Asian View November 24, 2003

An improvement in standards: is it too much to ask?

Kamran Abbasi
Kamran Abbasi on the controversies of which have rocked Asian cricket this last week

Shahid Afridi: where is the evidence of his leadership qualities?
© Getty Images

Asian cricket reminded us of its worst side last week. India's cash for selection controversy, and Pakistan's selection and withdrawal of Junaid Zia, underline just how close Asian cricket sails to the gale-force wind of corruption.

None of this behaviour comes as any surprise, and without doubt affects every country in the region. Why should cricket be exempt from the ills of society at large? It is hard for it to be, but cricket is the highest profile activity in India and Pakistan. Is it too much to ask that cricket aspires to a higher standard?

Rashid Latif has been ranting and raving about Pakistan's selection policy - or lack of it. In a nutshell, Latif had serious disagreements with chief selector Aamer Sohail - who he accuses of pursuing a haphazard agenda -, was dismayed by Javed Miandad's lack of interest in selection policy, and is upset that the cricket board failed to support him.

Latif seriously questions the integrity of Pakistan's cricket administration. Many criticisms are true of Latif - his behaviour is attention-seeking, he is often imprudent in his allegations, his on-off career has become an irritation, and he is deluded that there can be no other Messiah than he - but that does not mean that there is no truth in what he has to say.

One criticism of the Pakistani system is that critics are accused of lack of patriotism. A hallmark of a mature society is that fair criticism is carefully considered, even learned from. Despite highs and lows, rants and rows in recent weeks, some part of every Pakistan cricket follower has hoped that the method in Sohail's erratic policies will one day strike us like a revelation. Instead, the recent selections achieve the opposite.

Take three examples. First is Junaid Zia, the chairman's son. Many observers have rightly pointed out that Junaid the cricketer should not be punished for an accident of birth, but then again the rest of us should not be punished for his accident of parentage. From what I have seen of Junaid (and I would never write about any aspect of a player's game unless I had witnessed it) he is a limited cricketer. In a country burgeoning with fast bowlers, a legacy of Imran Khan and the two Ws, I fail to understand how Sohail's committee can select a player whose speed often doesn't reach 80 mph, whose batting is unproven, and whose haircut, let's face it, is his most threatening feature.

What of Abdul Rauf, Pakistan's third-quickest bowler, according to Latif and other observers? At least Rauf has a domestic record to speak of. A cynic might argue that Sohail knows how to play the sifarish game familiar to Pakistanis - a game of nods and winks and unjustified favours, a game that cripples Pakistan's development beyond cricket. All you need do is attend a net session at one of Pakistan's cricket centres to appreciate that bowlers like Junaid Zia are two-a-penny.

Now Junaid's re-routing to the A team is without doubt a face-saving exercise - the second time that an embarrassed father has had to demote his son promoted beyond his abilities by Sohail. I don't understand how the A tour will help Junaid's revision? Those who know Pakistan's educational system realise that whether he takes his exams sooner or later will have little affect on his academic progress -- whatever that is.

Then we have the selection of Saleem Elahi. How can Elahi's selection have anything to do with rebuilding? Admittedly, Elahi is a fabulous player for the simple reason that he has made batting extraordinarily difficult. You will be lucky if you see the full face of Elahi's bat - unless you happen to be at backward point - since he has made an art of presenting his inside edge to the bowler. This technique will not make a great international player. It might make a flat-track bully, but even Elahi's bullying has been sporadic.

What possesses Pakistan's selectors to persevere with him is beyond comprehension? Even if Elahi destroys New Zealand, it will prove nothing about his overall ability. There are three, maybe four players, who deserved first team selection ahead of Elahi, and perhaps too Misbah ul Haq. A cynic might argue that Sohail sniffed the arrival of a weakened Kiwi team and gave his pet players another opportunity. A cynic might also argue that he banished his less favoured players to the hostility of an A tour to Kolkata. I am a cynic when it comes to Aamer Sohail's selection policy.

The final bafflement surrounds Shahid Afridi's selection as captain of Pakistan A. Wonderful though it is to see Afridi's sporadic form in South Africa recognised, it seems incredible that Afridi should be considered captaincy material. Where did that crackpot scheme come from? Where is the evidence of Afridi's leadership qualities? What too will Pakistan's selectors learn about Afridi and Imran Nazir on an A tour? These players need to show their temperament in the national team. And what has Faisal Iqbal - Pakistan's most recent A team captain - done to be demoted? An accident of birth can also work to your disadvantage.

Much of the remaining selection for both teams is good, which means that in terms of results Sohail is likely to come away smelling of roses. But here, as often, the devil is in the detail, and the details are the selections of Junaid Zia and Saleem Elahi, and Shahid Afridi's captaincy. Sohail should be ashamed of his machinations.

When I wrote recently about the danger in his conflict of interests - as commentator and chairman of selectors - I had an unprecedented response from Pakistan fans angry at the way he was carrying off his dual role. There is more anger at the selection of Junaid Zia. There is more anger at the selection of Saleem Elahi. There is laughter at Shahid Afridi's captaincy. Rashid Latif is not alone in questioning the integrity of Sohail and Zia - the two men who hold the whip in Pakistan cricket. But Aamer Sohail is alone at feeling no shame over his abuse of power. Tauqir Zia, at least, feels it as an afterthought.