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Natural selection

June 24, 2009

Shahid Afridi, Kamran Akmal, Younus Khan, Umar Gul? Nope. Mohammed Aamir was Imran Yusuf's favourite World Cup story. The next Twenty20 World Cup takes place in May 2010 and I'm already looking forward to seeing which new left-arm quick we discover for the tournament.

In 2007, Sohail Tanvir emerged, admittedly on the wrong foot, out of nowhere (well, Rawalpindi, but near enough) to sling us to the final. A year later, he was named Best Bowler in the IPL. His rise from obscurity to stardom was as towering as the man himself - six feet, three inches. He hadn't taken a single wicket in ten T20 domestic matches prior to the World Cup, but he looked fully at home in international cricket. What he couldn't do once in 10 domestic games he did three times in four overs against Australia.

Similarly, 2009 saw the emergence of Mohammed Aamir. Seventeen years old, confident and composed, he bowled the first and last overs of the innings in a World Cup final without batting a long-lashed Punjabi eye. And he has smooth shiny hair to rival Shahid Afridi to boot!

So really, where have these guys come from? Is Pakistan's much-maligned domestic system finally acting as a nursery for talent? Tanvir seems to have worked his way up through the system: he represented the Pakistan Academy on their tour of Bangladesh and put in superb performances against Australia A in a home ODI series. Similarly, Aamir went through Pakistan's youth system, participating in U19 tours and tournaments and taking 55 first class wickets last season. It seems he was selected on the basis of a strong domestic season.

The answer is both yes and no.

Countless players have excelled on Pakistan Academy tours or won us U19 World Cups or taken every wicket going in a domestic season. But few make it to play for Pakistan and fewer still stick around and force us to remember their names.

Tanvir's selection was actually a bit of a hunch: the powers-that-be liked the look of him, feeling he'd unsettle top class international batsmen with his action and swing, even though he hadn't taken a wicket in 10 domestic games. Aamir's story has a whiff of destiny about it: Wasim Akram saw him at a 'pace camp' in May 2007 and knew straight away he was the special one amongst special ones. Akram was actually quite gracious and modest on commentary when talking about Aamir. He would've been justified in shouting and screaming something like, 'I made him! He's my creation! He belongs to me!'

Akram, like the rest of us, is very excited by Aamir, and the admiration is mutual, with the youngster worshipping the former captain. If he gains weight in the right places and works on his fitness, he could go all the way. Pre-tournament talk that he was a thinking bowler, one who could work out a batsman, proved justified. Indeed, his first over in the final set the tone for our whole performance. It was calculated and planned, while still having a fresh, spontaneous potency. A 17-year-old bowling the first over of a World Cup final and taking a wicket maiden, the wicket being that of the player of the tournament: no wonder I called my brother the morning after the final to enquire if the whole thing had been a dream.

Where do we get these guys from? And how?

Our selection system has always been somewhat anarchic. As Imran Khan has pointed out, this is to be expected. It’s no different to politics and govenment: if you have strong institutions, the importance of personalities diminishes. With weak institutions, personality and leadership become very important. As captain, Khan was also essentially the chief-selector, something which, under his benevolent dictatorship, worked well in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Khan's involvement shows that our system is realtively weak. Domestic cricket is not and has never been the best criterion to judge a player in Pakistan. Players such as Inzamamul Haq, Aaqib Javed and Waqar Younis were first selected not on the basis of the first class matches they'd played, but on that of a net session with the team and captain.

Javed Miandad came across Akram in 1984, practicing at a Lahore net with a youth team. Akram was 18. A few months later, Miandad insisted he come along and join the national team. The rest is cricketing history, glory, legend and Pepsi adverts.

Tauseef Ahmed similarly went from bit-of-fun-in-the-park cricket to international cricket, seemingly in one leap. Pakistan were having a training camp, and Miandad got a call from a friend urging him to try out a new off-spinner. Miandad agreed but he thought little of it until Tauseef bowled to him and immediately started beating his bat. That did it: Tauseef was selected straight away and took seven wickets on debut against Australia. Who knows - if he hadn't beaten Miandad's edge in the nets that day, he might never have played international cricket.

Hanif Mohammed tells a marvellous story about selection. After Imtiaz Ahmed hung up his gloves, Pakistan were at a loss as to who to have as the next wicketkeeper. Hanif's brother Wazir was an outstanding talent spotter; he regularly pointed out talented youngsters to KCA President Muzaffar Hussain. One day he was walking on the street and he passed St. Patrick's School. It had a low boundary wall, so Wazir watched a few deliveries. He saw a keeper pull of a smart stumping and was so impressed he told Hanif and Muzaffar to get in touch with the boy. The boy turned up at training, and they saw he had strong wrists and fingers - he looked the part. When asked to play, he looked the part even more. He was a natural and he had been found. That boy was Wasim Bari: Pakistan's greatest wicket-keeper.

One still wonders, however, about the thousands of Wasim Baris who played at schools with high boundary walls, the Inzamams that Imran never discovered, the Tauseefs who never had the chance to beat Miandad's bat, and the Mohammed Aamirs who didn't make it to Wasim's pace camp.

We're delighted to have Aamir, an astonishingly promising new left-arm fast-bowler, but as a lover of Pakistani cricket, one can't help but wonder at all those who got away.