Shahid Afridi has been named Pakistan's Test and ODI captain ahead of a busy summer which takes in the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka and then six Tests, five ODIs, as well as four T20Is, in England against Australia and the hosts. Pakistan's board and selectors also opened the door on a possible return for Younis Khan and Shoaib Malik, two men only recently banned by the board for indiscipline. Another old hand at the indiscipline game, Shoaib Akhtar, has been called up in a 35-man list of probables, which will be culled down before the two events.
The squad announcements were among the most eagerly-awaited in some time, given the chaos that followed since the tour to Australia. Pakistan effectively have been without a Test and ODI captain since then and had punished seven leading players - including four former captains - over disciplinary issues. But in recent days, speculation had grown that Afridi, already the Twenty20 captain, would be appointed.
Once he had publicly announced that he would be available to play Tests, a format he had left four years ago, the decision was all but sealed to once again unite the leadership of all three formats under one man: "We requested Afridi to take on the Test captaincy and he very graciously accepted," Ijaz Butt, chairman PCB, told reporters, flanked by Afridi and Mohsin Khan, chief selector. Today Afridi spent in meetings with Butt and the selectors to finalise a probables list.
Afridi now becomes the 27th man to lead Pakistan in Tests and the fourth captain since the start of 2009.The decision remains a risky one, given that Afridi played the last of his 26 Tests almost exactly four years ago on Pakistan's last tour to England. Until recently he has appeared unsure about a return to the format, but it is believed the appointment was part of an agreement to become the Twenty20 captain before the World Twenty20.
Afridi asked for patience in what he accepted will be a challenging role. "As a challenge I have accepted this," Afridi said. "Pakistan needs a senior player right now to lead them and that is why I accepted this. I don't think we should have too many expectations for Test cricket right now but I will try to get our ranking up to where it should be."
The other big decisions were recalling the two former captains Younis and Malik back into the squad. Their return is dependent on their appeals against the ban being overturned by an independent arbitrator, but having been selected it seems unlikely their bans will now stay. In any case the PCB has thawed in recent days, Butt telling reporters yesterday that he will review the punishments and praising Younis in particular. Younis was handed an indefinite ban by an inquiry committee after the Australia tour earlier this year and Malik was given a one-year ban; neither's indiscretions were specified, only a vague reference made to acts of indiscipline and unsettling the team.
But their potential return and that of Shoaib [Akhtar] was insisted upon by Afridi, who said the summer would require experienced heads at the helm. Shoaib last played an international for Pakistan in May 2009 and his last Test back in December 2007, but has this season turned out in domestic cricket in a bid to prove his fitness; he was particularly impressive in the Pentangular ODI cup in Karachi recently.
"It will be good if we can get back Younis and Shoaib because the team will be stronger with them in it," Afridi said. "England is always a difficult challenge as a tour and you need experienced players on it. The mix has to be right between juniors and seniors."
Afridi revealed that he had also spoken to Mohammad Yousuf in a bid to get him to take back his retirement and return to international cricket. Yousuf had walked away from the game earlier this year after also being handed an indefinite ban by the board and he is the only one of the seven players punished not to have appealed against his punishment. But Afridi said Yousuf was unwilling to change his mind.
Misbah-ul-Haq has been dropped once again, following disappointing results on his recall for the tours to New Zealand and Australia. Though he was picked for the World Twenty20 also, he didn't make any significant contribution towards Pakistan's semi-final run. The bigger surprise is perhaps the retention of Kamran Akmal; though he did well enough in the Caribbean with the bat, he remains as a result of this probables announcement, the likely first-choice wicketkeeper for the Test side. That is some achievement in itself given his performance in the last Test he played at Sydney (where he dropped four catches and fluffed a run-out), his behaviour in the aftermath of his subsequent axing and his generally shaky form with the gloves in Tests for a number of seasons now.
The 15-man squad for the Asia Cup will be decided in the first week of June after a short, five to six-day training camp in Karachi. The squad for England will be decided soon after that.
Probables: Salman Butt, Imran Farhat, Yasir Hameed, Khurram Manzoor, Shahzaib Hassan, Azhar Ali, Azeem Ghumman, Younis Khan, Shoaib Malik, Umar Akmal, Faisal Iqbal, Fawad Alam, Hasan Raza, Asad Shafiq, Umar Amin, Aamer Sajjad, Mohammad Hafeez, Shahid Afridi (capt), Abdul Razzaq, Yasir Arafat, Umar Gul, Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Aamer, Mohammad Sami, Wahab Riaz, Mohammad Irfan, Tanvir Ahmed, Aizaz Cheema, Danish Kaneria, Abdur Rehman, Saeed Ajmal, Zulfiqar Babar, Kamran Akmal (wk), Zulqarnain Haider (wk)
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo