'Pakistan has so much talent but we don't channel it properly'
Former bowler Wasim Akram says his country must trust their young side against England – and beyond
Tuesday 27 July 2010
The home team for the past month are now officially the tourists. That, it should not be forgotten, is the continuing tragedy of Pakistani cricket.
Having been the nominal hosts of Australia against whom they drew the two-match Test series in dramatic circumstances (Pakistan cricket does not do straightforward circumstances) last week, they are now the visitors to England for a rubber of four matches which begins in Nottingham on Thursday.
For the foreseeable future, Pakistan are rootless because of the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team bus in Lahore in March 2009 in which seven policemen were killed and several cricketers extremely fortunate to escape with their lives. The plug was pulled immediately on international cricket in the country and it will not be reinserted any time soon.
That the game has somehow survived amid this, and if the deeds at Headingley are any guide is actually prospering, is testimony to resilience, determination and the revered place of cricket in Pakistan culture. It is also why a campaign being launched today, Not In My Game, deserves and should attract widespread support.
Its aim is simple but significant: calling on cricket fans to unite against terrorism. If along the way, it can dissuade a single kid from following an extremist path it will have been worth it.
Mushtaq Ahmed, the former Pakistan leg spinner who is now England's spin bowling coach, is one of the main promoters of the campaign. He said yesterday: "This is a very important message to spread. Prophet Muhammad said that if you kill man, you kill mankind. You change one guy, you have no idea how many families you can change."
It is an eminently reasonable backdrop for a series in which England will start as overwhelming favourites, although their opponents have suddenly announced with their three-wicket win over Australia that they will be no pushovers. Yet for all the breathtaking new talent that Pakistan incessantly parade, the team are constantly beset by turbulence.
One of the most illustrious of all their cricketers, Wasim Akram, who has seen most things in his time as a great bowler and captain, was clearly nonplussed by recent events. He urged yesterday a new era of stability.
"It's like what's happening in the country as a whole, it's part of the culture and cricket is the same," he said. "Yes we need stability. Shahid Afridi was appointed for a year and out of the blue he disappeared after one Test. That was a joke. But one thing I realise, it doesn't matter what controversies or tragedies or pressure they go through, they have an abundance of talent."
Wasim wants that talent – the raw middle order, the thrilling 18-year-old fast bowler Mohammad Aamer and other speed merchants as yet unseen – to be given its head under the profoundly impressive new captain Salman Butt. Although Wasim has turned down many approaches to work for the Pakistan Cricket Board in favour of a career as a highly informed and shrewd commentator, his is a voice that might be heard.
The idea of recalling the veteran, indubitably accomplished batsmen, Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf, is clearly anathema to him. Talk is rife that Yousuf, for one, is on the verge of a call-up two months after announcing his retirement but Wasim believes it would merely hamper progress.
"There is a lot of hue and cry about Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf but I think it's time to move on," he said. "Private video recordings of disciplinary meetings were leaked to the Pakistani press and they showed every player talking against other players.
"This team doesn't want those two players, the cricket board doesn't want them. The problem has been there for the past two or three years. Move on, have a new captain, have new players, you'll probably lose one or two but eventually in a year's time your team will be stronger."
The manner in which Butt has so far conducted his duties has come as no surprise to Wasim who said he should have been captain all along. Now that he is there, he wants him to be appointed immediately for a year but he fears the worst.
"Salman is confident, a good leader and he's got guts. I have a feeling if he doesn't do well against England they will probably bring those two players back and bring in some other captain. That's the problem with Pakistan cricket."
Of all the stars that are beginning to glitter, none is expected to shine more brightly than the prodigiously gifted Aamer. Lithe, fast and with the ability to swing the ball both ways he has invited inevitable comparisons with a certain Wasim Akram.
"He's definitely a wise bowler and definitely a much cleverer bowler than I was at his age," said the first of Pakistan's great left-arm pacemen. "He swings the ball, he's nippy at 88mph and he's the perfect bowler for these conditions. He's a quick learner and I am very impressed with him. In general he's just wide of the crease and I think on slower wickets, on the flatter decks in England, he might not be able to bring the ball back into the right hander as much as he's doing it now."
Wasim thinks Pakistan have missed a trick by not selecting Mohammad Irfan, another left-arm speedster who is variously measured as between 6ft 11in and 7ft 2in tall. Either way, Wasim, 6ft 3in himself, said it was like looking up at the roof.
"That's the problem with Pakistan cricket," he said. "This guy is something special. We have so much talent coming up, it's just we don't know how to channel it, the board don't know how to channel it, the selectors don't know how to channel it."
For Mushtaq Ahmed, who played 52 Tests and 144 one-day internationals for Pakistan, the next few weeks will be an affecting experience. Like the rest of the cricketing world, he wants nothing more than to see Pakistan playing at home again.
"I've already come across them [Irfan and Aamer] in some limited-overs games," said Mushtaq. "I played my career with the Pakistan team, I have a feeling for my country but my loyalty and honesty has to do with my job [as England's spin-bowling coach]. That's part of Islam."
So Wasim (and certainly Mushtaq) suspect England will win. But they know that with Pakistan you never can tell.
Wasim Akram was speaking to promote Sky Sports exclusively live coverage of the first Test which is on Sky Sports 1 and Sky Sports HD 1 from Thursday.
Home from home?
*Pakistan last played a Test series at home in March 2009, against Sri Lanka. The second match of the series was abandoned because of the attack on the Sri Lankan team bus in Lahore.
*They have played four Test series since then – losing 2-0 in Sri Lanka in July 2009, drawing 1-1 in New Zealand in November 2009, losing 3-0 in Australia in January, and drawing with the Aussies 1-1 last week – the last a 'home' series.
*They have also travelled to Dubai for two T20 games against England (won 1, lost 1), and an ODI series against Australia in the UAE, which was lost.
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