Shahnawaz Dhani, the surprise entry
Shahnawaz Dhani, the surprise entry

Even before the Pakistan squad had boarded the plane for the twin tour of South Africa and Zimbabwe, Babar Azam was making the headlines. The bone of contention was the make-up of the 35-man squad, across all three forms of cricket, with the all-format captain expressing his unhappiness that a couple of players were overlooked by the chief selector.

Pakistan’s cricketing history is laden with such episodes. In the years gone by, captains were often overruled by the national selection committee, with few notable exceptions. The incumbent Prime Minister of the country, Imran Khan, famously stuck to his guns when it came to picking teams during his golden era of dominance in the 1980s.

No selector in those times dared to question Imran’s authoritative image as one of the finest cricketers and the best all-rounder ever produced by Pakistan. The captain more often was the decision-maker, to the extent that the selectors’ job counted for nothing. They were only there to announce the team, which had the seal of approval from the mighty Khan.

Imran, in his time as the Pakistan captain, never felt threatened about being taken to task by the competent authorities, i.e. the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB). His inflexible way of dealing with the selectors was the reason the late Abdul Qadir came to be recognised worldwide as one of the best exponents of leg-spin bowling in the sport’s proud history.

The national cricket team is touring South Africa for three ODIs and four T20 matches followed by another three T20s and two tests in Zimbabwe. What can be expected from a squad that has not been selected as per its captain’s wishes?

One can vividly remember how Imran backed Qadir to the hilt, and insisted that the spinner was good enough to make a major impact in limited-overs cricket, when he picked him for the 1983 World Cup in England. And not only did Qadir make his One-day International debut there, he also left a lasting impression as a real force.

But Babar is certainly no Imran to challenge the selectors’ status. His pre-tour presser was a clear pointer that he isn’t that strong. Well, thus far. Babar’s preferred choice, Yasir Shah, who is reportedly battling a knee injury, has been axed in favour of fellow leggie Zahid Mahmood. Another valid reason for Yasir’s exclusion for the two Tests in Zimbabwe is his poor showings on the African continent, which, of course, also includes South Africa.

Moreover, the words Babar mumbled during his presser were apparently just to appease everyone, in a damage-control sort of exercise. There was news of him being on a different page with Mohammad Wasim, who had announced only his first multiple squad for the white-ball series in South Africa and the Test and T20 sides for the Zimbabwe leg.

Wasim has so far enjoyed a brief, but extremely successful, period after Pakistan head coach Misbah-ul-Haq opted to give up his contentious position of being the chief selector as well since the departure of both Mickey Arthur (head coach) and Inzamam-ul-Haq (chairman of selectors) after they completed their three-year terms in 2019.

Make no mistake about the vision of the relatively new chairman of the national selection committee, which also includes the head coaches of the six first-class domestic teams. Wasim has been well-received primarily because he is very keen on giving international exposure to the previously neglected crop of top performers.

There are no better examples of this philosophy than the selections of Nauman Ali and Zahid Mahmood. The spinning duo, both hailing from interior parts of Sindh, excelled on their debuts — when South Africa toured the country earlier this year — in the Test and T20 formats, respectively and capped their maiden appearances with match-winning contributions.

With the rescheduled T20 World Cup coming up in India later in the year, Wasim has valid reasons to experiment. He wants to try out a maximum number of players in the bilateral series that Pakistan will play from now onwards in the lead-up to the global event.

The return of spot-fixing-tainted Sharjeel Khan after a four-year hiatus from the international arena, however, has raised many an eyebrow, with doubts lingering over his overall fitness to withstand the rigours of Twenty20 Internationals. But Wasim still believes that the portly left-hander is an impact player who could be an asset in the role of an explosive partner for the much more orthodox Babar at the top of the T20 Pakistan side.

Moreover, the selection of Shahnawaz Dhani (pronounced Dahani) for the Test squad may have come as a big surprise, considering the energetic pacer from Larkana broke into first-class cricket only in the 2019-2020 domestic season. It was only during the recently aborted Pakistan Super League (PSL), that he really attracted attention, while representing Multan Sultans. Dhani, however, left no one doubting his growing reputation as someone who hardly lets his pace drop. The rangy 22-year-old right-armer also proved this in the eight red-ball fixtures that he played for Sindh, be it his first spell or the fourth, late in the day.

Former Pakistan all-rounder Azhar Mahmood, the current bowling coach at Multan Sultans, is a big fan of Dhani. He has already predicted a bright future for the rising talent of Pakistan cricket, if he continues to keep going with the same enthusiasm and the endless level of energy. It is not Dhani alone among the pace bowlers who have suddenly emerged at the doorsteps of international cricket. Islamabad United’s teenage all-rounder Mohammad Wasim too finds himself in both white-ball squads while Arshad Iqbal of Karachi Kings has been inducted in the T20 party.

Bending rules for certain selections — such as Sharjeel — has, however, opened up a Pandora’s Box. The mantra for picking only those individuals who meet the fitness criteria set by the PCB and elevating someone such as Abdullah Shafiq to the Test squad, despite the fact that the right-handed batsman has only appeared in a solitary first-class game — and that too as long ago as December 2019 — are decisions which are obviously mindboggling.

How is Abdullah rated good enough to merit inclusion at this point in time on the back of a below-par domestic season? After scoring back-to-back ducks in two T20 Internationals in New Zealand, he was not even considered by any of the franchises for the PSL 2021. The chief selector should have the courage to explain his reasoning behind ignoring the claims of the now tragically discarded Test opener Shan Masood, ostensibly on the pretext that his game is subverted by flaws in his technique.

Debates on team selection are virtually part and parcel of sports — particularly in our part of the world — until the real contests begin on the field of play. The great Wasim Akram made a valid point as recent as last Sunday. While saying sarcastically that he doesn’t like indulging in matters pertaining to selections due to paucity of time, he said, “it is good to have differences of opinion and healthy debate between the stakeholders involved.”

At the end of the day, the onus is on the Pakistan team to prove it is ready for the challenge of rectifying its track record on the ODI front against South Africa, which shows a colossal 50 defeats in 79 matches and only 28 victories. The T20 stats are almost evenly matched, with South Africa winning an extra game to Pakistan’s eight in 17 fixtures.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe are once again chasing an elusive first win in the forthcoming three-match rubber against Pakistan, after losing each of their previous 14 T20 matches. These sides will also be contesting in a Test series for the first time since 2013, with Pakistan having won 10 of the 17 Tests and lost thrice, including the last one.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 28th, 2021

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