January 19, 2014

What's wrong with being a bully at home?

Asian batsmen only get recognition when they do well in the "foreign" conditions of Australia, England, South Africa and New Zealand. The reverse rarely applies

Mohammad Yousuf averages 54.33 in England but that number is explained away as a one-series wonder © Associated Press

At a recent wedding in Lahore, the talk turned to cricket - because there are only a handful of subjects that Pakistanis of a certain age, class and gender can discuss at a formal gathering, and cricket tops that list (society, or rather the messed-up state of the nation as shown by anecdotal evidence, is a clear runner-up in such a list).

The subject at hand was Sharjeel Khan, who had made his international debut in December. The almost unanimous verdict was that Sharjeel just wasn't good enough for international cricket, as his technique wasn't up to scratch. Later, watching him in an ODI against Sri Lanka, I wondered whether that accepted verdict, which I fully endorsed, was unkind to him. So what if he didn't seem technically adept and would eventually be "found out"? Why does that matter? With Pakistan playing nearly all of their bilateral cricket over the next three years in familiar environs, wouldn't they be better off with a flat-track bully than waiting around for a technically perfect player who may not exist?

It is a point of view that anyone who has encountered the Asian fan (particularly on Twitter) will be aware of: the Asian player, particularly a batsman, is not any good until he scores runs in Australia, New Zealand, England or South Africa. Why the Asian player has to go beyond the call of duty to be appreciated is a little confusing.

The examples are endless. Mahela Jayawardene is considered a bully at home and Mohammad Yousuf seemingly makes runs only on flat tracks (despite what he did in 2006). The Indian youngsters and greats have been "exposed" (always the appropriate word, it seems) repeatedly in foreign conditions. And when Cheteshwar Pujara scores heavily in South Africa, or Yousuf dominates in England then it was because the conditions in those series weren't "truly foreign"; because if they had been truly foreign these batsmen would have failed and been exposed.

The opposite equivalent is rarely acknowledged, though. The fact that Ricky Ponting averaged 26 in India is cast aside as an aberration rather than a mental or technical failing. If the roles were reversed and the best Indian batsman since the war had failed to perform in Australia, such a stat might be trotted out more. Similarly, the fact that the likes of Sehwag, Jayawardene, Misbah and Jayasuriya are and were near-invincible at home but average under 35 in Australia, New Zealand, England and South Africa put together is accepted as proof of their inadequacies, but rare is it to find a list that has players with sub-35 averages in Asia - a list that includes the likes of Mark Waugh, Justin Langer, Alec Stewart and Desmond Haynes. Quite simply, while it's a requirement for an Asian batsman, the non-Asian doesn't seem to have to go above and beyond the call of duty to be fully appreciated.

This would all be easier to understand if these parameters were applied across the board. If we are to assume that it's just easier to bat in Asian conditions then bowlers who are successful in Asia should be praised to the skies. Much is made of Shane Warne's poor record in India (averaging 43) but the same isn't done of Australia's quicks for that reason, I assume. Each of Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Rodney Hogg, Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson averaged over 40 in Asia - although in some cases the sample size is rather small. Basically, with the exception of Craig McDermott, who averages 37, the assembly line of scary, oft-'tached Australian howitzers is filled with bowlers who rarely succeeded in Asia. (Merv Hughes never played a Test in Asia.)

If one is to disparage Asian batsmen for being good only in familiar conditions, surely the same should be done to these Australians? And it's not as if fast bowlers don't succeed in unfamiliar conditions. Allan Donald and Dale Steyn average under 25 in Asia. Imran Khan averaged under 30 everywhere he played. Wasim Akram averaged 39 in two Tests in South Africa and under 29 everywhere else. Malcolm Marshall averaged 32 in New Zealand in one series and under 25 everywhere else. And Joel Garner averaged under 26 wherever he played. It's almost as if Australian fast bowlers who dig it in short on a consistent basis require conditions suited to home, where bowling it short is a successful strategy, mollycoddled by an environment where adaptability isn't a necessity - as it would be for bowling on dustbowls in Pakistan. Of course, no one questions whether they need to revamp their system to create more adaptable bowlers, as they would do with Asian batsmen. But I digress.

The blame for these double standards, usually and obviously, seems to lie with the narrative builders - the players and journalists of these countries. Except, that is entirely unfair. Their teams over the past two decades, from Steve Waugh's to Graeme Smith's, have actively placed value and importance on winning in Asia. It is seen as a final frontier, and it is expected and accepted that they won't have reached the top of the mountain till they have conquered Asia.

Similarly the narrative builders, at least those on the web, aren't dismissive of Delhi Belly and dustbowls like their predecessors might have been. The reverence towards Sehwag, for instance, is the perfect embodiment of this change in attitude. Thus it's fair to conclude that this need among Asian fans and pundits for their players to succeed where their predecessors might have failed is not an imposed philosophy. One could almost say, if one was being terribly harsh, that this comes from a post-colonial inferiority complex. But I'll let the experts and social scientists debate that.

India have lost two home Test series since 2000; Pakistan haven't lost a "home" series since 2007 (the longest active unbeaten run); Sri Lanka have lost just two home series in the past decade. These facts should not be swept under a carpet as if they weren't worthy of any praise. Perhaps making your home a fortress is an achievement in itself. Perhaps Sharjeel, like David Warner, can carve a career out of bashing people at home. Perhaps, in such a case, he would get the unqualified praise that Warner gets. Perhaps judging players across countries should be done with consistent parameters. But perhaps that is too much to ask for.

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