Age-old story

April 11, 2012


On 19th February 2006, two Pakistani fast bowlers walked out at the Premadasa in Colombo playing the biggest game of their lives, the finals of the U-19 World-Cup against bitter rivals India. Their batsmen had been skittled for a mere 109 and they seemed to be in a hole too deep to climb out of. A stunning turn of events, however, not only propelled them out of trouble but put them on course, in just 4 overs of their defence.

India was reeling at 9 for 6 as the right and left arm pair destroyed the in-form top order through some magical swing bowling. Pakistan was crowned champion, the only team ever to retain the trophy. This was not just one for the record books, it was custom-made for U-19 folklore; ostentatious Pakistani fans, recalling the miracles at Hamilton or the 92 World Cup, boasted of this as a trademark performance.

The sensational duo of Anwar Ali and Jamshed Ahmed had taken 29 wickets amongst themselves, making them the bowling pair of the Cup, with Akhtar Ayub supporting them well. Batting seemed typically fragile and only two batsmen crossed 50 through the fortnight. The highest run getter Nasir Jamshed modestly averaged 25.6 with a best of 37. Coach Mansoor Rana praised the captain who was the second most successful keeper and suggested that Sarfraz Ahmed could captain the national team.

The batting was nothing to write about, the bowling was sublime and under astute leadership the bottom line was: these lads were world champions with a bright future.

That year also showcased talent from Australia’s David Warner and Usman Khwaja, India’s Rohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja, Angelo Mathews from Sri Lanka, Craig Kieswetter and Wayne Parnell from South Africa, Tim Southee and Martin Guptil from New Zealand, Mushfiqur Rahim and Shakib al Hasan from Bangladesh, Kieron Pollard from West Indies and Eoin Morgan from Ireland. England with no indigenous talent customarily roped in Kieswetter and Morgan into their fold a little later.

Though the U-19 setup brought the likes of Inzamam-ul-Haq, Mushtaq Ahmed, Abdul Razzak and Umar Akmal, they did not rise through the ranks in a system of academies or domestic cricket but were simultaneously blooded into the international arena. Raw talented teenagers like Wasim Akram (was picked by Javed Miandad from an U-19 net session), Waqar Younis, Saqlain Mushtaq and Mohammad Amir by-passed the system.

Notables who came through the domestic system such as Mohammad Yousuf, Younis Khan, Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif amongst others were never a part of the U-19 campaign.

Pakistan is the only country to have played four U-19 World-Cup finals in its short history of eight but few names from it lived large.  Accredit this to the lack of infrastructure, misguidance, mismanagement, ISI, IPL, NCA or the corrupt political culture of bias; the parchee system. However, the crux of the U-19 quagmire might be that those who were glorified as uncut diamonds of Pakistan might have been an illusion created through the inaccuracy of their age.

Hence, the disparity between those who succeed at the U-19 level, and those who successfully proceed to excel at the domestic level and breakthrough onto the world stage.

Understating age is not just an open secret but a norm in Pakistan’s sporting culture and at an age when muscles build fast, a year or two can completely change physical strength. While it maybe a generalisation, it is surely one of the reasons why the talented ‘juniors’ have not made it big. The few that have, had to be exceptional talents, while for the others it can be argued whether they were playing to an advantage: physical superiority as compared to their actual U-19 counterparts?

World champions in 2006, today in their mid-20’s, on paper at least, should be at the peak of their powers. Unfortunately, only Sarfraz has made it through to the fray of test cricket while Nasir Jamshed has played ODI’s. Apart from Anwar Ali and Rameez Raja Jr, who barely knocked on T20 doors, the rest have faded away with time and have little hope of ever making it big. This, a similar in fate to the team Khalid Latif led to U-19 glory in 2004.

Two world cup winning teams failed to produce even one world class cricketer?

Pakistan has 7 of the 10 youngest test centurions; a skewed stat as 33 of the 90 youngest debutants are Pakistanis while only one South African, one Englishman and three Australians feature in the list. The youngest was the 14-year-old (discredited) Hasan Raza. Make you wonder if Shahid Afridi was really 16 in Kenya, did Abdul Razzaq just turn 32, was Mushtaq Mohammed really 15 when he faced Wesley Hall. Was Mohammed Bin Qasim really 17 when he invaded the Sub-Continent?

Why does an U-19 prodigy feel completely out of place on the domestic circuit and takes time to come to terms with it? It’s just math, he was playing against an opposition who were far younger than him, in most cases. When the same lad stepped up and was either on an even keel or playing with older domestic cricketers, an accurate picture of his ability came through. With a weak domestic infrastructure, a dysfunctional academy and board which is apathetic towards its greatest assets, the importance of nurture on and off the field, too cannot be highlighted enough.

And while it is true that junior cricketers face quite a few more hurdles in Pakistan, and South Asia for that matter, than they boys in say Australia and or South Africa, what we often slide under the carpet or conveniently turn a blind eye to could be one of the major reasons of failure of these boys.

The writer grew up in a home with sports as its religion and “The Cricketer” subscription of black and white pages as holy script. He resides in Istanbul and can be reached here.

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