October 13, 2013

Pakistan: trying to run before they can crawl

The lack of top-flight cricket at home is beginning to tell on Pakistan's players

The leap that Pakistan's domestic cricketers have to make when they play Tests is far too great to give them a fair chance of success © PA Photos

With Pakistan hosting South Africa in the UAE, much has been made of the selection policy that has led up to this series. On one hand are the complaints that despite a disastrous 2013 there has been little in the way of changes to the national squad. On the other are moans about the lack of quality in the upcoming crop. And lastly there are objections that the two best young batsmen (Umar Akmal and Fawad Alam) failed to even make the A team, let alone the main squad. (This last group of complaints is mostly restricted to the world of social media, which is the only place where these two batsmen are considered Test quality.) And this is all before considering the views of the group that believes that Misbah-ul-Haq is the devil.

This summer Pakistan also failed to qualify for a major hockey tournament for the first time. With similar sob stories in other minor sports, one could argue that this is the worst shape Pakistan sport has ever been in. An objective, overarching look might conclude that the professionalisation of most sports worldwide over the last quarter century or so has left Pakistan behind - a country that always relied on natural talent more than planning, and was proud of doing so.

A greater impact has been from the lack of international sport on the country's teams. Whenever the lack of international cricket in Pakistan is discussed, the financial aspect of it is deliberated, and so is the issue of the public missing out. Often we miss the most obvious point - the talent development and identification. If Level 1 (in a table that I just made up) is a player playing at home in the domestic first-class game, Level 2 is him playing against an international team in those conditions, Level 3 would be him playing Test cricket at home, and Level 4 would be him playing away. Right now Pakistani cricketers, especially batsmen, struggle because they jump straight from Level 1 to 4.

I believe the lack of what used to be known as "side matches", Level 2, has hurt Pakistan the most. In Pakistan, no longer can you test a kid against an international opponent without having to throw him into the Test arena.

Everyone knows about Wasim Akram taking seven wickets in an innings for the Patron's XI against New Zealand in 1984, which led him to being selected to tour the antipodes later that season.

In the series in 1989-90 in which Sachin Tendulkar and Waqar Younis made their Test debuts, Saeed Anwar scored 150 in a side match, which ensured he would tour Australia a few months later (where he scored his first ODI hundred). Anwar's debut had come earlier in 1989, after he had scored a hundred in a side match against the touring Australians in late 1988.

Meanwhile Saqlain Mushtaq's international debut came within a week of him taking 7 for 77 against the touring Sri Lankan team. Most recently, Mohammad Asif's comeback in 2006 was facilitated by him taking ten wickets against the Ashes-winning England team when they toured Pakistan in late 2005.

Almost every past cricketer can talk about excelling in one of these side matches to prove himself. Right now, this avenue does not exist. Umar Akmal, Haris Sohail or Fawad Alam cannot get into the Test team - all they can do is excel in the domestic game; which, if you look at their numbers, isn't enough.

Likewise Umar Amin will have just the one match for the A team to bridge the gap between Levels 1 and 4, after being away from Test cricket for over three years.

What sort of a bowler would Ajmal be, bowling at the Iqbal Stadium in front of a crowd of 20,000, bowling on a pitch that he knows like the back of his hand?

Last week Ahmer Naqvi wrote about how Pakistan has failed to develop talent over the past decade - an era in which, with the exception of the period between 2003 and 2006, Pakistan have rarely played international cricket at home. This absence of cricket in Levels 2 and 3, I believe, has affected the development of Pakistan's Lost Generation. It isn't a surprise that Pakistan's best period in all formats in this century coincided with them playing at home regularly. Akmal, Shoaib Malik, Umar Gul, and even Imran Farhat, provided false dawns in that era, usually with performances in Pakistan.

Some of you might argue how playing in the UAE must be pretty much the same as playing in Pakistan. Except, a Pakistani player can use a phrase such as "a typical Haji Basheer pitch" - Basheer being the curator at Gaddafi - and expect fans at home to understand what it means: how deceptive it is in the mornings, how it deteriorates over time, how it acts through each session. No matter how similar a pitch in the Emirates is to those at Gaddafi or Iqbal Stadium, somehow it wouldn't feel the same to Saeed Ajmal, who has bowled on the latter two grounds consistently for a decade or so.

Early this summer I interviewed Dav Whatmore, who too complained about the lack of international cricket. The analogy he presented was how being in UAE is like being in a house that looks exactly like your own, but this doesn't make it your home.

And lastly there's the most obvious factor.

Last month I was at the Asian Football Confederation Under-16 Championship qualifiers (because in a country so devoid of international sport, things that used to be ignored now matter) and through each of Pakistan's games it was apparent that the reason they played their best football in the first ten minutes of each half was that this was the only time the crowd was in full voice. Even accepting the caveat that comparing 16-year-old kids with international cricketers in handling the pressure of a packed stadium is a bit unfair, one does begin to wonder what might have been. What sort of a bowler would Ajmal be, bowling at the Iqbal Stadium (where he has never played international cricket) in front of a crowd of 20,000, nearly every one of whom considers him the messiah - the personification of all that is Faisalabad - bowling on a pitch that he knows like the back of his hand?

It's odd that four of the nine players in Pakistani history who average over 40 away from home are active (while the other five are legends: Hanif Mohammad, Javed Miandad, Anwar, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Yousuf) in an era when we say that this is the worst Pakistani batting line-up ever. Even taking into account that averages in this century are inflated compared to the past, that table is revealing.

Alas, we can't ignore performances away from home because that is all these players are ever going to be judged on.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Syed on October 14, 2013, 13:39 GMT

    Pakistan has missed the great opportunity that presented itself from this semi isolation they are facing for last 12 years. That is to develop something of their own and become self sufficient, that is where the future is going, the other countries who are very busy in international bilateral cricket have worked to make it irrelevant, India no longer depends on teams visiting them. Pakistan should have done the same thing.. granted that the money would be 10% of what India is generating but it would have been enough for Pakistan and more so keep us ready to grow into something more substantial when the conditions are right.

    From talent developement Pakistan is mainly lacking in level 0.5 from your level scales, that is very active club cricket with neighborhoods involvement. The success of sporting body is how large of a population is actively involve in sports, international success is secondary and will come and go.

  • Faisal on October 14, 2013, 13:07 GMT

    Good article overall. But to blame Pakistan's decline in performance almost solely on lack of international cricket at home is a bit lopsided. As important as that element might be, one must remember the case of South Africa, who were also denied international cricket (barring a few "rebel tours") BOTH at home and abroad; yet they retained the standard as was evident when they returned to international cricket. That was because they kept a highly competitive domestic structure: something that is atrociously poor in Pakistan.

  • srikanthan on October 14, 2013, 11:54 GMT

    I really don;t know why people think that Umal Akmal is not Test class. Sure he has slided down badly and had got embroiled in petty politics involving his brother ( reportedly, not sure whether it is true) but when he started against NZ few years back , I thought he was a talent in the Inzi class. He looked very good, in fact very very good against the pacers of NZ in NZ . May be his losing out is self inflicted but I always thought he was great a talent which just required a slight nudge and the advise to succeed at the highest level after all he was very young when he started.

  • Ibrar on October 14, 2013, 5:58 GMT

    Umar Akmal has wasted so many chances in test cricket, needs to perform in domestic level to get into the team.

  • Prasanna on October 14, 2013, 5:25 GMT

    I could not infer any conclusion from your passage, sorry!

  • Dummy4 on October 14, 2013, 2:01 GMT

    Umar Akmal is definitely the most talented batsmen pakistan has produced in teh last decade, he should be playing test cricket. As for Fawad Alam yes there are no guarantee's that he will succeed at test level but he should be given a shot since he has the best average in domestic cricket for quite some time now.

  • Dummy4 on October 13, 2013, 15:51 GMT

    Umar Akmal's exclusion and ignoring fawad alam is really not understandable. If criteria of selecting players is domestic then certainly these 2 will be in along with akbar or haris instead of Shan or umar amin. I dont know how selectors reached the decision that Shan ( avg 33 in 1st class ) is best openers . where in list of domestic openers he is way down.

    and how did they reached the decision that umar amin is a solution to all problems and future captain? Both may be talented but at least there should be something to prove these claims. When you look at domestic stats, it looks totally different.