x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

India can take a leaf out of Pakistan cricket and invest in the future

Youngsters such as Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq, and comeback players of Mohammad Hafeez's stature are reason they are Asia's best cricket team today. India should do the same.

Pakistan look to build their batting line-up around the young Azhar Ali.
Pakistan look to build their batting line-up around the young Azhar Ali.

There are few relationships as complicated as that shared by Indian and Pakistani cricket supporters. For the more serious among them, any thoughts of rivalry are underpinned by awareness of a shared heritage, of an acknowledgement that no other contest gets the pulse racing in quite the same way.

There is mutual admiration, too, sometimes veiled, sometimes overt.

A former Pakistan Cricket Board chief expresses a desire to see a young player emerge who is "as impressive and articulate" as Rahul Dravid. Indian captains from decades past speak of their yearning for a fast bowler with Wasim Akram's incomparable skills.

At times, the fans, too, have bought into this. When Pakistan held their nerve for a 12-run win in perhaps the greatest Test contested by the two sides (1999), a Chennai crowd stood and applauded them on a lap of honour.

Five years later, Karachi returned the favour as India won by five runs in the opening match of their first full tour across the border in 15 years.

With political relations so tense though, an undercurrent of malice has never been far away, especially in the stands, where some of the emotions expressed are right up there with the Neanderthal chants you get at Old Firm games between Glasgow rivals Rangers and Celtic in Scotland.

Indian and Pakistani fans do not do banter. On the rare occasions when it happens, you do not forget it.

At Trent Bridge in England in 2009, after Pakistan had held off South Africa to seal their place in the World Twenty20 final, a banner was held aloft that was an adaptation of a well-known commercial: "Cost of match ticket: £40 (Dh228), Cost of replica shirt: £20, India going home: Priceless."

But for that T20 victory, it has been a lean decade for Pakistan cricket. That it has coincided with Indian cricket's finest hours has made it doubly painful. While India climbed to the top of the Test rankings and clinched a second 50-over World Cup last April, Pakistan have struggled to match the achievements of the glory years under Imran Khan.

But as Bob Dylan sang, The Times They Are A-Changin'. Pakistan have won seven and lost just one of 13 Tests since the spot-fixing debacle, while India have been walloped in England and Australia. After years of playing third fiddle, Pakistan are suddenly at the forefront of Asian cricket again. Should they see off England in the ongoing series, there will be a renewed clamour for matches against an ageing Indian side that appears to be there for the taking.

In the months to come, India may also come to the galling realisation that they need to follow the Pakistan blueprint to arrest the slide. The first step is to acknowledge that the greats about to walk into the sunset will not be easily replaced.

No one will argue yet that Azhar Ali or Asad Shafiq have Mohammad Yousuf's quality, but what Pakistan have done is give two young men belief that a future line-up can be built around them. India need to do the same with Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma.

In lean times, you also need to look at what has been carelessly cast aside. Two years ago, few thought that Mohammad Hafeez had what it took to succeed at the highest level.

But since returning to the side as a 30 year old, the man they call The Professor averages 41.9 with the bat and 28.27 with the ball. At the top of the order, he and Taufeeq Umar have given the side a solidity that has eluded India in recent times.

India too have an all-rounder waiting on the fringes. Irfan Pathan is just 27. He also has 100 Test wickets and a batting technique far more robust than some we have seen this winter. With the team sinking like a stone, Indian cricket could clutch at worse straws.

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