Pakistan’s small town cricket revolution stems from greater democratization

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Nestled in the mountain range along Pakistan’s northern border with Afghanistan lies Mayar Jandool, the village of Naseem Shah. Off the tourist trail, this hill station of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is unspoilt, scenic, and screensaver-worthy. As a Discover Pakistan TV presenter put it: “Yeh kudrati husn se malamaal hai (Abundance of natural beauty)”.

This ancient land of battles and invasions is home to several Pathan tribes who have remained cut off from modernity and adhere to an age-old code of conduct. Since the hills, narrow country roads and picturesque sunsets are not enough to fill the kitchen, young people here descend on the plains in search of income opportunities.

Naseem, 19, is one of many to have left home to become rich and famous. After these two SOS go on for over six years the other day, he is compared to the region’s biggest super star – the timeless Shahid Afridi. Genius born Khyber agency, Lala for locals, is a role model for every Pathani suit wearing cricket dreamer.

Lately, in these regions, cricket has become a popular mode of transportation to reach greener pastures. It’s fair to assume that in this Asian Cup, Pashto might be the default language in the Pakistani dressing room. Naseem Shah, Mohammad Rizwan, Fakhar Zaman, Iftikhar Ahmed, Haris Rauf and Khushdil Shah are Pathans with Khyber roots. If Shaheen Shah Afridi and Mohammad Wasim Jr had been fit, Pakistan would be on their way to being called Pathan XI.

The trickle of cricketing talent from the once-alienated North to the national team is not a one-man story, Afridi read, sparking change. It’s not even the stereotypical tale of brave Pathans mastering the T20 format that celebrates the daredevil. This Pakistani team points to two big positives for the game in the struggling country.

Relative peace now reigns in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the region that has battled militancy and terrorism since 9/11. US drone attacks from Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden’s base in Abbottabad are now a thing of the past. But if peace guaranteed sporting success, Switzerland would top the rankings at most Olympic Games.

The main reason why the cricketers from inside Pakistan get the big chance is the democratization of the game in the country which has been mainly ruled by the military. The advent of the Pakistan Super League with its professionally run teams and business-minded owners demanding accountability from every stakeholder – player and manager – has dealt a blow to the old power structure.

Heavily invested, league owners are in a race to choose the brightest. And if that means traveling very far, so be it. The talent scouts KRA depends on them to nab young talent. Being fair is not the right option but the only option, almost a constraint.

Like at IPL, where franchise reps fly from Srinagar to Salem, PSL is also looking far beyond traditional hubs. Like the Delhi-Mumbai dominance of Indian cricket, the Lahore-Karachi hold is also losing its grip. With the exception of the two boys from Lahore – skipper Babar Azam and spinner Usman Qadir – virtually all cricketers come from remote areas, and not always from the hills of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Karachi and Islamabad are not represented in this Asian Cup.

Pacer Shahnawaz Dahani hails from the village of Dahani in the interior of Sindh, an area which is not known for producing the best cricketers. When the boy who worked in a mandi as a laborer started traveling to the nearest town, Larkana, for training; he had only a few top-class cricketers to look up to. The pacemaker followed them in no time, making his FC debut in 2019. But what next? Will he join a large group of frustrated first-class cricketers who will regret the lack of opportunities all their lives?

PSL came calling, in the very first season Dahani won the top bowler award as his side Multan Sultans won the title. Never in his life had the Dahani boy dreamed he would be under the wings of cricket’s sharpest brain, Andy Flower – the Sultans coach credited with numerous Ashes Test wins using quality bowling . Door opened, all of Pakistan saw its potential, including the very dynamic media. Dahani was too good to be left out of the national team. Today, he is Pakistan’s all-format player.

Others too have similar stories.

Pakistani hero here at the Asian Cup, pacemaker Haris Rauf, on a whim, took a road trip with a friend to attend the Lahore Qalandars trials. He was a cricketer with modest dreams, but when Aaqib Javed came looking for point guards near his home, he signed up. It would be a life-changing signing for Haris.

Muhammad Hasnain, Naseem’s pace partner, had made an impact on the junior circuit which saw him join Pakistan’s U-19 World Cup squad. There, he stood out with his looks. However, as is the case with young breakaways, he would get injured.

While backed by PCB’s National Cricket Academy, he would be lucky enough to catch the eye of Pakistan’s leading industrialist and owner of Quetta Gladiators, Nadeem Omar. A sports philanthropist and cricket lover, Omar included Hasnain in his team even when he was not in top form. “Our scouts went to a tournament, Hasnain got injured at that time. He had previously played for Pakistan U-19 and we had heard about his pace. So we signed it. Gradually he got stronger,” Omar told The Indian Express.

During the PSL, Hasnain threw a ball at 150 km/h and won the man of the match award. It was too hard a blow to Pakistan’s locker room. Soon they let him in.

Pakistan’s captain-in-waiting, Shadab Khan, was a reluctant cricketer from Mianwala, a town in Punjab. Once he played in the U-19 World Cup, he thought he had achieved everything in life. Islamabad United took him through the emerging player selection process ahead of PSL 2. Within three years, he was named franchise captain, the youngest in PSL. Forget Pakistan, nowhere in the world would a top-class team trust a youngster so much. In fact, even RCB took six seasons to name Virat Kohli captain.

Under the cunning of former South African spinner Johan Botha, young Leggie Shadab learned the tricks of the trade. The late Dean Jones, still the motivator, gave him leadership advice. In Islamabad United, Shadab the cricketer turned into Shadab the leader.

Deano, as the players liked to call him, would also form a bond with current Pakistani star Asif Ali that went beyond their manager-player relationship. When Ali’s daughter was diagnosed with cancer, the Australian broke down at a press conference and then organized funds for the treatment. The franchise gave their winner a family vibe when he needed it most.

What Islamabad was to Shadab, Lahore Qalanders meant to Shaheen. They trusted the pacer with the captaincy and he delivered the title to them. They saw a leader of men in this Afridi with a baby face. It’s a trip he or his fellow Pathans who grew up in rural Khyber Pakhtunkhwa wouldn’t have imagined without PSL.

During the last England tour, the Pakistan Cricket Board social media team posted a lovely video of Pathans on the tour enjoying a kahwa party in their hotel room. Rizwan boiled the water in the coffee maker and unwrapped the premix packets. Later he will join Shaheen, Naseem, Iftikhar, Wasim Jr on the floor. They were sipping the drink and pulling each other’s leg.

If it hadn’t been for the luck they’ve had in their careers, they would have been in scenic Khyber, sipping kahwa and cursing their luck.

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