End of the specialist?

December 8, 2013

End of the specialist?

It has been heartening to see that two more youngsters are being given a potential opportunity against Sri Lanka. Haris Sohail and Sharjeel Khan come in, though I would have liked to see a specialist wicketkeeper in the squad. What do we do if Umar Akmal has a couple of bad matches? Haris’s teammate Shakeel Ansar was tried out a couple of years back but did not deliver in a couple of matches that he played. Yet his inclusion would have ensured that Umar Akmal takes his batting more seriously as he has made it back primarily because he can keep. After all he had still done no worse than the other Akmal brothers.

And keepers can improve. Moin was not as natural as Rashid Latif but he worked hard on this slight disadvantage and his batting benefitted Pakistan.

Nevertheless, we’ve seen this going horribly wrong in the case of Kamran Akmal, who hit something like four international hundreds, including one in Australia. He was a devastating batsman whether as opener or down the order, and imbued enough confidence for Shane Warne to persist with him as keeper and opener in the inaugural IPL season, which Rajasthan Royals won despite being considered the weakest of the lot.

Further I don’t see natural keepers like Rashid Latif coming through in this age where you can’t just focus on one aspect of the game. Alvin Kallicharan, the classy lefthander who played for West Indies in the 1970s once told me that he considered Rashid a better wicketkeeper than Wasim Bari, against whom he had played many matches. And he told me this while he was managing the Lashings XI in England for whom Rashid used to play. I say unlikely because if you take a look around the Test teams, you don’t see any naturals. From Dhoni to Haddin, Prior to AB de Villiers, the inclusion is primarily on batting. Dhoni came in this way in 2005 and AB stepped in when Boucher lost an eye. In fact now that prior is not scoring runs against Australia for the past year, he is under pressure to lose his job after the tour. Haddin, too, has only returned to the side because Wade couldn’t impress with the bat.

So rather than wait for someone with natural instincts to do this admittedly specialised task, we have to go with a batsman who can also keep. Sad but that is the reality facing us. I really feel sorry for Sarfraz Ahmed because I felt he was more natural than these other keepers but he was given a raw deal by casting him in Australian and South African pitches against some mean bowling where he couldn’t bat impressively. He did have a fine rearguard innings against Steyn and Co. earlier this year, a knock in which he got more than Hafeez did in six innings if I remember clearly.

But for the moment since its only for the two-match, Twenty20 leg Umar Akmal will do and in fact he took a couple of stunning catches even as he continued to miss a stumping here and there.

For the ODI series let’s see if Pakistan bring in Sarfraz or Adnan Akmal. The latter didn’t do too well with the bat against South Africa in the Tests and in the limited opportunities that Sarfraz got in Zimbabwe he would rue the fact that he didn’t get a chance against South Africa in UAE, the team management preferring Umar Akmal to play an extra batsman. Not that it helped.

On another front I’ve been amused like many others that Misbah-ul-Haq has been named as one of the contenders of the ICC ODI cricketer of the year award ahead of AB de Villiers but didn’t make it into the ICC ODI XI of the year ahead of the South African captain. I have a feeling it is more to compensate Misbah and what better way to do it than the confused ICC way.

Having said that the selectors, of whom Waqar Younis is a member, must have gone by the position on which Misbah bats. And in both positions -- 5 and 6 -- we have to admit that De Villiers and Dhoni are ahead of Misbah in terms of being devastating finishers; and clearly there is no better captain than Dhoni at the moment.

However, I’ve always been wary of measurements by the ICC. A Duckworth-Lewis method that possibly Albert Einstein would have struggled to make sense of still haunts many a match loser. The fact that the ICC rankings were assigned to a singular Englishman without asking for proposals from the other statisticians around the world may have let it without due diligence. Statisticians like the since departed Bill Frindall and Gul Hameed Bhatti (who were alive then and in reasonably good health), Abid Ali Kazi and S. Rajesh of Cricinfo were not consulted which is a shame. I was at the launch of the ICC Rankings at Lord’s in 2004 and posed this question to then CEO Malcolm Speed and Director Cricket Richardson and both simply said the ICC board had sanctioned it.

Obviously if none from the chiefs of English, Indian and Pakistani cricket boards objected to a one-man commission and gave the goahead because the gentleman had presented it nobody has the right to object now. It is not bad logic that the founder David Kendix, till then unheard of in international circles, has applied but the weights have been arbitrarily assigned by him when it comes strength of opposite team, playing conditions, etc. Had the ICC asked the cricket chiefs of every country to each assign their best recognised statistician to at least review the system Kendix was proposing, maybe some more realism would have been brought in.

Even otherwise, if the figures are to speak more than heuristic judgment then why have a selection committee to pick the ICC XI? You can’t have it both ways in matters such as these. It’s a lot like punching figures on a calculator and then reconfirming the results by adding the numbers again on a piece of paper the conventional way.

For the moment let’s keep these rankings aside. To some extent they do reflect reality and help in deciding seedings for an ICC event. But in the end it’s who plays better on the day, in that session, on that tour that makes for a great or ordinary cricketing team.

End of the specialist?