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