August 27, 2014

All hail the new, macho Fawad Alam

He had phenomenal numbers before he sprouted luxuriant facial hair, but it seems Pakistanis have started to take him seriously only now

Fawad Alam: alpha male © AFP

One of the less celebrated aspects of Will Ferrell movies is the lampooning of ideas of masculinity. The characters he plays are often large, simple alpha males struggling to come to terms with a world where their conventional brawn and bluster are not of much use, and where they have to come to terms with navigating those curious things called feelings.

Yet in a time where very few men have to go out to hunt for their family's dinner, idealised versions of masculinity aren't quite dead. The recent trend of full beards becoming fashionable could perhaps be a way of reclaiming an idealised notion in a society where ideas of gender are constantly being shown up.

I should know. A combination of a round face, baby fat that was actually just normal fat, and a chin weaker than India's batting in away conditions, all meant that the ability to grow some hair to cover and contour my face was a much-awaited relief. The presence of a beard in this day and age is a way of fooling people into crediting you with attributes you don't necessarily possess, but the presence of which might help them take you more seriously.

It has certainly helped the case of Fawad Alam. Images from his recent matches on his ESPNcricinfo page repeatedly show Samson-like hair glowing in the sun and a bandit moustache glowering on his face. Take your search to Google Images and you will find Fawad on the garish sets of various Pakistani morning shows, where he's inevitably wearing a razor-sharp vest, has his hair slicked back and the tips of his moustache curled to a point. It all exudes an abundance of Y chromosomes.

But what caused Fawad to make these changes? I doubt they were part of a conscious strategy, but the new look comes across as perhaps a last throw of the dice to try to change how terribly he has been treated. Because the one thing that hasn't changed about Fawad are his mind-blowing numbers whenever and wherever he bats.

Even after accounting for the madcap tragedy of the Pakistan cricket administration's decisions, the story of Fawad is truly outrageous. Let's begin with his ODI appearances, where he started off being played so low down the order that he batted in only half of his first 28 matches, but still averaged 42. He then was part of the team that toured England and Australia and played South Africa in UAE. He averaged 39 abroad and 35.7 against South Africa, scoring fifties against each side. Yet after all this, he didn't play again for four years.

In Tests he became the first Pakistani to score a century on debut away from home, yet he only ever played four more innings for Pakistan. He was dropped two Tests after his hundred, his last being a match in New Zealand in which he outscored a man who would be retained for another 11 Tests, Imran Farhat. Despite averaging 42 in an age of a Pakistani batting famine, Fawad has never been selected for the Test side again.

Indeed, his last international appearances for Pakistan before this year were in a smattering of T20s, where he invariably batted too low down to matter. That was in 2010, and around that time, a blog was published on a Pakistani newspaper site calling for his inclusion in the Test side. The comments on that post highlighted how Pakistani society judges Fawad. Despite his stellar numbers, one person said: "People with little technical knowledge of cricket could easily identify his weaknesses." Another argued that "his sheer presence at the crease was demoralising for one and all, including his fellow team-mates, who like the viewers must have been left wondering about the kid stuff he had on offer." His body frame, technique and body language were relentlessly attacked in the 200-plus comments, and one person went so far as to paraphrase a number of quotes from the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and apply them to Fawad.

An absolutely disastrous four years for Pakistani cricket after that incident saw the team's batting regress. Eventually Fawad was called back and his return to the ODI side saw him play a leading part in two chases that went at over six runs an over (something the team hadn't done in three years) and scoring a hundred in between in the Asia Cup final. Yet when an Osman Samiuddin article celebrating his exploits was published after the tournament, the majority of comments on it implied that everyone seemed to have known of Fawad's potential all along.

As someone who has used facial hair in order to be taken more seriously, I know quite well that Fawad's acceptance has been predicated on something as ridiculous as his now-ample whiskers. After all, his numbers have been just as phenomenal as before, while his technique hasn't deviated from its unorthodoxy. He is just as valuable an addition to the team now as he was back then. Yet almost a decade of his career was wasted because he seemingly didn't fit an imaginary ideal of what a Pakistani player should look like - though all those who look like they fit the bill have been absolutely terrible.

And even with the beard and moustache, I fear Fawad's redemption might not yet come. Even though he has been piling up the runs, he has never been judged by them. Instead, unless he loads up on steroids and starts wearing the skins of animals he has hunted with his bare hands, he could still end up being discarded for a batsman who doesn't know where his stumps are but has wide shoulders.

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