I grew up with the belief that Pakistan was a country brimming with sporting talent. After all that’s what you used to, and frequently still, hear from all sorts of sources. And when I was growing up, Pakistan did excel in various sports with legends like Javed Miandad, Imran Khan, Shahbaz Ahmed, Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan still in action.
But over the years, my belief became shaky to the point that I started suspecting that Pakistan’s cup of talent had either become empty or perhaps the country’s sporting prowess was over-rated from the very onset. After all, being a sports journalist for more than two decades, I thought I had seen plenty to reach this particular conclusion.
Then, a few days back a young man took my breath away. The way Sarfraz Ahmed tore apart the Australian bowling attack during his 80-ball century provided me with some fresh food for thought. True, it was a featherbed but the conditions were still testing and in any case I haven’t seen many Pakistani batters flaying Aussie bowlers like the way Sarfraz did in the Dubai heat. It was truly breathtaking!
Sportsmen like Sarfraz have time and again proved that when it comes to talent Pakistan doesn’t lag behind other nations. It’s the planning department where we have seldom measured up.
Take the case of Sarfraz. He made his debut almost five years ago in January 2010 as a makeshift replacement of Kamran Akmal, who had to be axed from the line-up after he snatched a stunning defeat for Pakistan from the jaws of victory in the second Test against Australia in Sydney.
The young Sarfraz was unable to impress much with the bat in the third and final Test in Hobart and was later occasionally fielded by the Pakistanis almost always against superior opponents. He played his first four Tests against Australia (one in Hobart) and South Africa (three in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Centurion). It was hardly surprising that he failed to score runs in those four Tests. Even for the 2013 series against the Proteas, it took the selectors three years to give Sarfraz his second chance since his Hobart debut.
It’s not that Sarfraz capabilities were entirely hidden back then. It’s just that our think-tank turned a blind eye. Whether it was sheer incompetence or ulterior motives, they harmed Pakistan cricket by keeping faith in the butter-fingered Kamran or opting for his siblings Umar and Adnan for wicket-keeping responsibilities. Sarfraz remained low on their radar.
It was only at the start of 2014 that Sarfraz was finally given the opportunity that he richly deserved — to be Pakistan’s first-choice stumper in Tests. Since then he has been Pakistan’s most prolific run-getter having piled up 508 runs from nine Test innings at an average of 84.66. He has hit two hundreds in three Tests including the ongoing one against Australia in Dubai.
Perhaps more importantly, Sarfraz has instilled much-needed confidence in an otherwise shaky batting line-up. Doing well takes talent, to keep repeating it takes character. The 27-year-old Sarfraz has certainly shown plenty of character.
Another high-profile victim of bad planning or perhaps bad intentions is Younis Khan. He is by far Pakistan’s most accomplished batsman since the exit of his former team-mates Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Yousuf.
Since making his Test debut back in 2000, Younis has served his country with distinction. He has accumulated 7610 runs from 91 Tests at a 50-plus average. The marvelous hundred he hit on the opening day of the first Test in Dubai last week was his 25th. It was his sixth ton in the UAE and made him the only Pakistani batsman to have scored a century against all Test-playing nations. He has averaged over 60 in his last 11 Test innings including three centuries.
Such stats would have helped him walk into any Test line-up. Such stats would have made him king in any Pakistani line-up, across all formats.
But our national selectors overlooked him while picking the One-day International squad for the series against Australia. They didn’t just overlook Younis, they snubbed him. They axed him after Younis had played just one game since getting recalled to the ODI squad in the summer.
In ideal circumstances Pakistan could have dumped Younis from their ODI squad and felt good about it. But at a time when Pakistan’s batting line-up is quite brittle with younger batsmen failing to live up to expectations axing Younis was always a bad idea. And it showed during the limited-overs series against the Australians in the UAE. The Pakistanis struggled to survive even 20 overs forcing their coach Waqar Younis to wonder whether his batters will last long enough in the 50-over games.
Take Younis out of the Test equation and it would seem highly unlikely that Pakistan would have managed to reach even close to 454, their first innings total in the opening Test against the Aussies. When Younis walked in to bat on the opening morning in Dubai, Pakistan were on the back foot at 7-2 with the new-ball duo of Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle on fire. He rebuilt Pakistan’s innings first with Azhar Ali and later with Misbah-ul-Haq. Sarfraz carried on from where Younis left and Pakistan were in a commanding position.
It’s true that Younis doesn’t enjoy a very good track record in ODIs, at least not in recent years. But he is a class act and I don’t have any doubts that his inclusion in Pakistan’s one-day squad will add stability to it. And stability is one thing that Pakistan desperately need in the lead up to next year’s World Cup to be co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand. That is why I believe that our selectors should rethink the decision of excluding Younis from their World Cup plans. He should be part of our ODI line-up for the upcoming ‘home’ series against New Zealand in the UAE.
Talking about selectors, Pakistan have delayed the decision to axe chief selector Moin Khan as the national team manager but it would better for them that they make the call as soon as possible. Moin has hardly proved himself to be worthy of keeping two key positions. Even as chief selector his performance has been questionable. He could be credited for showing faith in Sarfraz since taking over as chief selector. But the axing of Younis under his watch either underlines Moin’s lack of competence or his credibility as chief selector.
Making him wear two hats was a poor decision right from the very start. To make him carry on with the dual role would be criminal.