October 4, 2013

Aren't Pakistan catching 'em young anymore?

What has happened to Pakistan's celebrated history of throwing barely pubescent youngsters into international cricket?

Fawad Alam: one of several Pakistani junior stars who failed to cement a spot in the senior team © AFP

Recently, while looking at another set of Misbah-related arguments on Twitter, it struck me how much older Pakistan's current side is in comparison to the mythical notion of our teams being stocked with teenagers. While trying to think of reasons as to why this might have happened (beyond the claim that Misbah is conspiring to fill the team with people as old as him), I was reminded of Hassan Cheema's notion of the Lost Generation, and of how a tumultuous decade has affected Pakistan.

I wanted to explore this idea further, so I turned to Statsguru. However, given that the only thing I know about statistics is the spelling of the word, I chose a very crude way to try and measure this change: by looking at Pakistani teams from the last seven editions of the Under-19 World Cup, a time in which they won the trophy twice, reached one final and two semi-finals, and were knocked out twice in the second round. I then tabulated how many players from both Pakistan, as well as their opponents' sides, went on to play international cricket. I chose to list the opposition's numbers to help place Pakistan's choices in context.

In the 2000 edition of the tournament, Pakistan were knocked out in the semi-final, and nine players from that team went onto play Test cricket. Almost all of them played in the Test side within a year, save for Yasir Arafat (who took till 2007 to do so) and Hasan Raza (already a Test player at the time). Intriguingly, players like Imran Farhat, Faisal Iqbal and Taufeeq Umar were promoted to the senior side back then, and are still in the reckoning now, despite never having been permanent fixtures in between. The team that knocked them out, Sri Lanka, had seven future internationals, three of them Test players, although only Jehan Mubarak could be said to have established himself somewhat.

In 2002, Pakistan were knocked out in the second round, and that team provided five internationals. Salman Butt and Umar Gul managed stable careers, while Azhar Ali got his chance eight years later. That tournament was won by Australia, who had future Test players Shaun Marsh, Xavier Doherty, Beau Casson and Cameron White; George Bailey and Mark Cosgrove have played limited-overs internationals.

Things start getting interesting in 2004 and 2006, when Pakistan won the tournament back to back. The two sides provided four Test players between them - Fawad Alam, Zulqarnain Haider, Riaz Afridi and Nasir Jamshed. Seven years on, only Jamshed has managed to become a regular, and even he has been dropped of late. In contrast, the beaten finalists in 2004, West Indies, had Xavier Marshall, Lendl Simmons, Denesh Ramdin, Assad Fudadin and Ravi Rampaul breaking out, while the Indian side in 2006 threw up Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma (yet to play Tests), Ravindra Jadeja and Piyush Chawla. At least five of these players from West Indies and India can now be termed established internationals.

Pakistan made it to the semi-final in 2008 and the final in 2010. These teams included five future internationals - Ahmed Shehzad, Umar Akmal, Umar Amin, Hammad Azam and Raza Hasan. In contrast, India's 2008 winning side had Virat Kohli, Saurabh Tiwary and Jadeja, while 2010 winners Australia had Mitchell Marsh, Kane Richardson and Josh Hazlewood.

Despite performing better on the global stage at the U-19 level, and growing up with better facilities, Pakistan's younger stars are finding it harder than ever to break through

The first thing this analysis makes clear is there isn't a preponderance of Under-19 World Cup stars in Pakistan's senior side as there used to be. The last U-19 players to establish themselves in the senior side (Gul and Butt) played the tournament in 2002. In contrast, several of their opponents have since then managed to mould core team players from their U-19 sides.

What make this surprising is that Pakistan's record in the U-19 World Cup since 2002 has been quite exemplary, yet players don't seem to be making the cut. Even more astonishingly, this period of unrealised potential coincides almost directly with the presence of the National Cricket Academy in Lahore.

Although it seems counter-intuitive that the establishment of an institution for grooming young stars would have such effects, Osman Samiuddin's recent article that spoke about the army-led centralisation of the country's cricket apparatus might provide some clues.

However, it would be foolish to analyse this data without taking into account Pakistan's disastrous political situation since 2001. The lack of international cricket, as well as the PCB's institutional chaos and the politics of selection, seem to have created a massive talent backlog, with the class of 2000 still vying for spots in the national side. In contrast, the winners of 2004 and 2006 have either been cut adrift or lost to mediocrity.

No player captures this lament better than Anwar Ali. A tearaway fast bowler who made his mark with a scarcely believable match-winning spell in the 2006 final against India, Anwar's story seemed moulded from Pakistan cricket's mythology. Yet seven years after his star turn, he has played in three T20Is and not developed into a substantial bowler. Another player with a similar sob story is Fawad Alam, an U-19 World Cup winner in 2004 and a Test centurion on debut. His only international appearances these days are on Twitter.

More importantly, it is also apparent that Pakistani debutants are not going on to have stable careers. Of the 30 debutants since 2004, only two (Azhar Ali and Saeed Ajmal) have played more than 25 of the 76 Tests Pakistan have played in that time.

Of course, it has to be acknowledged that looking at U-19 sides is not a comprehensive method of assessing how well any national side integrates new players (Australia's track record is also disappointing). But even with this cursory glance, a curious conclusion begins to emerge.

Despite Pakistan's celebrated history of throwing barely pubescent youngsters rather haphazardly into international cricket, the establishment of an international platform (the U-19 World Cup, started in 1988 and turned into a biennial event ten years later) and a domestic institution for nurturing talent (the National Cricket Academy) has paradoxically seemed to lead to a stifling of younger players.

Despite performing better on the global stage at the U-19 level, and growing up with better facilities, Pakistan's younger stars are finding it harder than ever to break through. The lack of a golden generation implies that this failure of incorporating young players is an administrative issue. Relying blindly on youth is not the answer, but Pakistan cricket must face up to the fact that it has spent more than a decade failing to groom its talented up-and-comers.

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here