Babar hoping for Pakistan chance
It has been 65 years since any one walked into the national side from Okara, a small town southwest of Lahore. The 85-year-old Israr Ali, who played in Pakistan's first Test in 1952, was the last. His international career was short and frustrating but, six decades later, left-arm spinner Zulfiqar Babar could be set to emulate Israr.
With 62 wickets, Babar is the leading bowler in the President's Trophy charts ahead of the final. He will turn to 34 on December 10, the same day the selectors will be finalising the Pakistan squad for their ODI and T20I series against India.
Okara is nearly 85 miles away from Lahore, a district of Sahiwal Division of Punjab. The agricultural town has fertile land, with fields of potato, tomato, sugarcane, wheat, rice and corn and in sports it's a significant nursery for hockey. Cricket is a popular sport in the region but only a dozen clubs are active, with the Gymkhana Cricket Ground the only proper cricket facility. Cricket is mainly played in the open uneven fields around the outskirts of the city.
In 2009-10, Babar had his most productive season with 96 wickets, ahead of another left-arm spinner, the Pakistan international Abdur Rehman, who took 88. Although he has been contention for last three years and was selected for Pakistan A tours to Sri Lanka and West Indies, he has continued to be ignored. He was named in the list of probables for the England tour in 2010 but never made into the squad.
Although his team, Water and Power Development Authority, didn't qualify for the final of the President's Trophy, Babar signed off the ninth and final round with his fifth five-wicket haul, ripping through the Pakistan International Airlines line-up at Mirpur in 6.3 overs. His current first-class strike rate of 45.1 compares well with the likes of Saeed Ajmal (58.7), Abdur Rehman (59.3) and Raza Hasan (63.8), Pakistan's current first-choice spinners.
"Life in a small town isn't really intimidating," Babar told ESPNcricinfo. "Obviously facilities here aren't that good, as in bigger cities, but ultimately it's the ability and performance that matter. I don't need to depend on bigger cities to be seen or heard. I sit here, with plenty of experience under my belt, having taken the most number of wickets and looking for an opportunity for the national team."
"I remember when Mohsin Khan was the chief selector, he had been in touch with me and talked about my future and opportunities but now it has been quite a while since any selectors came down to me to talk. Now I think the only option left is to perform heavily."
In 2000 Babar's mentor, Shahid Munir, died in a car accident and Babar spent nearly ten years in the wilderness, without a certain future in cricket. He missed five season between 2002-03 to 2006-07, during which he played low-profile district matches, club cricket and random T20 tournaments in the UAE as a guest player, before returning for Multan region to play in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy in 2007. He had an average season, with just 13 wickets in five matches out of nine.
Babar has no regrets about missing so much cricket and is not worried that at 34 he has lost his best time. "The ideal age to play for Pakistan is 25 but that's doesn't mean I am done with my cricket," he said. "I have an example in Ajmal and [Australia's Brad] Hogg that motivates me that cricket these days is all about fitness and performance and not just the age. For the best of my interests I am keeping myself strong and I don't mind waiting more to pursue an international career. I have been doing rigorous workouts to keep myself fit."
For Babar age isn't really a concern compared to the strong contest between him and the spinners already engaged with the national side. "Raza might be ahead of me for different reasons but Test and limited-overs cricket are a different ball game and he is good with the short format of the game and I am comfortable for the longer format," Babar said. "What I want is to keep pinching the selectors with my performances. I am not afraid of any contest with anyone, I know a time will come that nobody will stop me from playing for Pakistan.
"I started playing cricket thinking to play for my country and pursing the goal I have taken a lot of time to reach the big stage. Everyone does something for their livelihood and I have chosen cricket but still I have no regrets and am optimistic for a better future."
PCB selectors are gathering in Lahore to witness the National Twenty20 to select a party for the India tour. The nine-day T20 contest, in which Babar will feature for Multan, provides him with another opportunity to nudge the selectors. "Life has been so tricky, as I think I have already made an impact with my consistency in four-day cricket, where selectors didn't come to witness me," he said. "Twenty20 cricket is more like a shortcut to make an impact and I am also ready for it."
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent