Conversations about cricket in Pakistan over the next many weeks will revolve around Azhar Ali’s appointment, and his role, atop the national one-day team. But one thing that he, his competitors and his fans should not forget is the lesson from the past couple of months of cricket: performance trumps all. Cricket may be the only place left in Pakistan where this is still true; for enthusiasts of the sport, this may be enough.
The debate over Azhar Ali takes me back to a warm summer afternoon in Centurion, South Africa. The Pakistan cricket team was having a fielding session under Julien Fountain, the fielding coach at the time. There must have been countless sessions before this – and since – but for someone not knowledgeable on such subjects, the most striking thing to emerge from the session was the painful realisation of just how poor Pakistani players were at the most basic fielding skills. One player dropped more than half the high catches he was put under; another was being taught (unsuccessfully) how to pick up a moving ball without slowing down. It wasn’t pretty. What made it even more depressing was that it was followed by a session by the South Africans, showing how far up the ladder reaches even as Pakistanis struggle on its first few rungs.
For all the talk of breaking player power, which seems to be the administrators’ mantra after every failure on the field, the team’s neat division along geographical lines is something no administrator can blur — especially when one area contributes up to half of the players in the national side, if not more.
There was another thing worth noting, though. As the coach took breaks, the cricketers would form two separate groups. For once it wasn’t about senior players differentiating themselves from the rest, as is the norm in other facets of Pakistani life. Instead the division had an obvious linguistic feel to it. One group comprised players from Punjab — their conversations were in Punjabi. The members of the other group were conversing in Urdu and were from other parts of the country.
It was highly revealing. For all the talk of breaking player power, which seems to be the administrators’ mantra after every failure on the field, the team’s neat division along geographical lines is something no administrator can blur — especially when one area contributes up to half of the players in the national side, if not more.
It was a window into the reality of Pakistan. The story of the country – over the past four decades, in particular – in every facet of life seems to have revolved around the issue of Punjab against the smaller provinces. In the eyes of many, this relationship isn’t adversarial — though it is worth noting that this group of observers consists of those who are left untouched by the negative effects of the geographical and ethnic divisions in the country.
|Sarfraz Ahmed and Haris Sohail | AFP
In cricket, too, this distinction has become obvious far beyond a tête-à-tête in the middle of fielding sessions. The debate involving Sarfraz Ahmed and Nasir Jamshed during the World Cup was an obvious example of this. In one corner stood Sarfraz Ahmed, the personification of the under-appreciated, victimised Karachiite. In the other was the burly and brusque Nasir Jamshed, with a palpable sense of entitlement. The fact that the selectors preferred the latter over the former, despite the fact that he had been failing repeatedly in the domestic cricket circuit, is seen as yet another proof of persecution by those who have always felt persecuted — often justifiably.
Yet, there is one thing that separates sports from everything else: the results become immediately tangible here. You cannot fib the scorecard; no third umpire can save you. You get what you deserve. A tournament which exposed Jamshed’s failings like few before has also proven to be a platform for Sarfraz to launch himself onto the international stage — one more time. A month or so on from the World Cup, the latter finds himself as the vice captain of the national one-day team while the former is sitting home, without anyone saying so much as a consolatory phrase for him, or to him.
Geographical distinctions mean little when it comes to performance on the cricketing field — at least, not so far.