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By Sohail Ali

LAHORE, Dec 31 (APP): The Pakistan Cricket Board Thursday released the special edition of the PCB Podcast, in which it has summoned up cricket’s challenges and difficulties in 2020 that will always be remembered for the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, Pakistan men’s cricket team played five Tests, three ODIs and 12 T20Is, the women’s side featured in the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup, the national U19 side finished third in ICC U19 Cricket World Cup, first-ever HBL PSL was held in Pakistan, and, last but not the least, 186 domestic matches have been staged to date in the 2020-21 domestic season since 30 September.

At a time when majority of the sport federations were either unable to hold their activities or delivered truncated schedule, the PCB planned and delivered its complete domestic season, while the national men’s sides toured England and New Zealand, besides hosting Zimbabwe.

Off the field of play, the PCB worked extensively on its National High Performance Centre and roped in some of the most respected and high-qualified coaches as part of its target to identify, nurture and train young talent.

Besides, the PCB continued to build and strengthen relationships with the ICC and its members. Consequently, and backed up by its positive decision-making and flawless delivery of its domestic events, South Africa and England confirmed their tours to Pakistan in January and October, respectively. In addition to this, Cricket South Africa also agreed to host the Pakistan women’s national cricket team for a three ODI and three T20I series in January/February, which will be part of their preparations for the ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup Qualifier 2021.

Furthermore, and in a historic move, first-ever independent female member on the Board of Governors was appointed along with three highly distinguished and qualified gentlemen.

Talking to the PCB Podcast,PCB Chairman Ehsan Mani said: “2020 was an incredibly difficult year for cricket, particularly relating to the health and safety of the athletes and match officials.

“But, I am pleased the PCB took the lead role in first holding cricket behind closed doors during the first phase of the HBL PSL 2020, then going ahead with our tour to England before launching and delivering a complete domestic season.

“In doing so, we demonstrated to the world that cricket and Covid-19 can co-exist, provided appropriate safety measure are put in place for the competitors. I am delighted that through immaculate planning and delivery, the PCB hosted Zimbabwe and has to date delivered 186 matches in its domestic season to date, which is a massive achievement considering the global situation since the outbreak of the pandemic.

“However, all this would not have been possible without the unconditional and outstanding support of the athletes and match officials, who showed their loyalty, love and passion for cricket by putting Pakistan and global sport ahead of their families and friends. As such, I offer my gratitude and big thanks to not only the players but also their families.

“At the international stage, we should have won the Old Trafford Test and also drawn the first Test against New Zealand. But, the positive side is the five Tests in 2020 have displayed that the side has the grit, determination and young talent to take Pakistan cricket forward.

“In 2021, we have around 10 bilateral series and a global event. I am optimistic these competitions as well as the highly-improved, advanced and competitive domestic cricket, will help these youngsters to mature and transform into top performers across all formats.

“The national side has a formidable backroom staff, led by Misbah-ul-Haq, Waqar Younis and Younis Khan, who are proven performers. Surely, these youngsters will benefit from their experience and improve their cricket skills and knowledge.

“Misbah, like any other coach, can only work with the material he has. I think he has with him the best available who were eligible for the New Zealand tour selection at the 12 October cut-off date. Then Misbah is not alone, he has with him Waqar and Younis, who have performed wherever cricket is played. To supplement these stalwarts, we have employed Saqlain Mushtaq and Mohammad Yousuf. I remain confident that with the quality coaches we engaged, we are heading in the direct direction.

“I was sad to hear about Mohammad Amir and Sami Aslam’s decisions to quit international cricket. I wish the two had spoken to the PCB before announcing their decisions.

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Amir, unlike some of the leading fast bowlers who play all formats to maintain high standards of fitness, first preferred to play white-ball cricket before retiring, while Sami should have taken a leaf out of Fawad Alam’s book and tried staged a comeback after performing strongly in domestic cricket.”

Mani also spoke about cricket diplomacy, changes at the ICC leadership and his priorities for 2021, including further strengthening the domestic cricket.

Pakistan head coach Misbah-ul-Haq said : “We tried to benefit from the resumption of Test cricket in Pakistan by inducting youngsters as they not only bring a fresh breath of air, but are determined to do well. I think we have done well from this aspect as there remains a high level of energy amongst these players despite being unable to carry the momentum following clinical wins against Bangladesh earlier this year and then Zimbabwe in the last quarter of the year.

“We have given opportunities to the youngsters in international cricket as well as with Pakistan Shaheens and I remain confident that the side and the youngsters, including as a few outstanding domestic performers we have earmarked, have a lot of potential to be become future leaders in the sport.

“From a personal point of view, the biggest disappointment of 2020 was the tour of England, where we let victory at Old Trafford slip out of our grasps. Then, rain thwarted our chances of going 1-0 up in the series but I am glad we then bounced back strongly in the third match to level the T20I series.

“New Zealand was slightly different and the 14-day quarantine, where we couldn’t even hold physical training sessions, hampered our Test preparations. That put a lot of pressure on the boys and resulted in a few injuries.

“We won the third T20I, though I feel we could have won one of the opening two matches but lost too many wickets in the first match and then dropped a few crucial catches in the second. In the first Test and without Babar Azam and Shadab Khan, we fought gallantly and hard till the end that earned the team a lot of praise, which satisfies me and my fellow coaches.

“As we head into 2021, I would like to reflect on the positives and learn from mistakes in 2020 so that we can improve as a unit. A lot of cricket has to be played in the next year, which will not only require consistent performance but also top-notch fitness. But with a larger pool of young and talented cricketers available, I am hopeful we will do better by converting strong performances into positive results.”

Zakir Khan, Director – International Cricket said : “It has been a tough year, which impacted cricket all over the world. The PCB, however, delivered most of its commitments despite the difficult and uncertain conditions.

“We put our trust in the ECB and sent our team to England, a move which turned out to be a great success – both in terms of cricket and relationship-building. Then, we hosted Zimbabwe in a bio-secure environment and presently our Pakistan and Shaheens’ sides are in New Zealand.

“Our year had started with the momentum of hosting Bangladesh, the tour that took place at the back of a successful home series against Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, Bangladesh couldn’t return to Karachi for a One-Day international and Test following the outbreak of the pandemic.

“Despite the evolving and unprecedented situation where very few were trained and qualified to put together robust and streamlined logistical and operational arrangements, the PCB did an exceptional job to deliver a safe and secure environment for international cricketers. This included the remaining four HBL PSL 2020 matches as well as domestic cricket, that paved the way for South Africa to confirm a tour for two Tests and three T20Is in January /February 2021 and England for two T20Is in October 2021.

“We endeavor to fulfill all our Future Tours Programme commitments in 2021 by creating an environment for international cricketers where they are able to produce their best performances. We also hope the Covid-19 situation will improve and we will once again be able to invite fans to these highly competitive and exciting matches.”

Nadeem Khan, Director – High Performance said : “Our foremost task was to deliver the domestic season despite the Covid-19 challenges. The successful delivery of the season was of paramount importance since it was to pave the way for the HBL Pakistan Super League play-offs and international cricket.

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“By the end of the year, we have delivered about 90 per cent of the season and I believe it is a big achievement considering the unique challenges we had to encounter.

“The players and support staff of the domestic teams deserve a lot of credit for their dedication and sacrifice throughout the season as they had to stay confined in bubbles for various events that we have delivered. The players are our most important stakeholders and I want to thank them for their determination, which was imperative for the successful delivery of the season.

“In terms of the quality of cricket, the National T20 Cup was played on a double-league basis for the first time and produced good competitive cricket with the scoring-rates as good as any leading tournament or league around the world. The 10 rounds of the first-class Quaid-e-Azam Trophy have produced exciting cricket as the pitches helped the teams produce a quality competition, which went down to the wire before Central Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa qualified for the final.

“I want to congratulate Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for winning the first XI National T20 Cup, Central Punjab for winning the second XI National T20 Cup, Sindh for completing the triple by winning the U19 one-day and three-day events and the second XI Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, and Southern Punjab for winning the Second XI Pakistan Cup One-Day Tournament.

“After the five-day Quaid-e-Azam Trophy final, we will have the first XI Pakistan Cup One-Day Tournament, which will again be played on a double-league basis before curtain falls on our season events.

“Outside the field of play, we roped in some of the most senior and respected coaches for our National High Performance Centre, including Grand Bradburn, Saqlain Mushtaq, Mohammad Yousuf, Atiq-uz-Zaman and Mohammad Zahid. These coaches will support a team of highly-qualified coaches, who are involved in the domestic circuit as we remain committed to improving the skills and talent of our talented youngsters.”

Urooj Mumtaz, head of women’s wing and chief selector said : “Our focus during difficult and challenging Covid-19 times remained on providing the players the best possible support when cricketing activities came to a halt. We provided a three-month special package to the unemployed cricketers, and organised player interactions with Wasim Akram and Babar Azam to try to keep them motivated, inspired and connected with the game.

“Following the resumption of domestic cricket, we organised a high performance camp and then delivered the national T20 competition, which recorded more than 1.5 million views on the live-stream.

“We also used this time to set our future objectives and to meet those targets, restructured our women’s national team set-up by appointing David Hemp as the head coach, Arshad Khan as the bowling coach and South Africa’s Drikus Saaiman as the strength and condition coach.

“Since 20 December, 26 players are attending a training camp in Karachi for next month’s tour of South Africa comprising three ODIs and three T20Is. This non-FTP tour is part of our preparations for the ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifier, which is expected to be staged in July 2021.”

Babar Hamid – Director Commercial said : “It was a dream to bring HBL PSL back in Pakistan and it materialised in 2020. The PCB worked tirelessly in its resolve to make it a grand success, while over 500,000 spectators crossed turnstiles in Karachi, Lahore, Multan and Rawalpindi to see live in action their favourite stars.

“It was indeed a setback to postpone the last four matches, but we were always determined and committed to complete the event, which ultimately happened in Karachi in November where all the sides entered in full-strength for the play-offs.

“We were able to directly secure improved and better sponsorships for our domestic cricket through aggressive marketing and promotion of our events and products.

“On broadcasting of our domestic matches, all 33 National T20 Cup matches and 10 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy matches at the National Stadium were televised in High Definition. In addition to this, the National Women’s T20 was live-steamed. I believe this was a huge success, considering the Covid-19 pandemic had restricted fans’ movement who were also starving for some quality entertainment.

“We are hopeful 2021 will be much better and we’ll be able to get on board more commercial partners as Pakistan cricket is growing stronger, more competitive and exciting, which is now visible on television and social media channels.”