generated revenue along the way, he should be fine.

That’s why he was hired, wasn’t he? To make the domestic structure viable enough to support itself, unlike the previous model where different corporations hired the players and financed everything without any benefit to themselves. Looking back at the old structure, you really do start to believe corporations are people; very philanthropic and kind.

But now that the teams are on their own, he’ll need to find a less charitable lot. The kind that exists globally and those he may have come across as Chief of his team’s management.

County Championships have quite a few. The tournament has its own sponsor. As do the teams and players. Pakistan’s domestic trophy being live-streamed at the moment seems to have none. Shouldn’t be too hard to find a few in a cricket-obsessed nation like ours.

There is, however, a lot of progress has been made. For starters, they’re live-streaming a few matches from the domestic trophy. Took them a while. This was so basic that one of the minor leagues that Karachi Kings recently bought, used to stream their games every year.

The owner of the said PSL team recently mentioned that he’ll introduce a new sports channel, which would be Pakistan’s fourth. This gives the cricket board more options when it comes to finding a media partner.

So, while the matches aren’t being broadcast on any mainstream sports channel, at least they’ve become accessible. It would be interesting to know the ratio of viewers watching from abroad compared to Pakistan. Only those dealing with analytics can help us figure this out. But regardless of where they’re from, this would be the first time a Pakistani First Class, the domestic tournament would have been shown live (online or TV), and for any audience, local or foreign.

On another note, little things like numbers and names on the backs of the jerseys could make the games more appealing. They’ve already introduced this in international Test matches. County cricket always seemed to have them. The MD can also leverage the star power of the players taking part in the league. Their fan following could attract enough viewers to make him successful.

There’s no limit to the suggestions, and the tools he can use are limitless, as well. There also isn’t a metric of success. But if someone really wanted to define one, it would be really simple. If our domestic cricket becomes good enough to attract foreign players as County cricket does, and as the PCB attracted Mr. Khan, it would be a huge win. Far bigger than improving our national team’s rankings.

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