September 19, 2015

Peshawar's smart Pathan boys are challenging conventions

They may not get a franchise to themselves, but they have shown through teamwork, discipline and an unorthodox coach that Pakistan's new T20 league needs them

Band of brothers: Peshawar's success owes a lot to the fact that their players play for each other © AFP

The Pakistan Super League (PSL) looms over everything in Pakistani cricket right now, and the domestic season has become an audition for the draft that is likely to take place at the end of the year.

The identity of the franchises has been a surprise - the five teams are likely to represent the four provincial capitals and the federal capital: Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar, Quetta and Islamabad. From a purely political viewpoint that makes sense, especially in a country where all provinces are equal, though some are more equal than others. But for Sialkot and Faisalabad, that stings. They are two industrial hubs sure to have the sort of private backers who could finance a franchise, and they have been the two teams that have dominated the domestic T20 scene in Pakistan - Sialkot far more than Faisalabad. And while Faisalabad's Hollywood boys are in interminable decline, Sialkot have rebounded over the last year or so to once again become one of the top teams in the country. With its sports-industrial complex, which defines the city, Sialkot ought to be Pakistan's sporting capital. They have been the team to beat over most of the past decade.

But that is beginning to change. Sialkot are no longer the team to beat, and nor are the star-studded Karachi and Lahore line-ups. That honour goes to a team that looks deceptively average on paper.

Over the past fortnight Peshawar defended their title as the domestic T20 champions.

Thirty-eight-year-old Rafatullah Mohmand has been consistently scoring runs for Peshawar in limited-overs cricket © AFP

In a competition where several teams had a half-dozen or so internationals, Peshawar, with all of two (Mohammad Rizwan and Imran Khan), were seen as a team that couldn't possibly win for the second consecutive time. Many felt they fluked their way to the title last year, helped by the fact that the tournament coincided with Lahore Lions' run in the Champions League T20. Now those claims have been laid to rest.

What separates them from the rest? Why do they continue to succeed despite not having the sort of talent the other teams do? The answers to these questions seem to define Pakistani cricketing orthodoxy.

Peshawar are one of the few teams devoid of massive egos, a team that plays for each other, a team with the sort of discipline and fearlessness the national side would be proud to have, a team whose players, despite their lack of natural athletic ability, throw themselves around on substandard Pakistani grounds in a manner that should be considered suicidal. On TV shows, in print and online they are usually described as having that intangible band-of-brothers feel. This was perhaps best captured by what happened right before their final against Karachi Blues on Tuesday. The team offered a congregational prayer, led by their coach, Abdul Rehman. But instead of praying for their own success, each player was told by the coach to pray for the success of the man next to him. This all-for-one, one-for-all attitude also made them the neutral fan's favourite as the tournament progressed.

One quote from Rehman perhaps best illustrates the difference between the public perception of his team and reality: "I keep telling my boys, 'Yeh sab tumhe bewaqoof Pathan samajhte rahenge aur tum inhe planning se haraate rehna [Everyone will continue to think you are "stupid Pathans" and you'll keep beating them with better planning']." Behind the Pathan caricature exists a group that can easily be considered the smartest T20 team in the country.

Imran Khan earned a national call-up after taking 16 wickets at 12.12 in seven T20 matches this season © AFP

Rehman, a famously humble and straightforward man, who has never succeeded in the PCB due to his inability to be a yes-man, is the living embodiment of this idea. With his Sharia-compliant beard he looks like the sort of person who would be stuck behind the times, rather than being the progressive flag-bearer that he is. Behind his appearance is one of the sharpest minds in Pakistani cricket - the sort of mind that even instructs commentators to modernise their orthodox ideas: Why is taking a single after hitting a six "excellent cricket"? Surely in modern cricket, if you are in hitting form you should continue to attack?

Rehman does not believe in conventional thinking. "People get hung up over required run rates, especially in T20s. I tell my players to just look at the difference between runs required and balls left. If the difference is 30 with seven or eight overs to go, should it really be a problem? It's just five sixes you have to hit, after all?" In fact, nothing explains his success quite like his reliance on cricketers who can think. "You see, T20 is all about instinct and reacting to the situation and moulding it to your pre-formed plan. And the only way you can react to a changing situation is if you have something upstairs," he says.

The coach's influence is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that in a country where the idea of chasing is scary and having runs on the board is sacred, Peshawar have now won their last 13 matches in which they had to bat second.

Rehman's ideas carry weight because he has had success across all formats, including as the coach of the Pakistan A team that beat Australia last year. And that is borne out by the fact that in answer to every question you ask, the Peshawar players quote their coach.

Of course, as Rehman admits, all his theories would be for nought if he didn't have the group he has. And despite the contributions of the international duo, Iftikhar Ahmed, their highest scorer in the competition, and the bowlers, the trio that defines this Peshawar team is an unlikely lot.

Coach Abdul Rehman: "T20 is all about instinct and reacting to the situation and moulding it to your pre-formed plan. And the only way you can react to a changing situation is if you have something upstairs" © AFP

First, there is 38-year-old Rafatullah Mohmand - a man who has done everything a decade too late. Over the past three years he's consistently been one of the best batsmen in the national one-day championship, the opening fire starter for a twice-champion T20 team, and one of the finest fielders in the country. And in Rizwan, he'll leave behind a protégé worthy of his legacy.

Then there's Zohaib Khan. In a tournament where each of the other 11 teams was led by international players, Peshawar and Rehman stuck by Zohaib, for he is the true leader of the side - a naturally fiery character who has to become the iceman for the sake of a team that lives on the edge. On paper, he's a bowling allrounder employed to dry up the runs in the middle overs, but a more accurate description might be that he is a captaining allrounder. In a tournament where Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq, Shoaib Malik, Sarfraz Ahmed and Azhar Ali all led their sides, Zohaib's on-field captaincy and innovative field settings set him far apart from the rest.

But the final word has to be reserved for left-arm seamer Imran Khan. A native of Swat (famous only for its stunning natural beauty and the beastly nature of what it did to Malala Yousafzai) he's hardly two years removed from being just another club cricketer plucked out of obscurity by Rehman. In fact, he is yet to play a List A or first-class match. On paper he is a poor man's Jade Dernbach, but much like everyone else under Rehman's tutelage, Imran's greatest attribute is what exists between his ears. And the result is that having just finished as the leading wicket-taker in the competition he has been selected for the national T20 side for the tour to Zimbabwe.

So at least one Peshawar player is getting what the team deserves. Come the PSL that number should be a lot bigger. It seems nice guys don't always finish last.

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

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