Halfway through the just-concluded season of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy I wrote about (http://www.espn.in/cricket/story/_/id/21335069/pakistan-domestic-cricket-gotten-better-kind-not-really ) how the introduction of Dukes balls had exacerbated a few of the problems it was supposed to solve. A couple of weeks ago Mazher Arshad did a terrific statistical breakdown of the tournament (http://www.espncricinfo.com/story/_/id/21907729/quaid-e-azam-trophy-pitches-minefield-batsmen) expanding upon many of the issues that had caught my eye at the start of the tournament. I’d urge everyone to read those two pieces before continuing on with this article.
Go on, have a read through them.
Seriously, you need to read them. It’s paramount upon Pakistani fans to be up to date with the state of the game below the highest tier. Also, you’ll need to know the context to even read the rest of this article.
Now if you are the usual Pakistan fan you might be wondering why you need to know any of this in the first place? That, after all, is the majority view even in the Pakistani fanbase. And the logic behind it seems sound too: cricket in Pakistan is tied up with the national identity. It’s not cricket that is the most popular sport in the country, it’s the Pakistan cricket team that carries the sport. Interest in the game outside it is a by-product of that fandom. No one in Lahore grows up wanting to support or play for Lahore Whites or Lahore Blues, it’s the national team that encompasses all childhood dreams. There are, of course, regions with a strong identity – Karachi historically and Peshawar recently being the foremost among them – but none that you could possibly compare to someone wanting to play for Yorkshire or Victoria. But without everything that comes below it, interest in the national team is incomplete. To understand or rate the national team without knowing about the domestic game is to argue a point without any knowledge of the context behind it. Not that the lack of context has ever stopped anyone arguing before – Twitter, after all, is built on exactly that.
(Side note: Interest in the PSL is intertwined with regional identity politics in Pakistan. I’ll leave that for some other day).
So, let me present this with a case study then.
Pakistan recently lost their first “home” Test series in a decade. Much of the blame for this was rightly put upon the batting line up, which scored only a single century in two Tests against Sri Lanka. With Misbah and Younis gone that’s a phase that the national team need to go through, and something that was to be expected.
As significant as the batsmen’s role was the lack of support for Yasir. Pakistan’s success in the seven years prior to this series had been built upon Spin Twins – Ajmal and Rehman to begin with, before they passed the baton off to Yasir and Zulfiqar. That was no longer the case here – Haris Sohail and Asad Shafiq had to fill the holes left by Zulfiqar Babar and Mohammad Hafeez. And neither of those are even close to the mark required.
Pakistan are over-reliant on Yasir Shah and it’s obvious that he has been overworked over the past 18 months. Since the start of the England tour in 2016 only three bowlers (Ravi Ashwin, Ravi Jadeja and Nathan Lyon) have bowled more overs in Test cricket than Yasir. Each of those three have bowled around 25-26 overs per innings during this time period; the equivalent number for Yasir is over 30!
Thus, what Pakistan needs are spinners coming through to support Yasir. Guys who can work with him in tandem, maybe even allow the national team to rest Yasir once in a while. And in the long run, replace Yasir who is already north of 30.
And this is where knowledge of the domestic game gives you nightmares, and makes you realize that ignorance (at least in this case) might actually be bliss. In the recently concluded edition of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy forty bowlers took more than 20 wickets. Of these forty, the number of bowlers who were leg or off spinners was… zero! Zilch! Nada!
Usama Mir finished the second edition of the PSL as the highest wicket taking spinner. He played only three matches for SSGC in the 2017/18 QeA Trophy. Three out of the ten matches his team played, taking 7 wickets at 28, and bowling less than 10 overs per innings.
Sure, there were other factors too – Usama, as well as Shadab Khan played small parts in the Bangladesh Premier League. Usama also played in the T10 league. But while Shadab left the QeA Trophy for national duties pretty soon after it began, Usama was available for each of the first seven games. Again, he played only three of those.
This is not the ballad of Usama Mir, he is just the symptom, the case study, to a larger problem. The reason he wasn’t given much of a role for SSGC in the four-day game was because the state of the pitches is such that using up a spot for a spinner does not make sense. Why not go with three medium fast bowlers, a couple of all rounders who can bowl spin, and play the best possible XI for the conditions? That’s the logic applied here, and that logic is sound. That’s true for Usama, and that’s true for all budding young spinners. How can they develop if they don’t play… but how can they play if they are going to be just passengers and liabilities to the XI due to the pitch and weather conditions?
The result is: Sixteen First Class teams and not a single off or leg spinner in the top forty wicket takers.
Shadab, like Yasir before him, plays for SNGPL and under the likes of Misbah, Azhar and Hafeez he’s bound to play his fair share of First Class cricket. But beyond that? Well, all you need to know is try to figure out who is Yasir’s contemporary? Turns out there isn’t one. So, any young right arm spinners that are going to come up will be in spite of the premiere domestic First-Class tournament in the country, not because of it. They will come up because of regions and departments, led by contrarian players and coaches, that realize that the small world of the Trophy isn’t the be-all, end-all of cricket.
That’s the story of leg spin in Pakistan right now. As for off spin… well, the highest wicket taking off spinner in the tournament was Iftikhar Ahmed. And while Iftikhar has grown a lot in that discipline over the past couple of years, and as part of Islamabad United his bowling will have a role to play in the matches to come, not even his biggest supporters could ever argue that he is the potential successor to the legacy of Saqlain and Ajmal.
Shadab Khan is 19 years and 3 months old. He has bowled 251 overs in First Class cricket to date. At the same age Saqlain Mushtaq had bowled nearly 800 overs of First Class cricket. Usama Mir just turned 22. He’s bowled 135 overs in First Class cricket so far. That’s all you need to remember to answer the simpleton who says “theek to hai, lekin Saqlain wala level nahi hai.”
The problems in Pakistan cricket – the domestic game in particular – are solvable. But until the fans start giving a toss about it, that’s not something that is going to change. So the next time you wonder why a broken down Yasir cannot take a rest, or why Shadab or Usama occasionally drag the ball short, or the captain has no one to turn to as there are two left handers batting, you’ll know the answer to your query.
But where’s the fun in that? Isn’t it so much easier to say “aaj kal ke bachon mei wo wala jazba he nahi hai jo pehle hota tha” “ab laugon ki masroofiat bohat hain, cricket pe koi tawajjoh he nahi deta” “Yeh captain/coach (delete as per your biases) naujwan player ko develop he nahi kar sakte” or other such inane statements that pass off as analysis in this great country of ours?