Quaid-e-Azam Trophy 2021/22: Problems at the Halfway Stage

The first half of the tournament in Punjab has come to an end; 14 of the 15 matches have ended up as draws.

“What is wrong with the pitches? How will the country progress as a cricketing nation with cricketers being brought up on these tracks? Is this not detrimental to the country’s cricketing future?”

These are some of the things that fans, cricketers, ex-cricketers, and other members of the cricketing community have been saying about Bangladesh in recent times. During Pakistan’s tour of Bangladesh, it has been Pakistan fans saying the same, with the hosts putting up first-innings totals of 127, 108, and 124. But back home in Pakistan, something similar has been unraveling with the ongoing First Class season.

5 rounds, 15 matches, 14 draws. The bare numbers tell a story of their own. But the deeper you dig, the worse it seems to get.

Batters

The Quaid-e-Azam Trophy has long been a graveyard for (most) batsmen under the old system, with abysmal seasonal batting averages in the low 20s. As recently as 2017 and 2018, batting averages were 21 and 23 (batsmen in the top 6 averaged 25 and 29 respectively), with the number fluctuating from the low to mid-20s during the earlier part of the decade.

With a renewed focus on quality rather than quantity, the new system was meant to bring about change and more balanced outcomes. However, the 2019 season ended up on the other end of the spectrum, with high first innings total and 20 out of 31 matches ending in draws. The overall batting average for the season was 38, while top 6 batters averaged a staggering 46. First season in the new system – it was understandable.

Due to the pandemic, the second season (2020) was restricted to Karachi. Unexpectedly, this brought about positive results, with just 10 of 31 matches ending in draws in one of the most balanced seasons of First Class cricket in Pakistan for a long time. Batsmen averaged just a touch over 30, top 6 batters averaged 37, and after 2019 where openers made hay, it was a hard grind for top-order batters.

With the first half of the 2021 season having taken place in Punjab, however, there has been a drastic turnaround – not for the better. As mentioned earlier, there has been only one result so far, while batsmen have been shattering records. One 300, five 200s, 37 centuries (47 in total last season). The overall batting average is 42, while for top 6 batters, it’s 50. Openers alone are averaging a staggering 61, having hit 15 tons and 28 half-centuries in just 98 innings!

Pakistan faced a crisis in the 2010s where playing on bowler-friendly pitches for several years had led to a devaluation of bowling numbers. If the ongoing situation continues to prevail, we could end up facing the batting version of this in the future. So far this season, Imam-ul-Haq has 488 runs @ 163. Abid Ali has 611 runs @ 122. Sahibzada Farhan has 606 runs @ 87. Tayyab Tahir has 533 runs @ 76. Ahsan Ali has 373 runs @ 373 in 2 innings, including a 303*. How does one differentiate between these openers? All have spectacular numbers.

Bowlers

With fluctuating fortunes for batsmen over the past several seasons, bowlers have faced the same fate. From extremely bowler-friendly conditions for most of the 2000s and 2010s to the terrible 2019 season to the balanced 2020 season to the abysmal 2021, it’s been an up and down ride. One undeniable factor has been the increased role of spinners, who were often reduced to bystanders in seasons gone past.

However, despite spinners playing an increasing role, this season (so far) has been one of the worst for spinners on record. The slow bowlers have struggled for almost 15 overs per wicket, averaging almost 47. Meanwhile, after a balanced season last year where the pacers made an impression, they have immensely struggled this time around.

Pace vs. Spin Bowling Averages

Season

Pace

Spin

2015

25.2

34.5

2016

26.1

32.5

2017

21.4

25.0

2018

23.5

28.0

2019

41.0

39.4

2020

32.3

31.4

2021

41.7

46.6

2020 was close to ideal, with both pacers and spinners playing a role. However, after the disaster of the earlier years, the other end of the spectrum where bowlers toil hard without any reward will also be detrimental in the long run. A consistent middle-ground has to be found and fast.

Grounds

With the 2020 season being played in Karachi entirely, four grounds were used, with all of them returning fairly balanced numbers. NBP Sports Complex had the best numbers for spinners, while SBP Sports Complex was best for pacers.

This season, so far, Iqbal Stadium in Faisalabad and Multan Cricket Stadium have both been tough on all types of bowlers. However, the primary venue that has proved damaging for bowlers has been the home of Pakistan cricket – Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore. Bowlers struggled at the venue in 2019 as well, and the trend has continued this season.

Season

Ground

Matches

Bowl Avg

Pace Avg

Spin Avg

2019

Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore

2

45.7

40.9

53.4

2019

Abbottabad Cricket Stadium

5

50.2

43.7

63.2

2019

UBL Sports Complex, Karachi

6

35.4

34.3

36.7

2019

Bugti Stadium, Quetta

4

41.0

43.7

38.4

2019

Iqbal Stadium, Faisalabad

3

27.1

31.6

23.9

2019

KRL Ground, Rawalpindi

3

41.6

49.6

32.8

2019

Jinnah Stadium, Sialkot

1

60.0

49.2

70.7

2019

National Stadium, Karachi

5

44.7

43.8

46.2

2019

NBP Sports Complex, Karachi

1

24.1

24.2

24.1

2019

SBP Sports Complex, Karachi

1

63.4

62.7

63.7

2020

UBL Sports Complex, Karachi

10

30.4

31.6

29.7

2020

NBP Sports Complex, Karachi

4

31.0

37.6

27.9

2020

National Stadium, Karachi

11

33.0

32.8

33.2

2020

SBP Sports Complex, Karachi

6

32.9

30.2

38.7

2021

Iqbal Stadium, Faisalabad

5

40.8

37.7

42.9

2021

Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore

5

55.0

52.5

58.2

2021

Multan Cricket Stadium

5

38.6

37.1

41.5

Preparations

Much of the first half of the 2021 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy ended up being played during the T20 World Cup. Understandably, there was somewhat lesser hype about this season. However, with ICC tournaments being scheduled for every year, the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy must continue to receive its due importance in the Pakistan cricketing calendar.

Balls

The Kookaburra ball has been in use in the new system, the natural step to take considering that Pakistan plays its home matches with the Kookaburra. For much of the last two decades, bowlers bowled with the Grays or Dukes balls in First Class cricket, often struggling to adapt to the Kookaburra when they moved on to the international level. At the same time, the Grays ball, in particular, was at the center of several controversies regarding its quality.

With most Test-playing nations using the Kookaburra, besides England, India, and the West Indies, it makes sense to continue using this ball for the time being. However, after 3 rounds and 9 draws, rumors came up in the media discussing a possible change in the cricket ball, with the Dukes being the touted replacement. This would be a step backward unless Pakistan were to adopt the Dukes as the ball of choice for home Test matches.

Playing Conditions

Rather than changing the balls, however, there was a last-minute change in the schedule ahead of the fourth round of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy. The match at the Gaddafi Stadium for the fourth round was abruptly changed to a day/night game, with the final also slated to be played with a Pink ball. Day 1 of the match started at 1 pm. However, it came to an end with just 75 overs bowled. Then, the timings for the rest of the game were abruptly changed, with an 11.30 am start.

At the same time, the conditions in Punjab meant that a lot of overs were lost every day and during each match. In the 14 drawn matches so far, an average of 75 overs were bowled per day, meaning a loss of roughly 60 overs or 2 sessions over the course of a match. With conditions already not being conducive to results, this has only further hampered the season.

Shaheens Tour & International Cricket

A couple of months ahead of the 2021 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, a Pakistan Shaheens tour of Sri Lanka was announced. This overlapped with most of the first half of the season, with almost 20 of the top Pakistani domestic cricketers unavailable for the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy. To make matters worse, rain played a massive role in the Shaheens tour; the two four-day games both ended in draws, with almost four days of play lost due to rain. Effectively, some of Pakistan’s top first-class cricketers ended up playing just four days of First Class cricket during the first half of the season.

While this did provide some of the younger and lesser experienced cricketers at the First Class level to experience some top-level cricket, it also led to a lowering of the quality. The pace-bowling side of things suffered the most, with the likes of Arshad Iqbal, Irfanullah Shah, Khurram Shehzad, and Naseem Shah unavailable.

Ideally, the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy should be one of Pakistan cricket’s marquee products during the home season. This necessitates the best domestic players being available for most of the tournament. With the Bangladesh Tests now coming up, Pakistan have sent a large 20-man squad, perhaps due to COVID-related squad requirements. This, however, means that some more top domestic players may end up warming the bench for the national side rather than getting valuable game time.

Conclusion

Everyone in Pakistan stresses upon the importance of First Class cricket, but with the conditions not up to the mark, there is a limited benefit for the players. With infrastructural and various other shortcomings already in the system due to a lack of international cricket and development in recent years, there are already lots of other areas that need to be worked on. However, at the crux of it all are the 22 yards that the players go out there and play on.

Of the 2.5 seasons played in the new system so far, 1.5 have had pitches that favored batters far too much. With the tournament moving to Karachi, there’s hope that something can be salvaged from the remainder of the season – if the pitches are better than what was seen recently in Punjab. For the sake of Pakistan cricket’s future, that has to be the case.

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