Why aren't Pakistan's captaincy candidates getting the grooming they need?
Yet again, like with so much else, the PCB has missed a trick
There's much to lament about the way Roger Goodell has led the NFL in the 21st century, but he has succeeded in making the league a 12-month sport in a country with a surfeit of them. Where once spring and summer could be spent focusing on other sports, now the NFL leads the news in the US for the majority of the year. In a sense, it's a case of the NFL (and other American sports, particularly basketball) becoming more like European football - where more interest seems to be generated during the off season than during it.
It's something Pakistani cricket mastered a long time ago. You could almost speculate that the leading outlets in the country's sports media would be better off with no cricket, and just speculation and gossip filling the air waves, than them being forced to understand and report on cricket. The sport itself is the broccoli, and the infighting that is the hallmark of the game in Pakistan is the dessert.
The most recent example of this was the Younis Khan fiasco in the Pakistan Cup. It began with Younis disagreeing with a decision made by the umpire Shozab Raza (allegedly one where he refused to give Misbah-ul-Haq out), and snowballed from there, ending with rumours floating around of Younis considering retirement from Test cricket.
From afar it was just a case of miscommunication, and the desire to be headstrong when there wasn't any need for it - from both parties, to be fair. But it became big enough to overshadow the most prestigious List A competition in the country. In a sense it was an ode, an encore if you will, to Osman Samiuddin's piece in the Cricket Monthly last month. Younis, the fiercely proud/easily offended (delete as per your biases) Pathan, took umbrage at the problems in Pakistan cricket. His journalist friend, also introduced in that article, went from instigator and adviser to Younis' spokesman, going about his work with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. And there is the PCB, which, quite frankly, seems to have absolutely no idea about how to interact with its players. All these actors came together to create a uniquely Pakistani problem - a situation where the greatest run scorer in the country's history was ready to quit over a perceived slight in a match no one will remember.
The reaction to Younis' actions was, for once, negative. The majority focused on the fact that he had picked a team full of youngsters, providing them a chance to learn from his example; and the example he was setting wasn't exactly ideal. Leaving your team in the middle of a tournament rarely is.
Meanwhile the man at the heart of the original controversy, Misbah, also left his handpicked team behind to go for his Umrah - but of course no questions were asked there, not because of how discreet he was but because there are some subjects that you just don't breach, and this was one that could have become very awkward, very fast (not that this has ever stopped the PCB before).
But I digress. In the midst of all this, no one seemed to question the obvious - why were two men who have both retired from ODI cricket leading sides in the Pakistan Cup first place? The answer seemed obvious: because it's Pakistan.
Younis and Misbah (along with Shoaib Malik, Sarfraz Ahmed and Azhar Ali) were rewarded for being the players (Shahid Afridi aside) who have been in contention for the Pakistan captaincy in recent history. It was a decision based on reputation and past work, the future and development of potential future captains be damned. The PCB, probably the most centralised of all national cricket boards, could have used this tournament to test possible future captains - but that would require vision and cojones of the sort that the PCB has rarely ever possessed.
Why were two men who have both retired from ODI cricket leading sides in the Pakistan Cup first place? The answer seemed obvious: because it's Pakistan
The lack of the former was made even more clear when they declared that no senior player would travel with the A team for the England tour - because what would that achieve, apart from giving your batsmen a greater chance to acclimatise to the conditions on their most important tour for at least three years, thus giving them a shot at a success that could be eulogised for years? I mean, who would even want such a thing?
Alas, like much in Pakistan cricket, despite the board's best efforts, some good did come out of the tournament. Following Younis' departure, his team, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was led by Ahmed Shehzad, who recorded victories in both matches in which he captained (scoring 222 runs in his two innings as captain), providing a window into exactly what such a tournament could to be used for.
This tournament was a chance for the PCB to see young captains work with senior pros as sidekicks to rely on for advice, thus providing Pakistan not only with potential candidates for the job of national team captain but also inculcating a sense of responsibility in a generation derided for not having any.
Why couldn't the Pakistan Cup have been used for Younis, Misbah and Malik (and possibly Afridi) to act as deputies to the younger generation, teaching them the nuances of captaincy while setting examples in terms of hard work and professionalism, thus helping Pakistan cricket in the long run? Possibly because that would require a puncturing of ego by the senior players, and communication from the board - neither of which was ever that likely.
Following the 2015 World Cup, the options to replace Misbah as ODI captain were narrowed down to Azhar Ali and Sarfraz Ahmed, who are now Pakistan's captains in the two limited-overs formats. Despite having led Pakistan to an Under-19 World Cup win a decade ago, Sarfraz's captaincy resumé did not have the sample size someone in that shortlist ought to have had. In the five years prior to the 2015 World Cup he played 28 List A domestic matches (which also point to the lack of 50-over cricket in the domestic game) and captained in only three, playing under half a dozen different captains during that time. But in his case, you could at least argue that he hadn't really been high-profile enough till the start of 2014 to merit a leadership role (although, again, his U-19 record really ought to have meant a bit more).
And while Azhar had a far bigger sample, the majority of his matches in charge then, as now, were in Misbah's absence (particularly when the latter was unavailable for SNGPL due to his ODI commitments). That meant Misbah (like Mohammad Hafeez or Saeed Ajmal) hadn't been in Azhar's cabinet when Azhar was in a position of authority. And while Azhar was assigned the ODI captaincy due to the perceived similarities with Misbah, he does not have the on-field nous of his predecessor.
This last fortnight was a reminder, that even with the success of the PSL, and the players being thrown under the bus in the aftermath of the World T20, the problems of Pakistan cricket are far deeper than the personnel in green. But why would you think of solving complex issues when you have piñatas to destroy?
Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @mediagag