'The priority is Pakistan' - Hafeez stresses international-first policy for contracted players

Mohammad Hafeez strikes a pose PCB

The PCB has reiterated that the priority for all Pakistan players must be Pakistan and not T20 franchise leagues. That message came loud and clear from team director Mohammad Hafeez on the eve of the side's departure for Australia, but more pertinently in the context of Haris Rauf's potentially delayed departure to the same country, albeit to play in the Big Bash League (BBL).

Rauf has found himself in the crossfire of a transition in team management with a new set of priorities. Having first been called out by new chief selector Wahab Riaz for turning down selection to the Test squad for Australia, Rauf is now facing a delay to the start of his stint with Melbourne Stars as he awaits an NOC.

Officially the PCB says it is because domestic commitments must take priority and Rauf is playing for Islamabad in the National T20 Cup that runs until December 10.

Hafeez doubled down on the Pakistan-first line in a press conference in Lahore, in which he also laid out a new policy designed to discourage young cricketers from playing T20 cricket early in their careers.

Rauf has mostly been viewed as a white-ball specialist for Pakistan, having played only one Test and nine first-class matches in his career. The Test he did play he failed to complete, bowling 13 overs in the first innings in Rawalpindi last year against England and not at all in the second. He wasn't part of the squad for their last Test assignment, in Sri Lanka in July.

But he was told by Wahab that he was going to be picked for Australia, an opportunity he turned down. Though the precise version of events is disputed, Hafeez said Rauf committed to Wahab before reneging.

"Haris Rauf went to the chief selector [Wahab Riaz] one evening and I think committed to Test cricket," Hafeez said. "Then for some reason he didn't want to play. When we saw reports from the physio, Haris has no issues stopping him from playing Test cricket. So the thinking that someone doesn't want to play Tests, or is being forced to, that is wrong.

"If an individual thinks he doesn't want to play red-ball cricket, that is an individual act. The central contract was given on the basis that all players will be available for all formats if we need them. In the Haris Rauf case, he has shown unavailability for red-ball ricket, so with central contracts any decision will be taken keeping Pakistan's FTP commitments in mind and that is how it will be decided who we give what contracts to in what category."

Hafeez initially seemed to suggest that a new NOC policy might be incoming but later confirmed that it would be in line with current central contracts. And his messaging is not necessarily in conflict with NOC regulations as they are in the current central contracts. Those allow players to take part in a maximum of two leagues per year other than the PSL. It was a key point of negotiation between players and the board earlier this year. But the contract spells out clearly that an NOC will depend on the approval of several stakeholders, from domestic coaches to PCB departments as well as the national-team coach and selectors. In effect, Hafeez's words are a hardening of the permissions each and every NOC will need.

And he stressed that once a cricketer had been offered - and signed up to - a central contract the assumption was that they were available for Pakistan in all formats at all times of the year.

"First of all, the priority is Pakistan representation. After that comes everything else. All centrally contracted and domestic contracted players, for all of them the priority is Pakistan.

"What I understand is that when you are offered a central contract for Pakistan, there is a strong reason you've been offered it. The point of offering it to the 20-25 players, with Pakistan's FTP commitments in three formats in mind, is to play them, is that they are available for it.

"Now there is a parallel option in the shape of leagues. Unfortunately, we experienced this in the Asia Cup and World Cup, there was talk of fatigue, or players were getting injured because their workloads were too much, or not performing as they should [because of leagues]."

In a sign that it might not be straightforward for the likes of Rauf and others to secure NOCs for the raft of leagues this winter, Hafeez said workload management, with next year's T20 World Cup in mind, would be paramount. As well as the Tests in Australia, Pakistan are scheduled to play T20Is in New Zealand in January before the PSL.

"Moving towards the T20 World Cup, the NOC policy will be based on what Pakistan needs. If Pakistan need fit players, we need to make sure of their workloads. The maximum energy and availability has to be to Pakistan. If there is an opportunity around that, that they can play [in leagues], that will be definitely considered.

"This season the central contracts have been given and it will run according to that. That is not going to change. But the reason for giving that central contract is that they are available for the FTP. Anything that will be done on NOCs will be according to Pakistan's priorities. It won't be that anyone will be stopped from playing in leagues but if Pakistan is the priority, then with NOCs it can't be that Pakistan is the second priority and leagues first."

Hafeez also said that he had prohibited Under-19 players from playing in the National T20 Cup and will do likewise in the PSL because he wanted them to concentrate on the "basics" of their game.

"We will create opportunities to play two- or three-day games for them so that the basics of their game become more solid. That is why they were stopped from playing the National T20. And we will do that in the PSL as well.

"The U-19 player will have to learn the basics and when he becomes mature mentally and physically and by tactics, then he should play T20 cricket. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, a 16-year-old plays and practices for four overs. He doesn't think he needs to play 20-25 overs. We brought this change. We need to push U-19 cricket towards red-ball cricket. One clause we added was that if any U-19 player wants to play T20 cricket, he should have played 10 first-class matches or non first-class matches so that he has the basics of the game."