Return of the prodigal
Incredulously, given Pakistan's not unjust reputation for wanton squandering of talent, Hasan Raza is still around. Nine years after a debut so ludicrously early it could only be in Pakistan, seven years after a failed solitary Test recall against Zimbabwe and three years after twin acts of futile (for his career and the match) defiance against a legendary Australian attack in even more legendary Sharjah heat, he is still there. Somehow, as he prepares to take on England in only his sixth Test in nine years, his story is not typically Pakistani for he is one who didn't slip through the net.
If we take it for granted that he always had the talent, then we should absorb and admire, at least, a dogmatic refusal to become another Pakistan statistic. "I was frustrated at being dropped repeatedly. In Pakistan, once you're out, it becomes very difficult to come back. But it depends entirely on how mentally strong you are. I believe in myself fully. Players in Pakistan often tend to lose hope but you can't give up so easily. I looked at myself, worked on my game and kept motivating myself throughout to get back."
In hindsight, we should have recognized the cussedness immediately and celebrated it more readily. However old he was on his debut - and some reckon he was a couple of years over 14 - here was a boy, wispy moustache uncertainly announcing gradual transition to manhood, playing a game that has taxed the sagest of heads. Just consider that when he made 27 in his first international innings, it was only his third first-class game ever. He wasn't ready and he knows it.
"I didn't really have any experience at all. I was very surprised. My goal was to play at the U-15 World Cup that year first and then eventually for Pakistan. But so early I just couldn't believe it."
Till then, he had been playing the game for barely six years, most of which involved the intrinsically Pakistani version of bat, taped ball and traffic-infested streets - in his case, those of Karachi. The orthodox streak in his batting is also a peculiarly local manifestation: it is tutored, he says, by his cousin who was also a first-class cricketer but it is faux-coaching at best. Mostly, he reluctantly admits, it is self-taught.
Having played for the Government Boys School in Karachi, an ad for Pakistan's U-15 World Cup trials in 1996 prompted him to try his hand at organised cricket. "I tried out for Karachi U-19 teams, got a chance and scored nine hundreds in the city's zonal league." He broke the record, incidentally of Basit Ali, one of the city's greatest `what-could-have-beens'. He got selected for the U-15 World Cup side, scored two fifties and an 84 in the lost final against India. Later that year, having impressed continuously at U-19 level, he was picked for a warm-up game against Zimbabwe where he impressed national chief selector Zaheer Abbas enough to thrust him into the Test side. It really was as whirlwind as that.
Doggedly, he has clung on, imposing himself not only at domestic level but also on a succession of A tours. Although outside the team, he has consistently floated around it. Now, officially at 23, he adds another, potentially more substantial chapter to his tale. Around him and in him there is anticipation, cautiously assured but unmistakably positive. The coach and selectors talk glowingly of his maturity, of his arrival, belatedly, as a Test batsman. Last year, as Pakistan floundered in Australia, Steve Waugh remembering his two fifties in Sharjah, asked why Raza wasn't in the team.
This year, he has been gathering momentum, scoring runs on A tours in front of Bob Woolmer and in situations threatening off and on the field. In a practice match in Peshawar last month, where Umar Gul had reduced a Pakistan XI to 31 for 7, he scored "the best century of my career," to save his side. The next day, while players were on the field, the earthquake that decimated much of north Pakistan struck. His unbeaten 71 against England for Pakistan A - as much a bonus as it was matchwinning - sealed it.
"I played against Flintoff and Harmison before. Their bowling has improved tremendously and it was tough because the match wasn't yet sealed. Flintoff, in particular, was very difficult, particularly his length which was difficult to deal with."
Several factors, Paulo Coelho would happily note, have conspired to bring him here. Last year he was appointed captain of his domestic team Habib Bank, a move designed seemingly to hasten maturity. "I feel my game has come together now. I am more mature as a player and after playing regularly domestically and on A tours - all those different conditions - I have learnt a lot." Off the field, marriage and its side-effects - "it has given me some discipline and routine in life,"- have fairly hurled adulthood onto him. Murmurs of his indiscipline a few years ago were greatly exaggerated: "I was late on to a team bus during the Sharjah Test and that branded me a little."
As a case study, Hasan Raza's experience reveals much about Pakistan's obsession with happening upon - and chancing - the rawest talent. The policy does have a chaotic charm about it: it makes for lovely features, profiles and stories. If it succeeds often enough - as it unfortunately has in Pakistan - it can, like the best drugs, become addictive. When it fails, as it also has often enough, little charm or beauty remains. Instead, rather like the best junkies, they are too often forgotten about. You sense that Raza might, refreshingly, buck that trend.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo