Salman Butt’s epic knock of 108 not out at the BCCI Platinum Jubilee match in 2004, which took Pakistan to a fantastic six-wicket victory against India was among the performances that firmly set him on to the road to stardom. It was a path to fame that many others would have gladly taken, and Salman too seemed to grab this opportunity to build his career with both hands.
In July 2010, when a despondent and typically unpredictable Shahid Afridi gave up captaincy of the Pakistan Test team after his side’s comprehensive defeat at the hands of Australia at Lord’s, the Pakistan Cricket Board took little time in appointing the then 25-year-old Butt as the next Test captain. This was no shock, as many had identified Salman as one destined for this role, early on.
However, the young cricketer's reign as Test captain was not a long one. In August 2010, during the series against England, the world of cricket was shocked by the emergence of the now well-known ‘spot-fixing’ scandal which saw Salman, Mohammad Amir, and the more experienced Mohammad Asif identified as culprits in a scheme which was to bring disrepute to the game, and to Pakistan.
The ICC acted with resolve and banned from all forms of cricket the three players, for a period of five years, which expired in September of 2015.
While Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif were looked upon as accomplices in the ‘spot-fixing’ plot, the brunt of public resentment was directed at Salman Butt. To many, he was simply the ring-leader and therefore not subject to the sort of empathy that Amir elicited and which lead to the left-arm fast-bowler’s eventual return to the international side in 2016. For Salman, however, no such public support existed and despite protestations to the contrary, his wait to resume his international career — which stood at 135 matches — continues to this day.
However, it appears that there is light at the end of the tunnel for Butt and reason for optimism, based on recent remarks made by chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq. Ul-Haq offered some hope regarding the former Pakistan captain's return to international cricket. Butt later said, “It was very encouraging to hear Inzamam-ul-Haq's comments about me and the possibility of (me) being selected for the Pakistan A squad for the upcoming tour of Zimbabwe. His words have given me inspiration to work even harder and perform even better in domestic cricket this season. This is exactly the good news I had been waiting for and I feel I am on the right track for a return to international cricket.”
Inzamam’s words may have brought some comfort, but Salman knows that it won’t be easy to regain the respect of his fellow countrymen, especially those who felt humiliated as a result of the spot-fixing scandal. Prominent among these is TV commentator and former Pakistan batsman Ramiz Raja, who minced no words in criticising any moves to allow disgraced cricketers back into the national squad. For Salman, such views are painful but he knows that despite all his efforts, there will always be some who will never forgive him.
“A few people mentioned Ramiz Raja's recent comments about me and I have always respected him as a former Pakistan cricketer and a senior player, and I will continue to respect him. He is entitled to his opinion I guess, but my aim is to do well for Pakistan and change his opinions about me. Our future is not in the hands of any individual, rather it is God's wish what happens and He controls our destiny. You cannot have positive opinions about yourself from everyone and that's just the way it is,” Butt said.
For the moment, the former Pakistan batsman knows that he will have to continue to work assiduously at his game at the domestic level as only that metric will be used to measure his suitability for a return to the national side. He explained, “I'm really happy with my performances in domestic cricket since my return to cricket, especially considering that I was making a comeback after six years. If I am being honest, I was expecting an international recall sooner... but I'll be more than happy whenever that international recall comes. I've had to be patient, but I'm on it, I'm working hard and I'm hopeful and confident that I will wear the Pakistan shirt once again.”
He may be putting a brave face on it, but there is an air of desperation in Salman Butt’s pleas for a chance to represent his country. All he can do is to put in the hard-yards in domestic cricket which are a pre-requisite for a consideration for a return to international cricket.
“I was amongst the top run-scorers in last season's Quaid-e-Azam Trophy and in 2016, I was the second highest run-scorer in the National One-Day Cup and the National T20 Cup. I was the only opening batsman among the leading run scorers in the aforementioned domestic competitions. I think now it's a case of proving myself in international cricket once again as I have already proved my credentials again in domestic cricket,” he said.
Being away from cricket for a few matchess or a season does make it difficult to perform in today’s fast-paced game but imagine the effect on the human body if a cricketer was kept away from all competition for almost six years. To Salman’s credit, while the mental anguish related to the enforced separation from cricket may have taken a toll, he has kept himself in good shape and recently impressed national coaches with his fitness. “The six-year gap naturally affected me, but as far as fitness is concerned I am as fit if not fitter than I was when I was regularly playing for Pakistan," Butt averred. "My hard work has paid off and I proved to the Pakistan coaching staff recently at the training camp at the National Cricket Academy in Lahore that my levels of fitness have not deteriorated and my desire to play once again for my country has not diminished. I feel that the more I play cricket, the better I will get. I'm working hard and waiting for my opportunity to play for Pakistan again.”
As Pakistan cricket looks ahead to the future — which will sadly not contain the familiar faces of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan due to their retirements — it is logical for the team managements and coaching staff to ensure that the right blend of youth and experience is retained in the team. In this regard, Salman Butt’s progress is important as he could play a crucial role in any future involvement with the Pakistan team. This is probably the reason why special attention has been given to him by Pakistan team management as explained by Salman's inclusion in the recent fitness camp.
"It was fantastic to be called up to the training camp and it was a wonderful opportunity working with the national coaches and training alongside the current Pakistan international players. The coaching staff could see for themselves who the better players were and work out the skill sets of the players at the camp. Mickey Arthur encouraged me a lot at the camp and he was happy with my progress and that was very uplifting for me. Grant Flower was working with me and he has been very helpful with working on a few things with me regarding my batting. He and the other coaches were always there if I needed to ask them anything and that was very useful," Salman said, of the experience.
It is clear that at almost 33 years of age, the left-handed batsman will need to summon extreme mental strength in the face of constant rejection by selectors who may well be ignoring Salman’s performances and instead focussing on the public outcry if a tainted individual was brought back into the fold. Salman accepts that to gain the respect of fans and fellow players will be a tough ask but he is convinced that he is doing enough to make this goal a reality.
"I captained WAPDA to the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy glory last season and we are hopeful that we can replicate last season's success. As a cricketer and on a personal note, I want to have another good domestic season and remind the selectors that I am still good enough to play at the highest level," he said, then added: "All I can do is to keep performing and keep hoping that my chance for Pakistan will once again come."