Thursday, August 19, 2010

Changing of the Guard

(an edited version of this blog was published on the Dawn website and can be viewed here)

It speaks volumes for Zulqarnain Haider and Saeed Ajmal that, on the basis of their performances in only a single test this summer, there are whispers that the two have made a genuine case for replacing Kamran Akmal and Danish Kaneria, two men who had become mainstays in their respective roles for more than half a decade.

But is that more of a testament to the quality of the new blood or to the failings of their predecessors because, come on, how hard is it to make Akmal and Kaneria look bad? If we are using the seniors as a benchmark then really, all that Haider and Ajmal had to do was show up and not screw up considerably to qualify as successful replacements.

Akmal is an abysmal keeper who has clung on to his place in the side on tha basis of batting alone, which in of itself has been fairly average in the longer format. Kaneria, while immeasurably more skilled than Akmal, has yet to develop into the consistent strike bowler Inzimam always envisioned he would. He remains overly reliant on pitch and conditions and is a tad one dimensional if the batsmen attempt to throw him off his rhythm.

However, it is to do a disservice to both Ajmal and Haider if these two are to be measured against the men whose shoes they stepped into because those shoes certainly don’t take much filling. Merit shouldn’t be awarded on the basis of historical failure otherwise our next President would have the luxury of being able hold his hands up and shrug: “Hey, I’m at least better than the last guy, right?”

Accordingly, before getting too giddy about how we may have turned a corner in our wicket-keeping and spin fortunes, we’re better off judging Haider and Ajmal independently.

Ajmal first.

Saeed has long been unfairly branded a limited overs bowler, a blatant misconception given that he remains in all formats a classical off spinner. Relying on flight, guile and turn rather than the traditional flatter trajectory which is the stock defensive tool of the standard limited overs spinner, Ajmal’s approach seemed to be naturally suited to test cricket. But an extended run never materialized at the test level, perhaps due to the weight of wickets offered by Kaneria.

It’s a shame because Ajmal to me is more suited to test cricket than his current mentor, Saqlain Mushtaq, ever was. Saqi simply had too much in his arsenal, capable of bowling 6 different deliveries in the span of an over. Ajmal really has two: the stock off-spinner and the doosra with everything in between being a slight variation or tweak of the same. In test cricket that is all you need, really. It is more often the element of surprise that accounts for the batsman once he has been taken off his guard by four innocuously similar deliveries.

As was the case with Collingwood, who failed to read Ajmal’s doosra. By the time Collingwood fell, Ajmal was well and truly on a roll. Sure a couple were fired in, particularly when Pietersen was trying to impose himself. But for the most part, Ajmal simply transferred the skills exhibited in the limited overs format to the longer version, with an added dash of patience and consistency.

Kaneria is ultimately a wildcard in the very true spirit of Pakistani cricket. As likely to take 4 quick wickets in an innings to trigger a collapse as he is to gift a pile of runs to contribute to an innings defeat. Ajmal has always possessed the kind of control which would suggest that, even on an off day, he could at least keep one end quiet. If that can be coupled with a decent strike rate, I see no reason for Kaneria to be picked ahead of him.

Zulqarnain next.

As of this writing, Haider will play no further part in this test series. Which makes the mark he left in one match all the more impressive because for the first time in over five years it seems likely that Kamran Akmal is keeping the gloves warm for another.

Let’s not fool ourselves. Haider’s wicket-keeping was not phenomenal. He was alright, but if adequate keeping was all it took to unseat Akmal from his perch, Sarfraz Ahmed would have done so a while back. Akmal is in the squad because we have an incredibly weak batting order and, to our defensive selection committee, he provides some sort of added ballast, much like a really stupid ship captain might think that a sinking oil freighter could be kept afloat a few minutes longer by tying a helium balloon to its mast.

Zulqarnain signed off the tour by playing the best innings by a Pakistani batsman this summer (not that competition is stiff in that regard). For Haider’s long term prospects, the manner he made his runs is more significant than the actual number of runs scored. Enough has been said about the courage and tenacity displayed by Haider (and Ajmal) for the way they faced down the English attack when both could have been excused for exiting and letting the top order shoulder the blame. In a span of almost 5 hours of intense concentration and dogged determination, Haider showcased that he at least possesses the concomitant mental attributes required of a decent wicket-keeper. If the kid has it in him to battle it out in that manner in the face of certain defeat, you can only expect that he has the discipline and focus necessary to hone and improve his primary role in the way Akmal seems incapable of doing.

All Ajmal and Haider had to do last week was have an average game to keep their places ahead of Kaneria and Akmal. Both of them chose to rise above the comfort of low expectations and produced two of the most memorable performances of the summer.

Welcome to test match cricket boys.