x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Too many accidents in Pakistan cricket’s fast lane

Pakistan keeps producing some of most gifted pacemen in the world, yet few are guided properly to success, writes Osman Samiuddin.

Mohammad Irfan injured himself in Pakistan’s home series against South Africa in the UAE. Satish Kumar / The National
Mohammad Irfan injured himself in Pakistan’s home series against South Africa in the UAE. Satish Kumar / The National

Pakistan, vast, populous country that it is, has no trouble finding fast bowlers. There is a system in place, built on equal parts serendipity and organisation, that keeps discovering talent.

It is actually a wonderfully informal network, working mostly outside the influence of the cricket board, built on a strong grapevine running through small clubs, private academies and street tape-ball cricket. It is honed specifically to pick up any little glint out there from under the muck. In fact, word has it that there is a dynamite kid in the same academy in Rawalpindi that produced Mohammad Amir.

Be it an ex-cricketer, an ex-pacer, a local coach or an academy owner, once a diamond has been found, no force on earth will stop him from at least being considered by Pakistan. This is not a production line. It is a democracy.

Pakistan has no real problem in breaking them into the national set-up, either. Once arrived, their talent finds immediate release – note how many make an impression straightaway. Invariably, they come across an Akram, a Waqar or an Aaqib, fast-bowling whisperers, who sprinkle smarts onto them. A future is assured.

Except it never is, or at least not over the past decade. As much as their batting, the administrative blow-outs, the leadership rigmaroles and many controversies, it is the waste of their pace resources that has defined Pakistan’s decade.

Take the series against Sri Lanka, which begins on Wednesday night in Dubai with the first Twenty20. Pakistan will be without Mohammad Irfan, probably for the entire series, at a time when he has just begun to knit a number of unique and frighteningly effective attributes into one: a combination of height and the high pace, the left-arm angle, the swerve, the recognition of the virtues of a fuller length.

He is not here because he was not fit to play the last T20 against South Africa in Dubai, but was compelled to do so because Pakistan felt they had no other choice. At the end of a long series for him, he pulled up injured. How he comes back, when he does, whether he does, nobody really knows.

If the specifics of each case are different, the broad pattern of mismanagement on or off the field is familiar. A bowler is found, bowler arrives, bowler buoyant, bowler lost. Take a glance through the roster of the fast bowlers who have played for Pakistan since the beginning of 2003, a list of 32 players that excludes the two W’s, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, who were almost finished by then.

Of those, only Umar Gul has appeared in half the number of international matches that Pakistan has played in entirety and he barely achieves that percentage (215 of a possible 426 games). The rest, young, middle-aged and old, are not even close.

Pakistan do not play as many Tests as others, so to imagine any of their pacers having played anything near the match totals of the Australia, South Africa or England players is misplaced. But if the good news is that their most regularly used Test fast bowler this decade – Gul again – has played just over half of all Tests (47 of a possible 86) that tells you how bad the bad news really is.

Forget that Dale Steyn or James Anderson, Stuart Broad (Test debut 2007) and Peter Siddle (Test debut 2008) have both played more than Gul. That is a career not even half-formed, stretched thin over a decade.

The really bad news is that they have never managed to play their best pacemen together for long enough, or at all. The careers of Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Amir and Gul overlapped, yet they never once played together. If one was injured, another was banned for doping, if another retired, one was jailed for corruption.

Imagine the damage, imagine the joy of that quartet.

That is one among myriad permutations, ignoring the benefits lesser-acclaimed men such as Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, Rao Iftikhar, Shabbir Ahmed, Shahid Nazir and others could have brought had they been around long enough or bowled with the bigger stars more regularly.

There are many reasons the potent talent pipeline has sometimes clogged, but some are more striking than others. Unlike Akram and Waqar, none of these bowlers had the benefit of a mentor like Imran Khan, who not only dished out bowling tips, but turned them into men.

He controlled every aspect of their lives, including their training, diet and social lives. He was an entire education, his own experiences priming his pupils for longevity.

What he did not provide, county cricket did, helping them work out not just their bowling, but their bodies, too.

The best and worst thing is, Pakistan might not miss Irfan. Few would bat an eye if Usman Shinwari or Bilawal Bhatti won them a game.

What would be surprising, though – and pleasantly so – is if they were still doing it, 10 years and 80 Tests later.