Pakistan pick age over youth at their peril
Last month when Pakistan dropped Asad Shafiq from the side for the second ODI in Centurion, it was a surprise move - if unintentional. It was the first time in their international history that they fielded eight players aged above 30. Two games later, they turned so teetotal towards youngsters that they even dropped Nasir Jamshed, taking the tally of the over-30s to nine. If it were not for Junaid Khan and Wahab Riaz, they would have broken Bermuda's record of fielding ten 30-plus players in a one-day international.
Any team relying so much on older players will raise eyebrows. For Pakistan, who have traditionally believed in unleashing raw young talent at the highest level, it is gobsmacking.
Youngsters, particularly those who rise from Under-19 level, have played an important role for the team over the years. The country's greats, the likes of Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Shahid Afridi were recruited at tender ages. Pakistan are the only team to win a World Cup with a side featuring four players under 22 - Inzamam, Moin Khan, Mushtaq Ahmed and Aaqib Javed (Zahid Fazal, only 18 then, was on the bench). This helps counter the belief that inexperienced players are unsafe for marquee tournaments, owing to which youngsters are often sidelined today.
In Pundits from Pakistan, Rahul Bhattacharya raised an interesting point while interviewing Aaqib, who supposedly made his first-class debut at only 12 and Test debut at 17: that Pakistan's faith in youth is a reflection of their religion, Islam, where puberty and not the age of 18 or 21 is considered the watershed. In 2004, when Rahul was writing his book, of the ten youngest Test cricketers, six were Pakistanis, three were Bangladeshis. Sachin Tendulkar was the only non-Muslim.
Having said that, Pakistan's culture of bringing rookies to the fore seems to be fading away, if the South Africa series is anything to go by. Shafiq, who in Cape Town played arguably the best innings by a Pakistan batsman on the tour, was dropped after the first ODI. Akmal did not get a chance and Nasir, Pakistan's most successful ODI batsman lately, couldn't keep his place after three poor games, never mind that he had been the player of the series on the previous tour.
Leaving youngsters out reflects on a failure of strategy when it comes to planning for the future. The South Africa tour was one of a handful of series for Pakistan ahead of the next World Cup. The team's batsmen need to acclimatise to the bouncy wickets they are likely to confront in Australia. The think tank missed a trick by not trying young players out.
The Champions Trophy will be Pakistan's last ODI series before the World Cup in conditions that will test their batsmen and can help them fine-tune their batting skills. The only tours Pakistan have before the next World Cup are to the West Indies (in July this year, for Tests) and Bangladesh (first for the Asia Cup in 2014, and then an away series at the start of 2015). Pakistan's management talks about how this is a transitional phase, but how can Pakistan hope to emerge from it if their youngsters are left warming benches while ageing players are continually being given chances?
After the Champions Trophy, Pakistan host South Africa (five ODIs) in November, then Sri Lanka (five ODIs) in January 2014, and then there is the Asia Cup in March 2014, where they will play about four matches at most. After that, in the year or so leading up to the World Cup, between April 2014 and February 2015, they have only nine ODIs (three each against New Zealand, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh).
In all, they have about 23 ODIs between the Champions Trophy and the World Cup. Now is the time for them to start investing in youth (Akmal, Shafiq, Jamshed, Ahmed Shahzad, Umar Amin, Haris Sohail, Hammad Azam) so they are prepared for the World Cup.
The experienced players are important for the team, but not at the cost of form and fitness. The senior players, Younis Khan, Shahid Afridi, Misbah-ul-Haq, even Shoaib Malik and Imran Farhat, should be restricted to the formats they are suited for. Even though Misbah has form and fitness now, it is pushing it to expect him to carry them for two more years, when he will be over 40.
If Pakistan don't act now, they must brace themselves for a repeat of World Cup 2003, where they had experience - Waqar, Saeed Anwar, Rashid Latif, Akram - but lacked form and fitness and were soon knocked out, with wins against only Namibia and Netherlands. They made the same blunder in the 1996 World Cup, when they selected Miandad ahead of Basit Ali, hoping Miandad would help recapture the glory of 1992. It rather backfired when he was found panting and gasping as he ran between the wickets in the quarter-final in Bangalore. Contrast that with Australia in the 2003 World Cup, who left out their Test- and previous World Cup-winning captain, Steve Waugh, to make room for Andrew Symonds, who went on to play a vital role in their title win.
It is time for Pakistan to breed young talent and stop giving chances to players who once were productive. It is time to realise that form and fitness can't be compromised, no matter how big a player is.
Pakistan's current selection policy seems to be based on the worn-out notion that form is temporary and class permanent. This idea has helped individuals prolong their careers and has affected the overall performance of the team. Class which fails to manifest itself in form consistently can no longer be regarded as class.
Mazher Arshad is a freelance writer in Pakistan. He tweets here