December is usually the time of the year when Pakistanis living abroad return. Over the course of this winter, several of my returning friends have wondered how I, for so long the torchbearer of optimism regarding Pakistani cricket within our tiny circles, had become as disillusioned as the Grinch. A look at what happened last month alone might provide a glimpse into why every Pakistani cricket journalist is as cynical as Diogenes.
In December, Kenya arrived in Pakistan to play five one-dayers against Pakistan A. They were the first team, with the exception of Afghanistan, that had visited these shores since the terror attack on Sri Lankan team in Lahore in 2009. All five matches were played in that city. It was a landmark series.
With the national team struggling just before the World Cup, it was a chance for those looking in from the outside to stake a claim. Sure, as some suggested, Kenya weren't much better than the worst first-class team in Pakistan, but in a country where it's not how much you perform but when you perform that matters, this series was important. In front of the national selectors, at the PCB headquarters, with the matches on television, it seemed an obvious chance for these players to put their hands up. Just a month earlier Nasir Jamshed had been drafted into the national team based on one good series for Pakistan A against UAE, though he had performed poorly across all formats in the domestic game for 18 months.
Against Kenya, Fawad Alam, Sami Aslam and Babar Azam stood out with the bat, as expected, and the young left-arm pace duo of Mir Hamza and Zia-ul-Haq shone in the few chances they were given. I was also hopeful of seeing Hammad Azam - surely with the national team struggling for allrounders, someone who could share the ball with Haris Sohail as the fifth bowler and still be capable with the bat was ideal for Pakistan going forward. Hammad appeared to be the obvious choice, as he had been since the 2010 Under-19 World Cup, where he was the standout player. However, after taking 35 first-class wickets at 15.8 this season, he was eventually ruled out of the squad with a back injury. That this would have been his first stint with the A team in all these years, even as the national team has struggled to find allrounders, is staggering.
Earlier in the season he was not picked for the A team that played five one-dayers against UAE and three against Afghanistan. Sure, he has had a poor year with the bat but he has shown enough potential with it. One would have expected his replacements to be either Imad Wasim or Aamer Yamin, who have performed well as allrounders in first-class cricket, or perhaps even Kamran Ghulam, another product of the U-19 team. Instead, for the final two one-dayers the allrounder was Zohaib Ahmed.
Just on paper that seemed odd. Zohaib averages far less with the bat and far more with the ball than Hammad in both first-class and List A cricket. His record is closer to Yamin's and Wasim's, but even so, the latter two seem to stand out more. Further, at 28 he is at least two years older than the others mentioned, and is probably the least likely to develop further into a cricketer who could help the national team in the long run.
"In Pakistan, a first-class coach can also be a selector, pick one of his own players, and then gush about the said player and his own achievements on television commentary"
So why would he be selected? After all, isn't the A team supposed to provide the national team with alternatives? The other allrounder in the squad, Zafar Gohar, is precisely the sort of player the A team is designed to develop - an U-19 product who has done well in his short time in the domestic game. But surely Wasim or Yamin were a better option than Zohaib?
Zohaib did have a good year, probably his best in the domestic game. He is also the nephew of Shakil Shaikh, the head of PCB's cricket committee. Shaikh is a controversial figure in Pakistan cricket, to say the least. A former journalist turned administrator, he is perhaps most famous for calling Misbah-ul-Haq a "geedar" (literally jackal, in this case referring to the captain as someone with no courage) on television and facing no consequences for it. He is also president of the Islamabad Region, a post that his detractors have accused him of running as a fiefdom.
In Pakistan, a first-class coach can also be a selector, pick one of his own players, and then gush about the said player and his own achievements on television commentary. Apparently conflict of interest has no meaning here.
Another player I was hopeful of seeing for Pakistan A was Sadaf Hussain, among the more consistent fast bowlers on the domestic scene. Considering Pakistan's luck with fast bowlers and injuries in the last few months, surely someone with a track record of bowling long spells and being a consistent wicket-taker was exactly the sort of player the Pakistan selectors needed to look at. Despite averaging under 21 in three of the last four seasons, he hasn't been close to national selection since touring the West Indies with them in 2011. And even though he has averaged just 17.9 with the ball in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy Silver League this season, he was overlooked for the A team. Perhaps because in Pakistan, a decent performance in the domestic T20 tournament is given more importance than an exceptional one in the first-class game. Sadaf, unfortunately, has yet to play a T20 game despite being one of the best performers in the List A game too (in the 2013-14 President's Cup, he had an average of 12.90 while going at just 4.3 an over).
As I write this, the squads for the Pentangular Cup have been announced. Hammad isn't there but neither have Yamin or Ghulam been considered good enough for any of the 75 places on offer! While the captains of all five teams involved are current national team players, only three of the vice-captains are. The first exception is Bismillah Khan, though his promotion makes sense considering he's the only Balochistan-born player in the Balochistan team. The other is the vice-captain of the Federal United team - he hasn't played for Pakistan but holds the position over eight others who have. His name is Zohaib Ahmed.
And then they wonder where all the pessimism comes from.