ICC Champions Trophy 2017: PSL the catalyst behind Pakistan's title triumph against all odds
The PSL is not a breeding ground for young players, it is also a platform for unknown talented youngsters to showcase their skills and groom them while playing with some of the best players in the world.
If a team ranked bottom in any given tournament ends up winning it, inevitably words like 'miracle' and 'unbelievable' are attached to it. Often the effort that goes behind the victory is ignored and the path they followed to get there is overlooked. Pakistan’s Champions Trophy triumph is no different, the cricket world is in shock at the moment coming up with the usual clichés such as “the unpredictability of Pakistan cricket” and “cornered tigers” in an attempt to make sense of how Pakistan actually ended up going all the way.
Pakistan’s rise isn’t a long thought out process but it isn’t a fluke either. One of the most used clichés in sports is, “to win you need a mixture of youth and experience” and that isn’t wrong in Pakistan’s case. While there were experienced campaigners in the team like Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik, who have been playing international cricket for well over a decade, most of the standout performers in the tournament were either relatively new or not heard of up until two years ago. That all changed with the first edition of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) which helped in the development of not only Pakistan’s younger players but also helped the captain become more authoritative.
While Sarfraz Ahmed was always touted to eventually become Pakistan’s captain after he led the Under-19 side to the 2006 World Cup crown, his development wasn’t as fast paced as expected. In fact, there were so many doubts about him when he first started playing international cricket that he was dropped, and many thought he was not good enough to make a comeback. He not only made his comeback but well and truly established himself in the team eventually. His leadership, however, was yet to fulfill the promise it had shown in 2006.
Sarfraz captained a star-studded Karachi side on numerous occasions in the domestic T20 league before the PSL started, but he had the unwanted record of never winning a final. Karachi inevitably reached the final in almost every tournament but never won it. Often Sarfraz would captain the team in the preliminary stages only for the big guns to return in the knockout matches and take control of the team. That control and leadership element changed in the PSL, Sarfraz was picked by Quetta Gladiators in their second draft pick; he became the first Pakistani non-iconic category player to be picked in the draft.
This move showed the franchise's faith in Sarfraz Ahmed; after all it is owned by Omar associates, a company that has always supported cricket in Pakistan and has a cricket team in which Sarfraz grew up. Quetta Gladiators’ manager, Azam Khan, has raised Sarfraz on the cricket field and it was no surprise when the Gladiators named him captain. This was the first time since the 2006 World Cup that Sarfraz was given complete backing by the management that included Viv Richards. Any fears that he had about leading big players and implementing his own ideas on huge stars were eradicated. He captained a team containing world stars like Kevin Pietersen and Pakistani heroes such as Umar Gul.
As the first edition of the PSL progressed, you could see Sarfraz growing in confidence as a leader, he managed to control and get the best out of Pietersen, something England failed to do. He was bold enough to drop the likes of Gul and even managed to keep Ahmed Shehzad in control, something many in Pakistan cricket haven’t been able to do. Quetta lost the finals in both years but the experience of handling these stars clearly turned him into a much more confident leader.
Sarfraz’s teammate, a certain Anwar Ali, was Man-of-the-Match in the 2006 U-19 World Cup final. He was supposed to be Pakistan’s next big thing but he disappeared from the scene right after the World Cup. Later his career suffered due to numerous injuries. Had he not been sidelined back when he was 19, who knows what he might have achieved in those early years. Often in Pakistan such talent either goes unnoticed or isn’t polished, but that can’t happen any longer. Rumman Raees and Hasan Ali made their debuts for Pakistan within one year of playing the inaugural edition of the PSL. The media hype that surrounds good performances in the league makes it impossible for selectors to ignore or overlook such talent.
It isn’t just about showcasing talent via the league, it is also about grooming yourself and developing an understanding of the game. Shadab Khan’s rise to the top is unprecedented in the modern era, an 18-year-old taking the world by storm. While Shadab had the skills, talent and all the other prerequisites for becoming a top player, he was groomed in the PSL. In his debut match, he was expensive. However, instead of forgetting about an 18-year-old kid who hasn't reached his potential, Dean Jones and Saeed Ajmal worked with the young kid.
They told him about the slight changes he needed to make. Ajmal gave him a lot of advice, ranging from changes to his run-up to the advantages of chewing gum for calming yourself down. Take nothing away from Shadab, he was able to process the information and implement it only because he is a quick learner. Multiple-time World Cup winner Shane Watson words to Shadab about how good he was and and how he didn’t need to suck up to anyone, must have greatly helped his self-belief. This is a kid who was a victim of nepotism less than a year ago when he was dropped from a domestic one-day cup match for an administrator’s son, now he is a national hero.
Another thing that hampers growth of young players in Pakistan is lack of media support and attention since domestic cricket’s broadcasting is well below par. Players who are more marketable always find a way to make comebacks because they know how to stay relevant via TV channels. In the first edition of the PSL, a certain Hasan Ali was brought into the press box for a post-match conference. One senior journalist complained about him not being famous enough and said, “Yeh kaunsa dou daant wala baqra le aye ho” (Who is this two-teethed sheep?). In normal circumstances that might have been ignored but a franchise backs its investments. Abdul Rehman, the manager of Peshawar Zalmi lost his cool at the journalist and confronted him.
Zalmi fully backed Hasan, so much so that they kept playing him despite not having to, since they already had one emerging player in the XI, and the player didn’t disappoint. Hasan kept performing and kept improving. That must have done a world of good to Hasan’s confidence. His death bowling has improved vastly this year, he nails his yorkers far more regularly now and that is no surprise given he trained with someone like Chris Jordan, who is a death-overs specialist.
It is important for the younger lot to gain wisdom from their predecessors, however, there is such a huge divide between retired Pakistani stars and up-and-coming youngsters that the progress is slow. An 18-year-old developing opener in domestic cricket can’t just call Saeed Anwar up for advice, he has to get Anwar’s attention first in order to communicate with him. This gap between retired players and younger stars has also been bridged by the PSL. Raees was making his ODI debut against England in the Champions Trophy but it looked like he had been playing international cricket for over a decade.
This is no surprise given Raees had taken advice from Wasim Akram before playing. Raees said, “I talked to Wasim bhai and asked him what I should do if I play. He told me the line and length to focus on, and how I should just be relaxed and believe in my ability. So I was pretty relaxed, I don’t have nerves any longer. What’s the worst that can happen? I have played in front of jam-packed crowds in the PSL, I have been hit for sixes and I have gotten the best batsmen out so why would I have nerves? I have already experienced it all before.”
Wasim is Islamabad United’s mentor and someone who has guided Raees. At first Raees used to hesitate in asking his hero for advice, but because they had to interact on a daily basis in the PSL, he felt far more relaxed around the bowling legend and now has no qualms in asking for help.
Pakistanis are obsessed with playing 'fearless' cricket, something Fakhar Zaman did throughout the tournament. Fakhar isn’t some kid who just suddenly started scoring runs, he has been doing so for the Pakistan 'A' team and on the domestic cricket for a while. He is one of the top 'A' team performers in Pakistan but even Fakhar credits his fearless approach in the Champions Trophy to his captain at Lahore Qalandars, Brendon Mccullum. Fakhar said, “I learnt a lot from him. And I saw him the other day after my debut and he's told me so many things that are working for me. So it's a great experience to have a captain like Brendon McCullum.” Fakhar would never have had a chance to groom under someone like McCullum if it wasn’t for the PSL.
Take nothing away from Pakistan national team’s staff, management and the influence of more experienced players on the team during this tournament. They have been able to pull off one cricket’s most unexpected triumphs but even they know the importance of the PSL. Coach Mickey Arthur said, "PSL exposes more and more young players to pressure situations, and I think the more we can expose our guys to those situations, the better results we get out on the ground. In the PSL we're getting all our top players rubbing shoulders with some of the best players around the world, so that is rubbing off on our cricket now, which certainly there had been a void for a period of time."
The PSL is not a breeding ground for young players, it is also a platform for unknown talented youngsters to showcase their skills and groom them while playing with some of the best and most experienced players in the world. Pakistan isn’t going to start dominating the world of cricket and producing great batsmen overnight just because of the PSL but one thing this league guarantees is the fact that you will not go unnoticed if you are good enough and are willing to learn.
PSL has a rule which makes each franchise play at least one “emerging player” in the XL; this had a flawed implementation in the first season of PSL since there was no actual age limit and even a 33-year-old featured as an emerging player. In year two, the rule was changed — each franchise now has to play one Under-23 emerging player in the XI which means the younger kids are definitely going to get an opportunity to not only play, but also learn to absorb pressure.
There are still a lot of problems with Pakistan cricket, the domestic structure is still light years behind the rest of the world but the PSL is a big example of how fruitful a contemporary, professional model can be for Pakistan cricket. Will they learn from the PSL? Will it have a trickle-down effect to the grassroots? Only time can tell, for now Pakistan are the champions.
PS: Rehan Ulhaq is the media manager of Islamabad United which is a part of the Pakistan Super League (PSL)
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