Will Hawkes: Pakistan's exclusion from IPL gives domestic T20 a real shot in the arm

County Focus: The Pakistani players bring excitement and a much-needed hint of uncertainty to an English game that is still too often characterised by conservatism
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The Independent Online

It's not often that India does England a cricketing favour these days. The latest indignity suffered by the English at the hands of the game's seemingly omnipotent money makers was the announcement that counties would have to pre-qualify for the Champions League, unlike their Indian, Australian and South African counterparts. But actually, India – or perhaps we should say the Indian Premier League's intransigence – has given the English game a serious boost this season.

That's because the IPL, for reasons that are easily guessed at, does not feature any Pakistani players. Given the talent that that country generates – it is no exaggeration to say that Pakistan is the cricketing equivalent of Argentina in football – this is a remarkable state of affairs, one that has persisted for three years. And while you can only have sympathy for those young Pakistanis who would shine in the IPL, it's happy news for the 18 county clubs, who can afford to bring in some really high-class talent.

A quick look at those Pakistanis playing in the Friends Life t20 confirms that to be the case. Pakistan can boast the three top wicket takers in international Twenty20 cricket, and they're all playing in our domestic Twenty20 competition. There's the former Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi (53 international wickets) at Hampshire, Umar Gul (47) at Sussex and Saeed Ajmal (43) at Worcestershire. Who says the county game can no longer attract the top international talent?

And there are others beside, including 21-year-old Junaid Khan at Lancashire, Wahab Riaz and the evergreen Azhar Mahmood at Kent and Yasir Arafat, who has packed a lot of Twenty20 success into his 29 years, at Surrey. What these players bring is excitement and a much-needed hint of uncertainty to an English game that is still too often characterised by diffidence and conservatism. The presence of many of them near the top of this season's Twenty20 averages – Ajmal has taken his 16 wickets at the barely believable average of 9.62 – should be no surprise.

Pakistanis have, of course, been a part of the fabric of the domestic game for as long as overseas players have been on the county treadmill. The likes of Asif Iqbal (Kent), Imran Khan (Sussex) and Wasim Akram (Lancashire) remain revered figures at their clubs, their feats as cherished as any achieved by homegrown stars. But they played when county cricket boasted most of the top players; Pakistani cricketers shine even brighter in a domestic game where even England's own stars are seen all too rarely.

Their success in our Twenty20 competition is also a reminder of what the international game has endured while Pakistan has been in limbo, forced to play home games outside their own country. Big cricket is suffering at the moment, with too many bore draws; witness the dismal end to proceedings during India's recent series in the Caribbean, when the captains shook on a draw with an exciting finish still possible. The game is badly in need of thrills at the moment, and Pakistan have frequently provided them.

For now, there are some unique talents playing in county cricket. The situation as it is will surely not persist: whatever the political problems in the subcontinent, the likes of Afridi and Ajmal would inevitably improve the IPL. Certainly, Pakistanis are keen to be allowed access. "It is high time the Pakistani cricketers get a place in the IPL. We have no problems playing in India as we have just played a World Cup semi-final there," said Afridi earlier this year. County fans should enjoy it while they can.

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