October 8, 2015

Young Pakistan can find stability in anarchy

The domestic stars coming into the national set-up need to find a way to get over their initial form slumps and adapt to stay in the side

Imad Wasim is currently one of the best limited-overs spinners in Pakistan, and he can also bat © AFP

The end of monarchy leads to anarchy, or so they say. From the French to the Iranian revolutions, that has nearly always been the case, and Pakistan seems to be going through something similar right now. Alas not as far as the political sphere is concerned, but Pakistan cricket in the post-2015 World Cup era is all about individuals vying for vacant seats.

The departures of Shahid Afridi (only from ODIs) and Misbah-ul-Haq, the forced exclusion of Younis Khan, injuries to Haris Sohail and Sohaib Maqsood, and the support staff's issues with Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad, have all led to a new-look team - particularly the batting line-up - with no one guaranteed of their places. It's anarchy, but so far it seems to be working.

Apparently having a group of individuals that isn't complacent, and is in flow, seems to work. Pakistan have been aided by selections based not merely on career numbers but form too. The adage "form is temporary, class is permanent" makes for a nice sticker, but for products of the Pakistani domestic game, class has never really been attainable until they reach the highest level.

That's one way of looking at it; the other is to question everything we have seen over the past six months.

The teams Pakistan have played since the World Cup, with the possible generous exception of Bangladesh, haven't been anywhere near the top tier. Three series wins on the trot sounds good, until you look at the opposition, especially the bowling attacks Pakistan have faced.

In many ways it's more of the same. The concerns of the Asian fan are always whether or not his lot are mere bullies or something grander. Shoaib Malik may be having a year for the ages but he has yet to be asked any of the questions that kept him out of the national set-up for so long. The likes of Aamer Yamin, Bilal Asif and Imad Wasim have been impressive thus far, but have they really faced a wicket or an opponent of a different level than they are used to in the domestic game?

Like many debutants, Sohaib Maqsood started out strong before struggling to find the runs © Getty Images

What we are seeing right now is a group of players high on confidence, form and rhythm taking on challenges they already know the answers to. In the domestic T20 tournament Mohammad Rizwan played match-winning innings in both the semi-final and final; Yamin was the hero with the ball in one match, and so nearly the hero with the bat in another; and Asif was the outstanding allrounder in the tournament. What they have done recently has just been a continuation of what they do at their best.

Perhaps no one better encapsulates this than left-arm spinner Wasim, who, from the A team's tour to Sri Lanka to the Zimbabwe tour via the senior team's tour to Sri Lanka and the domestic T20s, has emerged as probably the finest limited-overs slow bowler in the country. He may not have the razzmatazz of somebody like Yasir Shah, but in style, and due to the fact that until recently he was considered just a batsman who could bowl a bit, he's very much a mirror version of Mohammad Hafeez. And he is developing into exactly the sort of bowler Pakistan have missed over the past 18 months or so.

The concern for Pakistani fans, though, stems from the fact that they have seen this all before. The bright young thing is as Pakistani as setting fire to your cities for something that happened thousands of miles away. Akmal started his career with a hundred and a fifty in his first three ODIs. Since then he has scored one hundred in 108 ODIs, and hasn't scored a Test hundred since his debut. Maqsood started off with three fifties in his first six ODI innings; he has scored two in 18 since then. Ahmer Naqvi waxed lyrical about fast bowlers Bilawal Bhatti and Anwar Ali's Test debuts, but within a year they were on the fringes of the national team.

Unlike earlier Pakistan sides, troubled by politics and strife, this bunch can build a strong team if some of the players become more consistent © AFP

The real test, it seems, comes when you lose your initial form and opposition teams start to work you out - how you deal with that has been the biggest question Pakistani cricketers have been faced with in recent years. A test they have repeatedly failed. After all, Nasir Jamshed won the PCB Award for the ODI player of the year for 2012.

The return to a decrepit first-class system and an inability to adapt have been the problems for the current generation. They get brickbats and abuse and are termed as failures.

What Pakistan do have today, unlike in the past, is stable ground to build upon. Azhar Ali may not be a particularly good on-field captain yet but with his bat he has done enough to erase most doubts. His deputy Sarfraz Ahmed and he could develop into a (very) poor man's version of Imran and Javed or Inzamam and Younis. Pakistan have avoided the anarchy that followed the 1992 World Cup (when they had five different captains in the space of two years) or the 2007 World Cup (when Malik, appointed captain over Mohammad Yousuf after the heir-apparent Younis rejected the post, began to alienate all the senior players), but it's time to build on that. In a sense, Pakistan have been in constant transition for pretty much the last 15 years - rumoured mutinies, captains without complete backing, and a generation or two of players whose careers seem like a homage to Icarus have led the team to this juncture. Surely it's time to move beyond that.

But the problem with moving forward is that someone will have to step up and start being consistent after his first 12 months or so in international cricket. And Pakistanis will have to accept that captains aren't perfect. What Pakistan need is more Misbahs and Younises and fewer careers that go the way nearly every single one has gone for all debutants in the past five years.

Alas there doesn't seem to be any middle ground between monarchy and anarchy.

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