April 26, 2016

The problem with Pakistan's chief selectors

The constant chopping and changing that occurred during the tenures of Moin Khan and Haroon Rasheed has affected Pakistan's ODI fortunes

Moin Khan handled the fast bowlers better, but his treatment of spinners and younger players was puzzling © AFP

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, according to one movie, was making people forget he existed. The role of the chief selector in Pakistan doesn't quite measure up to that of Lucifer, but it is generally forgotten about despite its overwhelming importance. The thought struck me while reading about Waqar Younis' infamous leaked report, where his top recommendation was to include the coach in the selection committee, headed by a chief selector who had played "modern-era" cricket.

Since the coach and captain can't select players, it means that Pakistan's selectors are the ones fashioning the team's long-term vision. Just as importantly, the selectors are also a different power centre, and players know that chumminess with the selectors can trump the disdain of captains and coaches. Given how the politics of Pakistan's dressing rooms make reality-show drama look tame, this is a risky set-up to operate with.

I wanted to take a look at the challenges and choices of the chief selector during Waqar's tenure, when two men occupied the role: Moin Khan and Haroon Rasheed. I have only considered ODI cricket here, excluding T20 due to lack of space and Tests because the side was extremely settled, leaving little for the selectors to do.

Moin's first task in Waqar's tenure was fashioning a new bowling attack for the upcoming World Cup after the crackdown against chucking. He also enjoyed the rare luxury of a settled, young middle order which had done well at the Asia Cup right before Waqar.

However, by the time he was sacked following the World Cup, Moin's selections destroyed the advantage he had, while also failing to resolve his problems. In the year after Saeed Ajmal was banned, Moin picked only three specialist spinners as replacements, with Zulfiqar Babar playing the most - four matches (out of a possible 17) across two tours. Shahid Afridi's brief run of pre-World Cup form was apparently enough to elevate him from second-change to lead spinner. The most promising batsman - Haris Sohail - was tried as an allrounder. Moin did send Yasir Shah to the World Cup, but presumably only because of his Test form, since Yasir was not a huge success in List A cricket.

Sami Aslam scored 45 on debut but was mysteriously dropped after that © AFP

Moin's picks for pacers were better, though the most curious was when he selected Sohail Khan for the World Cup on the back of a strong performance in one domestic tournament before the tournament. Sohail's overall record paled in comparison to that of perennial domestic champion Sadaf Hussain, but everyone knew the reason for his omission. No selector considers Sadaf because he has allegedly earned the wrath of certain notorious PCB official.

Moin's worst choices came in his treatment of the younger or relatively inexperienced players. Umar Amin was dropped after just one match, against Australia last October where he made 19 when asked to marshal a chase with the tail. That match was Sohaib Maqsood's only ODI of the tour. He made 34, one run below his average in an 18-game career till then, but he was still axed. Fawad Alam was averaging 69 on his return to the ODI side but he was dropped after three poor games. Raza Hasan played one game before being dropped. With each series defeat, the young and the unknown paid the price.

The only big name Moin dropped was Younis Khan, and the clumsy nature of it led to a crisis that was ended by forcing Younis into a World Cup squad he didn't deserve to be part of, and played little part in. Moin showed similar lack of imagination in bringing batsman Nasir Jamshed back from the wild twice. Jamshed made the World Cup team based on a solid run in the one-day tournament before the World Cup, and even there, several others had a good shout.

The biggest criticism of Moin, though, was his persisting with Umar Akmal. The batsman kept wanting to play up the order, yet only did so in the first two matches under Waqar, who seemingly preferred to have him bat lower. That was where Akmal was consistently poor, yet Moin kept picking him, at the cost of other batsmen, for each series, even after various disciplinary issues and run-ins with Waqar. The entire saga was a spectacular example of lose-lose-lose.

When Rasheed came in, he inherited Moin's bowling-pack problem, as well as the task of choosing a new captain, thus creating a new identity. He began boldly, with a raft of new faces for the tour of Bangladesh. However, he soon showed that his main penchant was for wholesale changes, averaging five dropped players after every ODI series. Thirteen players dropped by him played fewer than three matches; six played just one.

Haroon Rasheed persisted with known faces, even if they kept failing © AFP

Rasheed gave more chances to newcomers but was harsher with them too. Zafar Gohar, a young left-arm spinner who topped the 2014 List A charts, was dropped after one match. Babar Azam was dropped two innings after a fifty on ODI debut. Saad Nasim bounced back from a 0 on debut with an unbeaten 77 in his second match, yet was dropped after 22 in his third. The most egregious case was of Sami Aslam. A young opener with a staggering record in List A over the past few years, he made 45 in his only ODI before being dropped.

While Rasheed persisted with Azhar Ali throughout and backed Mohammad Rizwan and Imad Wasim, like Moin he was far more comfortable going with known faces, even if they kept failing. He picked Asad Shafiq twice, presumably with a belief in his potential, given his average List A and poor ODI record. Yet he was dropped after only one series each time, dissipating any supposed belief. Haroon also dropped Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad after Waqar's call to discipline them, yet soon recalled and kept Shehzad in the squad.

Shoaib Malik was also recalled, a veteran added to a supposedly new-look side and one who had been comfortably outscored by fellow veteran Kamran Akmal in recent List A seasons. Test regular Yasir Shah became the No. 1 spinner even when Gohar and Mohammad Asghar had put up good numbers in recent List A matches. And of course, Sadaf was never once considered.

So the main question is - why are the selectors behaving this way?

Clearly, some of it is about favours being repaid when the coach, captain or star players demand changes. Beyond that, it is apparent that when it comes to picking players from the domestic game, it is done on the basis of extremely recent, often televised, events. Any chances given to newcomers and List A performers of long standing (who often do not have much clout) are mercilessly brief, even when they perform. There is little time or space for an identity, a strong ethic, to develop.

The harshness and swiftness of changes shouldn't be surprising, though - after all, this is the reality that chief selectors themselves are used to. When Inzamam-ul-Haq was appointed chief selector recently, he was the 11th appointment in less than seven years (seventh if you ignore a flurry of court-ordered changes in 2014). Given that each chief selector has a sword constantly hanging over him during his term, it's not surprising that they are prone to rash and ill-thought-out changes. Rather than providing stability and vision, they rush through gut-based, data-averse calls that they hope will provide instant redemption.

In a system geared to short-term gains, rolling heads and wholesale changes, it is not surprising that its products - both in the selection panel and in the team - are insecure, ill equipped and underperforming.

I would like to thank Safieh Shah for her help in compiling and organising the data for this post.

Ahmer Naqvi writes on cricket, music, film and pop culture. He appears on Journoeyes and Pace is Pace Yaar. @karachikhatmal

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