With empty seats either side of him, Asad Umar appeared isolated. The Finance Minister of Pakistan had stepped down from his post. There was glee from the opposition, and confusion among his supporters. But soon that gave way to the most Pakistani of reactions: gossip mongering. Was he with the “establishment”? Was there a fissure in the party? Were there people on his side contributing to his downfall? Did the government even have an adequate replacement? And if there were none then did he even do a bad enough job to be removed?
Asad Umar had struggled to deal with Pakistan’s economic crisis, as had most of the new government. One solution they did not consider which would have been a sure-fire success would have been to somehow monetize conspiracy theorising and gossip mongering; a cryptocurrency powered by cow fertilizer if you will. A way for all the hot air on TV to actually be put to some use. Heck, the hogwash on the sports pages alone may have been enough to power Pakistan out of this crisis.
A few hours after Asad Umar’s announcement another person who owed much of his career to Imran Khan sat alone, across the press corps. Except this was no resignation announcement as many had hoped for in the preceding months. It was the Pakistani Chief Selector, Inzamam-ul-Haq, taking the stage to announce Pakistan’s preliminary squad for the 2019 ICC World Cup. In the end, there was no real surprise, perhaps with the exception of Mohammad Amir’s exclusion. But for anyone who has followed Pakistan cricket, or particularly the media around it, over the past nine months the normalcy of the squad did come as a surprise – none more so than with the captain.
Eight months ago, when a hectic season started for the Pakistan team, Sarfraz Ahmed already had question marks over his suitability as a leader. Never mind that at that stage, in less than eighteen months since taking the job as captain, he had led Pakistan to the Champions Trophy victory and to the top of the T20I rankings, and had lost only one white ball series in that time period. Through a poor Asia Cup and home season in the UAE his position became weaker – rumors abounded about his fitness for the role; campaigns to get Shoaib Malik or Mohammad Hafeez the job floated around. Despite protestations from the PCB, including from the Chairman, the rumor mill still churned. What was surprising was that much of the rumors did not come from those who were questioning Sarfraz, but those that were supposedly defending him. The questions asked of him, and the conversation around him was eerily similar to what Asad Umar faced: Was he backed by the PCB (read: Punjabi) establishment? Was there a fissure in the dressing room? Were the people who were supposed to back him contributing to his downfall? Did the PCB even have an adequate replacement? And if there was none then did he even do a bad enough job for anyone to ask for his removal?
In the end, perhaps helped by the complete failure of his replacements, he was where he was always supposed to be. The PCB and the dressing room had contributed to a lot of insecurity, gossip and internal strife that had affected the performances on the field, and all of it was for nought.
That really is the story of the past season and Pakistan’s preparation for the World Cup. Not since Geraldo walked into a vault has there been so much consternation over nothing. Eleven of the fifteen announced as part of the squad had been there in the Champions Trophy. Two of the additions, Shaheen Afridi and Imam-ul-Haq, had forced their way into guarantees as part of the squad by their performances over the past twelve months. Abid Ali now occupies the role that had then previously been occupied by Ahmed Shehzad – the third opener who is unlikely to play a game unless everything goes horribly wrong.
The narrative states that Abid Ali has forced himself into the team with three exceptional domestic seasons. The word “topper” gets thrown around when referencing him. Never mind that there are several players – including the likes of Shan Masood and Khurram Manzoor among openers – who have scored more at a higher rate than him in this time period. But in the grand scheme of things he is very much the secondary back-up batsmen, and for that role to be occupied by the flavor-of-the-month isn’t really worth fretting over. His selection allows the PCB to appease the parts of the media that have been affronted by the over-reliance on PSL products for the national team. They had used Abid as the cudgel to beat the PCB with when they wanted the board to give respect to the domestic cricket none of them actually cover.
Now some of you may be wondering why it’s the PCB’s job to appease anyone, let alone the media – to them I’d just like to say, “Hi, welcome to Pakistan.”
The only real surprises in the squad are in the pace bowling department. With Hassan Ali, Faheem Ashraf and Shaheen Afridi considered guarantees due to their performances both with the national team and the PSL, there were two slots up for grabs. There were no safe bets for those slots. Pakistan have played 33 ODIs since the Champions Trophy Final; Hasan Ali and Faheem Ashraf are the only pacers to have played more than half those (although both of them have missed ten or more ODIs too).
Usman Shinwari had the most impressive record on the surface - 28 wickets in 15 ODIs, but he had consistently been tagged, and the quality of performances seemed to be inversely proportional to the quality of teams he was facing. Junaid Khan had 14 wickets in 12 ODIs at an average of 30 but an economy rate under 5, but he has been treated as the step-child among pacers over the past two years. Then there was Mohammad Amir – who took 3 wickets in a five-over spell in the Champions Trophy final, and has followed that up with five wickets in 101 overs since. And then there were the outside shots – Mohammad Abbas trying to prove he’s not merely the Pakistani Philander; and Mohammad Hasnain who has been identified as the solution to Pakistan’s greatest concern – the one that gnaws at them every time they think about their history and legacy – the lack of express pace in the bowling unit.
The safe bets would have been Shinwari and Amir. Shinwari still had the numbers, and Hasnain aside, may be the quickest bowler Pakistan have. And Amir, for all his problems, was likely to be backed by a cricket establishment that has always believed in moments and experience over numbers: Pakistan, after all, took Younis Khan to the 2015 World Cup, despite a decade of evidence suggesting against it. And Amir is a player who has been defined by a decade of moments – both positive and negative. Thus, the fact that both of them were relegated in favour of Hasnain and Junaid came as a surprise.
But Pakistan still have five weeks till they finalize their squad for the World Cup. So at least we know what the rumors over the next month or so are going to be about - who will Amir replace if he actually turns up for the England series. Beyond that, it’s anyone's guess.
Hassan Cheema is the Team Manager of PSL franchise Islamabad United
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