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