October 9, 2013

What Hafeez's Test career tells us about failure

He has broken into the Test side three times and departed each time making the same mistakes. Has he simply reached the limit of his ability?

Remember Asim Kamal? For those who might have forgotten him, for 12 Tests in the mid-noughties, Kamal was a likeable little left-hander. He debuted late (at 27), was never going to play ODIs and had this butter-smooth cover drive, off one knee, which looked like it had been stolen from a flashier, more glamorous batsman. He was meek, he was from Karachi (which is an almost mutually exclusive occurrence), but he fought hard, and he also felt sorry for himself too much.

What gave him greatest credibility, though, was the nature of his performances. He wasn't great domestically, but boy was he ever one for tough situations. He made 99 on debut against a strong South Africa attack; he made 60 not out in a losing cause against India in Rawalpindi with his arm nearly broken; his 91 in Mohali a year later, where he helped double Pakistan's first-innings score with the tail, is a long-forgotten gem; one innings before, he had creamed 15 pristine fours in an 87 against Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill. He had eight fifties in just 12 Tests (when Azhar Ali was going through his run of not making hundreds, just fifties, I thought lots of Kamal), batted smartly with the tail, and when the pressure wasn't on, he flopped.

Bob Woolmer didn't really rate him, though he was probably just sticking to the policy line as dictated by Inzamam-ul-Haq. Inzamam, and consequently Woolmer, thought he lacked heart. I interviewed Kamal, one night before what turned out to be his final Test. Two days later, on a pitch soaked with runs he was leg-before for 5, that nice little in-curver from Matthew Hoggard that had done Matthew Hayden's head - and ego - in earlier that summer in 2005. Five fifties and a 48 in his last 11 innings and Kamal was gone, Pakistan's infatuation with Shahid Afridi, Abdul Razzaq and Faisal Iqbal in such bloom, it led them to believe they were more viable options at six.

Kamal came to mind because Mohammad Hafeez's latest foray into the adult world of Test cricket has ended. In most ways, Kamal and Hafeez are diametrically opposite. Kamal wasn't given enough chances despite consistently proving he deserved them; Hafeez has probably been given too many opportunities despite never really convincing. Though it wasn't a zero-sum equation, it is normal to wonder what could have been had Pakistan stuck with someone like Kamal and not Hafeez?

Cricket, sport, life do not function on what-ifs, and yet both men are, in the final reckoning, similar because they are debris in the waste of Pakistan's batting this decade. That poses some central questions. Why have Pakistan kept going back to players like Hafeez, like Shoaib Malik, like Imran Farhat, like Mohammad Sami? Why have they been afraid to invest in guys like Kamal, like Fawad Alam, like Mohammad Talha?

And, as a result, what does it mean to keep failing repeatedly at the highest level? What does it mean to, like Hafeez, come into the Test side three times (each return after eerily neat three-year gaps) in exactly a decade and still leave not having made it? What does it say about the captains and selectors who keep going back to him? What does it say about the structures through which he returns, like domestic cricket or the National Cricket Academy?

Failure can be simply an inability to sustain success and not just an inability to achieve it in the first instance

The question was put to a selector last week: why hasn't Hafeez managed to sustain improvements in his game? Why has he looked good for a period, when he debuted or whenever he returned, only to eventually regress each time? Even accounting for the opposition, he looked a prospect when he made his debut against Bangladesh. Then when he returned in 2006 with a sweet 95 at The Oval, he looked reborn. And then again, from 2010 to 2012, he looked so essential to Pakistan's rise. In between he went to the NCA, sweated it out and said it improved his game. He bided his time domestically, kept his head down, scored runs. He batted in different positions. He improved his bowling. And yet here we are, still watching him replicate dismissals from a decade back, trying to figure out failure and a really unusual career trajectory.

The selector said that it was because what had gone - thirtysomething Tests, thirtysomething average - was about the extent of Hafeez's ability. There was no level beyond that. What he could do, he did. It seems like an obvious conclusion, only complicated by how long it has taken to form. And that really clouds up the question of what is failure. Hafeez did what he could in Tests and on a few occasions Pakistan benefited. He might yet come back and do it all over again.

But as much as it was an answer, it was also self-damnation, because the selector himself is party to whatever is Hafeez's career. Why did he keep getting selected? Why even ask? After all, most selectors this decade have been in, out and in again, just as Hafeez has as a player. Each time they have come with their preferences and prejudices renewed. Also, it's not as if selectors have been particularly powerful, not in front of the captain at least. Inzamam didn't like Kamal so he didn't play, collateral damage in a compromise with selectors over other places in the squad or XI. Misbah liked Hafeez, so he played and others missed out; Malik felt threatened by Hafeez, so he didn't play too often. Misbah, it is said, doesn't think much of Fawad Alam, so he doesn't play (which, given Pakistan's batting, is ridiculous). They may have valid reasons but it's ludicrous that the captain, who by dint of his job hardly sees any cricketer outside of his squad, in domestic cricket for instance, should have such a say.

One thing the career of Hafeez, and so many others, does say is that failure need not be instant. It is a process, every bit as much as success is, except it isn't as easy to recognise; it is not some easily packaged destination but a journey that takes time, and it too, like success, has many fathers. In fact, failure can also be simply an inability to sustain success and not just an inability to achieve it in the first instance. In fact, as Kamal might have guessed, success can still be failure. The problem is that recognising those who might make it, who might succeed, takes time, just as it does with those who might fail.

(As a sad but fitting endnote, that interview with Kamal never actually got published.)

Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National

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