January 8, 2013

Zaka and Qasim's diplomatic coup

Their victories in India may have set the ball rolling for future bilaterals between the teams, but Pakistan's selection worries remain ahead of the South Africa tour

Being chief selector of Pakistan is a thankless job at the best of times, but in the build-up to a series with India it is almost impossibly so. Last month, when Iqbal Qasim sat down to finalise the two squads for the T20 and ODI clashes in India that were to straddle the New Year, he knew he couldn't win. If the team did poorly, he would be spared no blame, and if it did well, then he would remain unacknowledged while the entire nation rejoiced. Thanklessness didn't even begin to describe it.

When PCB chairman Zaka Ashraf was trying to make this India series a reality earlier last year, he found himself trapped in a similar bind. Thanklessness is not a concept typically associated with the position of the PCB chief, who tends to be feted and celebrated for anything even remotely positive in Pakistan cricket. Yet in the days when Ashraf was building up the courage to start lobbying his BCCI counterpart, N Srinivasan, he was mindful that even his best efforts might go unrewarded. His biggest immediate goal was successful negotiation with the BCCI, which would be nothing short of a heroic victory given the tense geopolitical climate in South Asia. But it would remain unappreciated if the team did poorly in India.

In their own distinctive ways, Ashraf and Qasim put their heads down and concentrated on the immediate task at hand. Both found success, but their styles were different. Ashraf possesses a shrewd and clever brain, but he hides it well behind a disarmingly mild, humble and soft-spoken manner.

His strategy, it has been learnt, was to invade Srinivasan's personal space during the ICC annual forum in the hopes of triggering a conversation and a breaking of the ice. Ashraf had nothing to bargain with but he realised that, deployed properly, this could be a bargaining chip in itself. He started out with some cosmetic demands - neutral venues, revenue-sharing, and the like - but yielded easily on them. A general thawing of India-Pakistan relations was the catalyst, but in the end the tour came about because Pakistan asked for nothing other than simply the opportunity to play.

Pakistan's two captains, Mohammad Hafeez and Misbah-ul-Haq, had their own burdens to worry about. India were a formidable outfit, Indian crowds tend to be massive and partisan, and India's extensive print and broadcast media can play tricks with your head. On top of that, Pakistan were entering the series as a nomadic and stigmatised team with a stature far diminished from that of the previous Pakistan sides to have visited India.

Perhaps worst of all, Pakistan's recent limited-overs form had been mediocre. They were ranked sixth in both Twenty20s and ODIs, while India were on a significantly higher perch. Pakistan's batting and wicketkeeping was a shambles, the team had never been known for its fielding, and the spin bowling of Saeed Ajmal and Hafeez was the only real threat. Among the seamers, Umar Gul was erratic, Junaid Khan had been around for a couple of years but hadn't built a reputation, and hardly anyone had heard of Mohammad Irfan.

That Pakistan had come prepared to fight was evident soon after they took the field in the opening T20, in Bangalore on Christmas Day. India were racing off with a productive opening partnership but Pakistan's body language continued to be incredibly sharp and aggressive. They lunged, leapt, charged and pounced with athleticism and accuracy. But for the green kit, you couldn't tell it was Pakistan.

What does one do with Umar Akmal, for example? Or, for that matter, Shoaib Malik? Is Kamran Akmal still the best wicketkeeping option? Will Irfan's seven-foot frame withstand the rigours of Test cricket?

A few days before departing for India, Hafeez and Misbah were interviewed together on a local TV channel. Asked about the negative circumstances surrounding Pakistan cricket, Hafeez replied that while the team had been through great difficulties, this had also made them hungry to win and prove themselves to the world. Misbah concurred. After seeing Pakistan in the field in Bangalore, you could tell that both captains had truly meant it.

Fans are ruing the embarrassing defeat in the final ODI, but it is hard not to see the tour as a spectacular success for Pakistan overall. There is the sheer audacity of overcoming India's ODI side in India, and though the T20 rubber was split 1-1, Pakistan competed well even in defeat.

The real gain for Pakistan has been the rise of young individuals. Nasir Jamshed was castled for 2 in the opening game, but thereafter he shut his critics up with scores of 41, 101 not out, 106, and 34. As for the seam-and-swing combination of Junaid and Irfan, they had plainly been underestimated by India and proved the ultimate difference between the two sides.

For Ashraf and the PCB, this tour could not have turned out any better. Pakistan pocketed the ODI series but it ended on a winning note for the hosts, which bolsters the credentials of the arrangement. The T20 honours were shared, with something in it for everyone. This tour may not advance Ashraf's proclaimed vision of restoring international cricket to Pakistani soil, but it does nicely pave the way for a Test series with India in the months ahead. That too would be a brilliant coup.

The trip to India provided some comforting answers, but raised some uncomfortable questions too. What does one do with Umar Akmal, for example? Or, for that matter, Shoaib Malik? Is Kamran Akmal still the best wicketkeeping option, despite his horrible batting failures in India? Will Irfan's seven-foot frame withstand the rigours of Test cricket? And what about the bench? Do you stick with untried youngsters like Haris Sohail, Anwar Ali, Asad Ali, and Zulfiqar Babar, who were sent to India but didn't get a game, or do you bring in someone new? There are no perfect answers, but decisions will have to be made. Thanklessness doesn't even begin to describe it.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on January 10, 2013, 2:12 GMT

    Umar should be rested for at least a year. guys like him promote immaturity and affect discipline

  • Avais on January 10, 2013, 1:50 GMT

    Umar Akmal, is unlucky to have a negative captain with him in ODI, Misbah. I'm sure Misbah forced Umar to play a pathetically slow inning like him in last ODI. Umar is not ready for test yet but should not be dropped from limited over format, yet. Misbah is a real problem, he actively participates in losing ODIs, should be discarded. Asad Shafiq, deserves a permanent spot in middle order in ODI and tests now and time to through talented new comers Haaris and Umar Amin in deep now to face the nest fast bowling combination in SA. Wahab Riaz, due to his pace and supreme fitness, should be in tests agains SA, hope he had learnt to bring the ball in for right handers, which he has been lacking.

  • Avais on January 10, 2013, 1:36 GMT

    Not many people would have remember the background of Salim Malik's Calcutta innings. Malik, until then was going through a bad patch, even prior to the tour. Just before the Calcutta ODI, he was announced to leave the touring party due to poor form and supposed to lead a Pak A team to Zimbabwe ( or Kenya ? ) to regain some form. Malik was very disappointed and was visibly angry at the start of that match and poor Kapil Dev became his victim. After his heroic knock, everything changed, Malik was kept in the touring party and from then onward, hit a purple patch for some time. It was the most important inning of Malik's career.

  • Dummy4 on January 10, 2013, 0:05 GMT

    There should be no questions about Akmal Brothers. Without doubt, Kamran Akmal is the worst wicketkeeper in the History of Pakistan. Yes worse than Moin Khan, who at least got us the WC 92, not lost WC 2011. As for Umar Akmal, his attitude is worse than his batting and there are more talented players like Haris Sohail who deserve the chance.

  • Mani on January 9, 2013, 19:02 GMT

    The Akmal bros. must go. Kamran has lost many a series and matches for Pakistan and destroyed promising careers of talented bowlers. Consequently they were dropped yet he retained his spot. Umar has faked injuries and the bubble surrounding his hype has burst... a more deserving middle order batsman's potential is being wasted. Both brothers have serious questions over their characters as well. Their selection brings a bad omen to the green kits.

  • Dummy4 on January 9, 2013, 11:19 GMT

    Excellent Usman ! Brilliently crafted Artical, way to go. As far as Umar Akmal is concern, he sould be sent back to domestic Cricket, where he can remember and learn some of the very basics of Cricket. He is way too away from some of the basics which are required for a professional cricketer at that level. Shoiab Malik deserve a place for some time if he still continues to play like the way he did in India. Finally PCB need to find a proper Wicket Keeper who can bat aswell, i know there is a lot of wicker keeping talent in Pakistan just like Bowling talent.

  • Raad on January 9, 2013, 7:10 GMT

    SA suggestions: T. Umar & A. Ali as openers, then Younis, Hafeez, Misbah & A. Shafiq, A. Akmal, Umar Gul, Saeed Ajmal, Anwar Ali/Wahab Riaz & J. Khan. Mohammad Hafeez to be demoted to #4, because just like Watson, he struggles against quality attacks with new ball. If Taufeeq also struggles, replace him with Jamshed, although Jamshed needs to adjust to Test matches (footwork, fitness), and this tour might not be the best for his introduction. M. Irfan cannot bowl in Test conditions I've heard, so Wahab Riaz should bowl, and if he fails in 2 matches, the third one Anwar Ali should be trialled. No more Cheema or other failed experiments. Rehman is banned anyways, so no selection dilemma there.

  • Bobby on January 9, 2013, 4:37 GMT

    Shouldas-Wouldas-Couldas: I agree with you that Pak should have shared some financial rewards out of this tour, but look at this way. A board is as strong as their team display on field.Now Pakistan has beaten India in India and that is a reward itself. Pakistani players are in some cases even more popular in India than Indian players. The B'desh tour saga is a farce! I do not believe Zaka did anything wrong except that PCB needs to end that farce. B'desh board has backtracked on written comittment so what can you really do?Good to see youGetSetGoPak: Did you enjoy Pak win :). I fully agree that K.Akmal got to go mate! He dropped a catch in 3rd ODI and cost Pakistan 6 runs. At end those runs made a difference! Kamran almost cost Pak first T20, he failed in second. He did not bat in first ODI and cost Pak another 20-30 runs in second ODI...in third, he again failed! and other Akmal cost Pak third ODI. Asad Shafiq is Pak's bets young batsman!I must also mention Khurram Manzoor!Brilliant!

  • Amjad on January 9, 2013, 3:12 GMT

    Its high time we look beyond the Akmal brothers. These guys lack temperament, genetically, there is absolutely no other explanation for that. Kamran's wicket keeping has improved but you'll never know when he will be back to his old ways and again cost us a series with his poor wicket keeping only. Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq, Haris Sohail and Ramiz Raja Jnr should now be given an extended run. I'm sure they will do better than Umar Akmal. Also Sadaf Hussain should now be given a chance instead of Umar Gul. Gul has had a fairly long and uninterrupted run and with varying degree of success but we need real strike bowlers who can dent the top order in the initial burst. That sets up the game nicely and very easily for the spinners, Ajmal and Hafeez.