Days before the tournament was supposed to start, Sui Southern Gas Pipelines (SSGC), one of the major department sides, pulled out, arguing that running a cricket team was not a top priority at the moment. SSGC had stars such as Imam-ul-Haq, Babar Azam, Abrar Ahmed and Khurram Shahzad on their books, though these players weren’t likely to be involved given they are playing international cricket.
“As you know the SSGC is a public-sector utility company listed on the country’s stock exchange,” an SSCG spokesperson told Geo News, which broke the story. “So, with the inception of the winter season, the utility’s top priority is to ensure uninterrupted gas supplies to its over three million customers. The management is focused on serving its customers while combating tough challenges in the backdrop of widening demand-and-supply gap.”
That has left the tournament with seven sides, including traditional department giants such as SNGPL (Sui Northern Gas Pipelines), WAPDA (Water and Power Development Authority) and KRL (Khan Research Laboratories). The tournament was brought back into the calendar after the return to the PCB last year of Najam Sethi, who replace Ramiz Raja as chairman. Sethi headed an interim administration in which one of the main objectives was to bring back the PCB constitution from 2014, as well as bring departments back into the game.
Departments such as PIA (Pakistan International Airlines, the state carrier) and HBL (Habib Bank) were an integral part of the domestic set-up for nearly 50 years, providing first-class cricketers with a regular, stable income and the prospect of an employed future post their playing days. In 2018 Imran Khan, the former Pakistan captain, became the country’s Prime Minister, and, as patron of the PCB, had domestic cricket substantially restructured along the lines he had been advocating for years: a Sheffield-Shield-style set-up with six province-based sides playing the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy. Department cricket, to some criticism, was disbanded with players – hitherto employed by them and earning regular salaries – affected the most. A number of first-class cricketers stopped playing the game because there were drastically fewer sides to play for.
Sethi has since been replaced by Zaka Ashraf in another interim set-up that is due to run until February. Ashraf’s administration does not have the power to change the domestic set-up and has gone ahead with the President’s Trophy. But interest in participation in the tournament has been lukewarm, with a few departments who had traditionally fielded teams opting to not do so again.
The tournament is also being played under new regulations that have not yet been announced publicly but limit the first innings of games to 80 overs. That stipulation is said to have been made to encourage more positive cricket though it has had its critics. Bazid Khan, the former Pakistan batter, called it “utter nonsense” and said it was “devaluing” the first-class game.