August 16, 2010

There's more to Pakistan than Punjab and Karachi

Karachi may have a genuine gripe about being sidelined in terms of national selection at the moment - but that's how the rest of country has felt forever

A batsman from Karachi and a bowler from Punjab and that's your lot. For years this has been the truth of Pakistan cricket. On this has been built the Lahore-Karachi tale, a healthy, productive rivalry when times are good and a crippling divide when days are bad.

It has been around probably forever, though it first picked up some heat during the late 60s, when Karachi's Hanif Mohammad and Lahore's Saeed Ahmed (both born in pre-partition India incidentally) slugged it out for the captaincy. Not coincidentally, Pakistan was struggling.

Its most visible face came in the days of Imran Khan and Javed Miandad, days in which it became clear how much good and damage can be done by the tensions, egos, talents, friction and cooperation of two cities. They are actually two schools of thought. The roles are defined. The groans come from Karachi, where little excuse is needed to be a victim. Lahore simply carries on with the unconcern of the entitled.

The more Pakistan fails, the louder becomes this dispute. No one cares, after all, that the XI that won the 1992 World Cup final had nine players from Punjab (five from Lahore, but Karachiites will lump all of Punjab together to strengthen their case) and two from Karachi. The break-up of the XI that drew with West Indies in 1987-88 was usually of seven players from Punjab and four from Karachi.

Bad times are at hand again and so Karachi's belated outburst about the selection of the Test squad for the tour to England. Fourteen members of the 17-man squad are from Punjab, eight from Lahore alone. Tanvir Ahmed is the only Karachiite left. If neither Yasir Hameed nor Tanvir makes the cut in the next XI, the entire side will be from Punjab. That will be the first time ever in Pakistan's 351 Tests that the entire side is from one province. And if Tanvir doesn't replace Umar Gul, it will be the first Pakistan Test side ever to not have a single player from Karachi. To boot, David Dwyer's endearing Sydney drawl is the only non-Punjabi voice to be heard among the coaching and management staff.

Two points to consider. The immediate one is the Karachi gripe of bias and a lack of merit in selection. Many questions have been flung the way of cricket's governors, some more answerable than others. Why is Mohammad Sami not in, especially after that Sydney morning burst? Answer: Because, surely, he is Mohammad Sami, of 34 Tests, 84 wickets, and a 50-plus average. Where is Faisal Iqbal? Presumably somewhere near where a man with four fifties in his last 14 Tests (average 24) might be. The point nobody in Karachi raises is of the role Shahid Afridi, presently the city's most popular son, played in picking this squad.

In 58 years as a Test nation not a single player from Balochistan has represented Pakistan. Not a single Test player has come from the vast, forgotten interiors of Sind that surround Karachi. Not one even from Hyderabad

Others are tougher. How does Shoaib Malik, for example, after nine years of not convincing anyone that he can play Tests, continue to deny Fawad Alam an opportunity in the middle order? What sin has Sarfraz Ahmed committed? Having been Kamran Akmal's understudy for three years, he was given one Test, where he dropped no chances, and is now not even in the Pakistan A side. Did Danish Kaneria deserve to be dumped from the squad altogether after one poor Test? If so, then jettison as well the keeper who has missed 17 chances off him alone over 24 Tests. And try as they might, still nobody has a convincing theory as to why Wahab Riaz is in this Test squad. If you chuck in the cases of Khurram Manzoor (77 in Hobart in his last Test innings), Khalid Latif (averaging 46 as opener over the last four domestic seasons, with 11 hundreds but zero Test calls) and Asad Shafiq (this season's top scorer in the Quaid-e-Azam trophy), a certain Karachi fury is understandable.

But consider the second point, of far graver concern. The great conceit of the two great cities is to act as if nothing exists beyond them, that the roughly 150 million people outside don't matter.

In 58 years as a Test nation not a single player from Balochistan - the largest province area-wise - has represented Pakistan. Not a single Test player has come from the vast, forgotten interiors of Sind that surround Karachi. Not one even from Hyderabad, where much more depends on Azeem Ghumman, Pakistan's Under-19 and now A team captain, than anyone can imagine. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (formerly NWFP) has produced barely a handful.

Of Pakistan's 18 centrally contracted players, only one is from outside Punjab or Karachi. Of the 19 stipend contracts, given to future stars, 15 are to players from Karachi and Punjab. In the U-19 team that finished runners-up in the World Cup earlier this year, 12 of the 15 were from Punjab and Karachi. Of the country's 200 Test players, a fraction under half come from either the cultural or commercial capital. What Karachi feels now and will feel this week if Tanvir doesn't play, the rest of the country has felt forever.

That a team comprising representatives from more than one province - or one province and the biggest city - cannot be produced in a country this big is damning not just of the current administration but a whole line of them, from the very first. This is how limited the spread of the biggest, most fabulous, most lucrative and most glamorous game, the only game that matters apparently, has actually been in this land.

The lazy, long-held assumption is that there is neither the talent nor the inclination for cricket in a lot of these areas. (In Balochistan, for example, football and hockey are popular.) The same was once said of East Pakistan. Nearly 40 years on, I know which top six I'd rather have. The truth is, no administration has been able or willing to put in place any serious, sustainable development plan for areas beyond these two. No infrastructure has been developed, facilities are poor, and access to the game remains difficult. The curse of modern Pakistan - the security situation in Balochistan and the north-west - has not helped.

It is admirable that players such as Mohammad Zahid and Mohammad Irfan from places as obscure as Gaggu Mandi, or Mohammad Amir from Gujjar Khan, can be found. Cities such as Faisalabad and Sialkot, and smaller satellites such as Sheikhupura, are contributing to the Pakistan side. This is good; cricket, it suggests, is the one grand equaliser in a country of great disparity. But it is not nearly enough because this is also a land of great diversity.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo

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