LAHORE: An eventful week after the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) had “reorganised” the national selection committee culminated on Sunday with the return of Babar Azam as the side’s white-ball skipper.

The selection committee — comprising former Test cricketers Wahab Riaz, Asad Shafiq, Mohammad Yousuf and Abdul Razzaq along with data analyst Bilal Afzal — after it was named last week by PCB chairman Mohsin Naqvi, was tasked with choosing a national captain with the T20 World Cup just two months away.

The selectors were mulling over who would be the next Pakistan captain despite Shaheen Shah Afridi — now Babar’s predecessor — showing no intent to give up the armband after one series in charge, a 4-1 Twenty20 drubbing in New Zealand in January this year.

As per the PCB, it wasn’t Shaheen’s failure against the Black Caps but his history of injuries that may lead to the pacer’s potential unavailability in the future, a reason which made the selection committee replace him with Babar as skipper.

“In a strategic move aimed at ensuring players’ well-being and peak performance, the board overhauled the white-ball leadership,” the PCB said in a statement on Sunday. “Babar, renowned for his brilliant batting record in international cricket, will take over the captaincy from Shaheen Shah Afridi.”

The decision, as the statement read further, “aligns with board’s commitment to safeguarding the longevity of the players, especially fast bowlers given their injury timelines in the past two years”.

Shaheen’s injury absence during the 2022 Asia Cup and his struggles in the following T20 World Cup in Australia factored into the PCB’s call to bring Babar back at the helm. So did the unavailability of fast bowler Naseem Shah in the 50-over 2023 World Cup staged in India in October-November.

“Keeping in mind workload management, this decision is to ensure Pakistan’s main bowlers remain at the top of their game,” the PCB reasoned. “The board does not want the national men’s team to run into injury crisis concerning the bowling resources as seen before the 2022 ICC T20 World Cup, where Shaheen had to be closely looked after and the 2023 ICC ODI World Cup, where the team didn’t have the services of Naseem Shah.

“While Shaheen has undeniably proven himself as a star fast bowler, leading Pakistan’s pace attack over the years, the board recognises the importance of rotation and rest to maintain his peak performance.”

It was only after the World Cup in India — where Pakistan failed to make the semi-finals — that Babar was asked to stepped down as captain by then PCB Interim Management Committee chairman Zaka Ashraf before the batter resigned reluctantly.

Babar’s removal was followed by that of the then Pakistan team management staff, led by team director Mickey Arthur, and the appointment of Mohammad Hafeez as the South African’s successor as part of a major shake-up that also saw Zaka appoint Shaheen as the T20 captain and Shan Masood as Test skipper.

But as 29 Pakistan probables, including Babar and Shaheen, have been toiling in a fitness camp at the country’s premier military academy in Kakul since Tuesday, the selectors, it had emerged, kept Shaheen in the dark over the developments regarding the captaincy.

Meanwhile, they had offered the role to Babar, who had set his conditions “too harsh” for taking up the mantle again, as per Dawn’s understanding. That forced the PCB to send the selectors to Kakul to meet Babar, who, according to sources, demanded captaincy of all three formats, complete authority as skipper and a lenient hand from the board in case of failure.

The PCB’s final decision suggested it gave in to conditions set by Babar, who was still not confirmed as the Test captain. Shaheen said he looked forward to playing under Babar again.

“It was an absolute honour to captain Pakistan’s national cricket team,” he was quoted as saying in the PCB statement. “I will always cherish the memories and the opportunity.

“As a team player, it is my duty to back our captain, Babar Azam. I have played under his captaincy and have nothing but respect for him.”

Babar’s first assignment in his second coming is set to be Pakistan’s upcoming five-match T20 home series against New Zealand, before the team flies to Ireland and England for six more fixtures of the same format.

The three series are all that Pakistan have got to prepare for the T20 World Cup, which is slated to held in the US and the West Indies in June.

“It was a pleasure to play under Shaheen’s leadership in the recent T20I series,” Babar was quoted as saying in the press release. “He is still young and is improving as a player and as leader every day.

“As a captain, I have always valued his input and I will keep consulting him for important decisions going forward. We must take advantage of his strategic understanding of the game.”

With veteran players Imad Wasim and Mohammad Amir back into contention for a place in the Pakistan squad for the extravaganza after having rescinded their respective retirements recently following negotiations with the PCB, Babar will have a challenge at hand.

Both the players have been critical of Babar’s approach as captain while the right-hander has generally been accused of demonstrating favouritism in the national team selection.

As per the PCB’s new policy, Babar will also be a part of the selection committee, which is supposed to be a seven-member body, with its only missing cog now, a head coach, yet to be named.

According to the latest developments, former South African batter Gary Kirsten is leading the race for the post of red-ball coach, while ex-Australia pacer Jason Gillespie is being considered for the white-ball position as the PCB looks to have separate coaches for both versions of the sport.

Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2024

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