Pakistan in South Africa, 2006-07 December 29, 2006

Shoaib left out for South Africa tour

Mohammad Asif: the main component of Pakistan's five-man pace attack © AFP

Pakistan have left out Shoaib Akhtar from their 17-man squad for the upcoming series against South Africa, although the door remains open for the fast bowler to return for the ODI matches later in the tour. Mohammad Asif, who along with Shoaib only recently returned to full-time cricket following the overturning of a drugs ban, has been included in the squad.

Iqbal Qasim, a member of the selection committee, told Cricinfo, "Shoaib has been left out because we felt his full match fitness hasn't yet returned after the break he has had from the game." There had been considerable speculation in the run-up to today's announcement that Shoaib would miss out, selectors and team management apparently not happy with his fitness levels.

But Qasim said the door remains open for a call-up as the series progresses. "For longer matches, we think the fitness isn't ready yet. But there will be first-class matches in Pakistan that he can play in and work back towards maximum fitness and hopefully make it in time for the ODIs."

Inzamam-ul-Haq, Pakistan captain, told, "It was a shame Shoaib (Akhtar) couldn't make it but he hasn't played any cricket for three months and even before that he only played a few one-day matches in England, when he had waited about nine months to play cricket after injuries. So he will get his chance now to play some first-class cricket in Pakistan and hopefully he will prove himself and be ready to join us for the one-day series.

"Mohammed Asif has been bowling really well in practice and I'm pleased to have him back with us. Our bowling attack is stronger for having him back. He's a clever bowler and everybody will want him to play in the Test series, though there is plenty of competition for places."

Shabbir Ahmed, who has only recently returned from an ICC-imposed ban for a suspect action, was also not selected. "He has only just returned to cricket and we have pace bowlers like Gul and Nazir who have done really well recently for us, so there wasn't really any place for him right now. He will play more first-class matches and we'll take it from there," said Qasim.

Mohammad Sami emerges as the winner from the travails of Shoaib and Shabbir, but it is the return of Asif that really gives the bowling its sting. Qasim said, "Even now, I think our bowling is stronger than India's pace attack and they have done really well in South Africa. So I think the bowlers we have selected should do well there."

The other selection of note is that of Zulqernain Haider, the 20-year-old from Lahore, as reserve wicketkeeper behind Kamran Akmal. Akmal's form behind the stumps and with the bat has been poor for much of the year and the idea of taking a reserve had been publicly mooted on several occasions, including once by Bob Woolmer.

"We've picked Zulqarnain as cover for Akmal," said Qasim. He is still our first-choice but just to ease a little pressure off of him and also in case he picks up an injury, we felt we should have some cover. This is an important season beginning now, with the World Cup, and we want to make sure our best players are available for that."

Asim Kamal: back in the Test side after a one-year lay-off © Getty Images

Haider was wicketkeeper in the Pakistan U-19 team that won the World Cup in Dhaka in 2004 and has appeared for the Pakistan 'A' and Academy sides a number of times since. He has been in the national squad before, picked for the 2004 home series against Sri Lanka, as understudy to Moin Khan. Incidentally, in the second Test of that series, Akmal was chosen ahead of Haider as replacement for Moin, since when he has established himself as the number one choice.

With Abdul Razzaq injured and Shahid Afridi out of form, the number six spot becomes the domain once again of a specialist batsman, as opposed to all-rounders. Faisal Iqbal will be in contention, but so too will Asim Kamal, the doughty left-hander, who is back, ready to tour the country against whom he made such an impressive Test debut in 2003. "As a left-hander, in the middle order, he provides us some variety as well as stability.

"Overall, I think this is the most balanced squad we could have picked. These guys, if they play to their potential, can do well in South Africa," Qasim said.

Squad for South Africa: Mohammad Hafeez, Imran Farhat, Yasir Hameed, Shoaib Malik, Inzamam-ul-Haq (capt), Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf, Asim Kamal, Faisal Iqbal, Kamran Akmal (wk), Zulqernain Haider (wk), Shahid Nazir, Umar Gul, Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Sami, Danish Kaneria, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo