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In the mountains, old-school Pakistan lives on

A curving road in the legendary Khyber Pass, FATA Getty Images

In March of this year, in one of the most significant constitutional changes in Pakistan's history, the federal cabinet approved steps for the merger of FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) into the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This will combine the neglected tribal areas with one of the country's four provinces, thus making the north-western frontier regions one administrative unit.

After seven decades of FATA being part of Pakistan, yet existing in a strange autonomous bubble, it would truly become part of the mainstream. Or as Mannan Ahmed Asif wrote in the New York Times, "This provides a way for the people of the Tribal Areas to become full legal citizens, to elect their own representatives directly, to have the laws of Pakistan apply to them, to sue for justice in Pakistani courts and to be compensated for the destruction of their homes in the war on terrorism - all rights that they do not have now."

FATA, beyond the burdensome bureaucratic moniker, has always been part of the Pakistani imagination. Officially it's a strip of mountainous land, codified as FATA as far back as 1901, created as a buffer by the British Raj between its lands and Afghanistan, in the aftermath of several conflicts in the 19th century. And it has been governed over the seven decades of Pakistan's existence the way it was by the British before - left to its own devices, unless need be.

Unofficially it has been regarded as some sort of wild west that you don't venture into. The colloquial term for it, Ilaqa Ghair (no-man's land) contained a grain of truth, but also included the stereotypes city-dwellers generally build about those from the mountains. Perhaps the two most famous residents best describe the image of this region.

"I was with the Abbottabad team for two years before I made my debut, and even then I played one or two matches only. This was true for everyone - you would top for FATA and you'd be selected for Abbottabad and then not be given a proper chance"

Vice-captain Rehan Afridi on discrimination faced by FATA players

The first is Shahid Afridi, who, though a product of the Karachi cricket system, hails from Khyber Agency in FATA. Imagine all the stereotypes, all the pictures on social media of people with guns in hand and mountains in the background, and you have a picture of how urbanites view FATA. For them, the region is cast in the image of Afridi, with all his flaws and freedom.

The other iconic (former) resident perhaps best encapsulates the fraught and strange relationship that FATA has with the rest of Pakistan. Haji Ayub Afridi, considered the father of the Afghan heroin trade, was one of the main money men who funded the Mujahideen, who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Having been backed by the Pakistani state and the CIA in the '80s, Haji became expendable to both as the Soviet Union collapsed. In 1995 he was extradited to New York, where he was convicted on narcotics-trafficking charges, but the next Afghan War made him valuable once again. He died in 2009, having been a fugitive, an international asset, and a member of Pakistan's National Assembly.

As Pakistan begins the process of truly integrating FATA into the country, it can learn from its past mistakes. And if it truly wants this transition to be successful it could do far worse than looking at how FATA has become a significant part of Pakistan cricket. A decade ago FATA cricket was represented by a handful of clubs and by those who had moved to the big cities. This year they finished the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy with a better record than every regional team barring Karachi Whites.

There are several reasons for the rapid rise, perhaps foremost being that FATA wasn't thrown into the deep end without prior experience. Before it became a cricketing region on the highest domestic stage, it was placed under the purview of Abbottabad Region. Much as Pakistan's success in Test cricket in the decade after independence could be traced to the experience of their players in the Ranji Trophy and the Bombay Quadrangular, so it has been with FATA's players and staff in Abbottabad cricket.

Saqib Faqeer has been part of the coaching staff of the FATA team for the past three years, and has built a reputation for finding and developing young players. He had a similar role with the Abbottabad team earlier, following a stint as the fielding coach of the Afghanistan team under Kabir Khan.

Saqib believes FATA gave as much as it received. "When FATA used to play with Abbottabad, they were consistently in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy. Now that our guys are gone, Abbottabad is in Grade 2, and we are in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy," he says. Many of the players who now represent FATA were brought up in the Abbottabad system by Faqeer, to the point that when FATA played their first ever first-class match, five of the 11 players had represented the Abbottabad team in at least one format. "I never faced any issues picking kids from FATA and playing them for Abbottabad regions underage teams," Saqib says. "There was never any compulsion in that regard."

It's a view not shared by Rehan Afridi. "In Abbottabad they would only play one or two of us, at most," he says. "They preferred their local guys to us. I was with the Abbottabad team for two years before I made my debut, and even then I played one or two matches only. This was true for everyone - you would top for FATA and you'd be selected for Abbottabad and then not be given a proper chance."

Rehan is the vice-captain of the FATA team. In the team's first first-class match, in October 2015, they found themselves in danger of following on against HBL, before his hundred salvaged a draw. How their team would have shaped up if they had lost that match is anyone's guess, but the draw became the stepping stone for FATA to compete against the best in Pakistan.

"We then had National Bank to face," Rehan says. "So we faced two strong department teams in our first two matches and didn't lose either of those games. That gave us the confidence that we can compete at this level."

The true foundations for their success, though, had been laid well before that, in the Peshawar club scene, which has been vital in the development of these players. The roots of the rise lie in the success of Khyber Greens, a club based in Khyber Agency in FATA.

"The story of the rise of cricket in FATA is mirrored on a larger scale in the rise of Afghan cricket, pretty much in the same geographical environs"

"Cricket really started in FATA around 2005," says Rehan. "Khyber Greens, our club, went to Bajaur to play a tournament. The team was selected after open trials, and the tournament was for all agencies in FATA. We won that tournament, and after that we won pretty much all regional tournaments we played until 2010."

Their success went from regional to national at the turn of the decade. In 2012, Karachi hosted the PCCL (Pakistan Cricket Champions League), a tournament that was initiated to revive club cricket in the country. (Note here that the Pakistani cricket fraternity's view of the club game is the same as a Trump diehard's is of his country: it used to be great once, we believe, without any particular evidence, and it's our duty to take it back to that era, while we ignore how the world has changed since then.) It was at the PCCL that players from FATA really came to the fore. In that 2012 edition, which included teams from seven nations, including the national teams of Qatar, Hong Kong and Kuwait, Khyber Greens finished runners-up to Al Noor Gymkhana (a side that included Wahab Riaz and Fawad Alam in its ranks).

"There have always been three or four clubs in FATA which have provided these players," says Rehan. "The club owners really support the game here, they send teams all across the country, and even into Afghanistan. Khyber Green has won tournaments all over the country, in Karachi, Peshawar, Islamabad, everywhere."

"One of the reasons for our success is how close we are to Peshawar," Saqib says. Because of all the transport links, all FATA players can play in Peshawar. And the academy and the club scene in Peshawar is the best in the country, I believe. I have seen academies throughout the country, I have been with the PCB for nearly a decade now, and the quality and infrastructure here is no less than even in Karachi or Lahore. So, for example, I was with the FATA under-13 team recently and half of them already play for academies in Peshawar. The talented kids we find in the agencies even after that, we always tell them that they have no future there, and if they are to become cricketers, they have to join academies in Peshawar. Study is better in the city too, so it's an easy decision for them to make.

"The reason for all these academies is that a lot of local people invest in the local game here. I just met someone in Peshawar who was from Bannu and was spending Rs 18 lakh [approximately US$17,000] on his club over just three or four days. He had brought in Imran and Humayun Farhat and gave them Rs 1 lakh each for every match.

"When the local players play with international players, it gives them a completely different understanding of the game, which helps them develop. That's not something you see elsewhere in Pakistan anymore."

In 2017 alone, there have been three major club competitions in these areas, which have attracted talent from all over the country, including current and former national team players.

Abdul Rehman is one of the scions of the club game in Peshawar. From his domestic successes with Peshawar to his all-conquering Peshawar Panthers T20 team, to now being the manager of Peshawar Zalmi in the PSL, he too has made a name developing young talent in the region. "All the boys from FATA, Abbottabad and Peshawar play their club cricket in Peshawar," he says. "So it's very competitive, and you add the Afghan players, who've played the majority of their club cricket here too, and you have a high-quality, competitive game to prepare you for the next level."

And there we have the equivalent. The story of the rise of cricket in FATA is mirrored on a larger scale in the rise of Afghan cricket, pretty much in the same geographical environs.

"I was the fielding coach with them [Afghanistan]," says Saqib, "and I still know a lot of them. And they'll tell you how much Peshawar's cricket has helped them too. Seventy per cent of the Afghan team comes from just three academies in Peshawar. They played here as kids, and a lot of them still play their club cricket here. Just yesterday I met Mohammad Shehzad, who was playing a club game at the Arbab Niaz [this interview was conducted a week before Shehzad's dope test result]. But I don't know what will happen considering the current border situation."

"Because of the general physique of people from the mountains, we are bound to produce fast bowlers. From Under-16 level onwards we build our team around fast bowling"

Saqib Faqeer

The same month that the cabinet sat down to discuss plans for uniting FATA with KPK, the country's military began fencing parts of the border with Afghanistan. The month before, in the aftermath of a wave of terrorist attacks in the country, Pakistan had sealed all its border crossings with its western neighbour. (It is unlikely, of course, that before the decision was made, there was any kind of discussion on how such a move would affect club cricket in KPK and FATA.)

Regardless of that, FATA has now carved out its identity and niche in Pakistan cricket. And that is of a team representing old-school Pakistan. Following the changes - initiated by Ramiz Raja - brought about in the character of cricket pitches in the country, Pakistani cricket has entered a new age. Medium-pacers and stodgy batsmen rule, even as ex-cricketers froth at the mouth on TV, angry at the country having lost its cricket identity. FATA, though, is old-school. Perhaps it is partly to do with Riaz Afridi - a former Test cricketer who became the face of FATA's early rise - and his legacy as a fast bowler who made it to the highest level.

"We always have an advantage," says Faqeer, "because we rely on fast bowlers. Because of the general physique of people from the mountains, we are bound to produce fast bowlers. But it is also a conscious effort. From Under-16 level onwards we build our team around fast bowling. At the U-19 level our aim is for every one of our pacers to bowl at 135kph at least, so that when they mature, they are genuine fast bowlers. But we haven't found a solution to our batting."

Rehan Afridi agrees: "The big difference between our players and others is that our players are naturally fitter than players from Punjab or Karachi, even though they work harder than us. Our guys don't work that hard, we rely on natural talent, everyone knows that. And we play our four-day matches like they are T20s. We want to blast the opposition away. That's how we succeeded at Grade 2 level [where they won back-to-back championships before being promoted to the Quaid e Azam Trophy], and that's how we'll play here. That and the fact that all of us play for the same clubs and have played together for so long is why we have overachieved as we have."

That they have overachieved is evident in the stats. In a country where the majority of the wickets are seamer-friendly, FATA have scored at over 3.5 an over in each of their two seasons. But such an approach has its problems - as shown by the fact that only twice in their 28 first-class innings have they scored over 360. Meanwhile, over 70% of the wickets they took this season in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy went to fast bowlers. They truly are representative of an old-school Pakistan.

One possible short-term solution for them might be transplanting batsmen from elsewhere, because beyond Khushdil Shah, none of their own have truly made that step up. In the Regional One Day Cup earlier this year they built their batting around Hussain Talat, a product of the Lahore club scene, who would end up finishing as the second-highest overall run scorer in the tournament. Talat speaks of another aspect that makes FATA unique: "There was absolutely no pressure there. That was the big difference. Maybe it was because I was playing for Kamran Khan [the FATA coach], who had coached me since U-16 level, but there was no undue pressure from the support staff or the team. That's not the case elsewhere."

Thus far, so good. Except, this is where so many plans of men and mice in this country do go awry. The decline of the club game in the two major metros and the decline of the domestic game offer lessons for those concerned with FATA cricket to learn from. They may at the moment be the equivalent of Pakistan's Ranji- and Quadrangular-trained 1950s team, but the similarities must end there, because the Pakistan teams of the '50s were followed by mediocrity in the coming decades: from 1960 to 1975, Pakistan won just three of their 47 Tests, as all the foundations that had been laid before were laid to waste.

So that's all FATA needs to do: they need to avoid doing what every Pakistani organisation in every walk of life has done over the last seven decades. That may be a tall task, but it's not so forbidding compared to what they have achieved before.