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The Fawad Alam dilemma
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The Fawad Alam dilemma

At the start of 2001, prior to a tour to New Zealand, Pakistan hired Geoffrey Boycott for a small coaching stint to work with under-17 players of the country and youngsters in the Pakistan team. The idea behind utilizing his expertise was to rectify technical flaws in batsmen. Boycott was impressed by the talent Pakistan had and earmarked a few players, notably Imran Farhat, as future stars. He also casted doubts on one player and even reportedly said he does not have a future.

A month later that player earned a Test cap in New Zealand and last year finished his career in West Indies as Pakistan’s most successful captain. Boycott perhaps was not the only person who did not rate Misbah-ul-Haq highly. His selection, especially when he was preferred over Mohammad Yousuf in the inaugural World T20, was widely criticized mainly because his batting style was unorthodox and he lacked panache.

Fast-forward to 2018 and you would find another player at a pathway similar to Misbah. Despite bulk of runs in the domestic cricket, Fawad Alam’s selection or non-selection has always stirred debates.

Last year, there was a comparison between Haris Sohail, named in Pakistan’s Test squad without playing any first-class cricket for more than three years, and Fawad, discarded once again despite scoring 2199 runs at 59.43 in that period. The public sentiment was largely in favour of the latter. Karachi and Lahore are neatly divided into many rivalries. Both sometimes overdo in supporting their players. Seldom do we see both united in the support of an unestablished player. Fawad is breaking the status quo.

His omission from Pakistan’s upcoming three Tests tour of Ireland and England has once again stirred a few debates. Fawad could not find a place in the 16 members squad picked by the selection committee headed by Inzamam-ul-Haq. Three batsmen who have been preferred above him are Saad Ali, Imam-ul-Haq and Fakhar Zaman. All three have received their maiden Test call-up.

The question that arises is: is it fair to pick three uncapped players ahead of someone who has been the best batsman in the domestic cricket for nearly a decade and has not been provided a chance in Tests for nine years? Or in Haris’ case last year, did an uncapped player have the right to walk into the side just because he was part of the squad three years ago?

If that is the case then Fawad's non-selection sounds even more absurd as he was in the squad to play against England in UAE in 2015 but was dropped without playing for the next series in England in 2016. If you think his batting technique was not suitable for the English conditions then the next question that arises is why was he not recalled for the series against West Indies in UAE in 2016 when his replacement in England, Iftikhar Ahmed, was also dropped.

Forget XI or XV for a while, it is baffling to see Fawad not finding a place in the last two central contracts given to 30 players in 2016 and 35 in 2017. His last contract was from July 2015 to 2016, the period during which he was in the Test squad, dropped without playing and scored 672 runs at 56.00 in first-class and 437 at 43.70 in List A cricket. You would be hard-pressed to find a crime that made him lose the central contract.

It is true that it was a challenge for any batsman to fit into the middle-order in Misbah’s era as Pakistan had an established lineup in Azhar Ali, Younis Khan, Misbah himself and Asad Shafiq but ignoring Fawad - whose average (56.91) in first-class cricket in Pakistan is third only to Hanif Mohammad 58.03 and Zaheer Abbas 60.62– after Misbah’s and Younis’s retirement is a questionable call and demotivating for the batsman who has scored runs in almost every season. Waqar Younis, the former Pakistan coach, voiced the same reason during commentary in the Sri Lanka series last year that Fawad couldn’t get into XI when he was at the helm because the team had an established middle-order but after Misbah and Younis he deserved a chance.

A remarkable aspect about his runs is the conditions in which he has performed. A case in point is Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium and Islamabad’s Diamond Cricket Ground where the average runs per wicket in first-class cricket since 2010 is 24.45 and 25.89 and average first innings total is 226 and 268 respectively but Fawad’s analysis at the grounds of the twin cities are 697 runs at 77.44 and 663 runs at 55.25.

What the stats won’t reveal are the under-prepared wickets, winter season and Grays balls (used before 2017-18). He may have an awkward stance and his shots may not be elegant but the fact remains he has been a productive batsman.

“I think my performances in first-class cricket are irrelevant. It seems that other players’ runs in domestic cricket are of a greater importance and more relevant to the selectors,” he said in an interview last year.

“I feel disappointed but not demotivated. My work is to play and perform irrespective of for whom I am playing. I don’t live in the past and aim to perform so that I keep knocking [at the doors of the selectors].”

No other player in the recent history has so blatantly been ignored despite being a giant in the domestic cricket. The notion that he is not an international material or good enough for domestic cricket only does not hold water for he hasn’t been provided any opportunity in Tests since his debut year. Of 11 Pakistan batsmen who have scored a hundred on Test debut, Fawad with three matches remains the lowest capped player.

Despite being a middle-order batsman (with an average of 87.42 at number four and 62.70 at five in first-class cricket), he made Test debut as an opener against Sri Lanka in 2009. Prior to that only once before he had opened in first-class cricket. But he accepted the challenge and materialized his captain’s prediction by scoring 168 in the second innings. In the next series, in New Zealand, he was made to bat at number three, again the position where had just one first-class innings.

The blame of his continued non-selection however does not only go to the current selectors for he has been ignored by the previous men as well. Mohsin Khan in 2010 had called Fawad a player fit for all three formats but snubbed him from the Test side in his first assignment as chief selector which was Pakistan’s tour to the United Kingdom.

During Sri Lanka’s tour of UAE last year, Inzamam tried to justify his decision to not select him citing his performance only from the ongoing season in which 21 batsmen had scored more runs than him and said that the question about his non-selection should rather be asked from the previous selectors.

“If you see last year’s performances, the performances that were put in front of me, he had 450 runs,” said Inzamam.

“There were other boys who did exceptional. Fawad Alam there is no doubt is a seasoned campaigner that if he scores 450 runs in one season, then he has been scoring many runs in all seasons before that. It’s not that we are not considering him.”

Fawad actually had scored 499 runs at 55.44 until that point, not 450. What the selectors ignored was the reason why he could not score more than 499 despite an impressive average. The reason was he had batted in just 11 innings in nine matches because the team he was playing for, Sui Southern Gas Corporation, had won three matches by an innings and one by chasing a small target of 174 in which Fawad scored 69 not out. Had he batted as much as others in the season, there was every possibility he would have score more runs.

Along with numbers what the selectors have been ignoring over the years is his determination, consistency and will to carry on despite continuous snubs. With T20 cricket gaining more fans and Tests losing its importance, what impresses us more than consistency these days is stylish 30s or 40s even if ended by a reckless shot. Perhaps the reason Fawad is not considered talented enough to be in the team is he scores only centuries (27 in first-class cricket) and not elegant 30s.

“I think we judge talent wrong. What do we see as talent? I think I have made the same mistake myself. We judge talent by people's ability to strike a cricket ball. The sweetness, the timing. That's the only thing we see as talent. Things like determination, courage, discipline, temperament, these are also talent.”

Rahul Dravid did not have Fawad in his mind when he said those golden words but it holds true for him.