Saturday, March 19, 2011

The hero that got shot

They say your life flashes in front of your eyes as death approaches.

The good, the bad, the best moments you lived through are replayed in a short burst that makes you realise the worth, the joy and the sheer existence of it all, the reasons behind who you were, are and could have been.

The last few months of Shoaib Akhtar’s career has followed the same pattern. His early worth paved way for injuries – of various types at numerous points in his life – and age got the better of his speed. He was shot down throughout his career, at every instance he broke down with a dodgy knee or under scrutiny for breaking a curfew. The hair style kept changing but the attitude remained defiant. He missed more than he played but insisted he wanted to play more.

Shoaib last played a Test over three years ago and has a solitary wicket to show for his efforts. But wickets never defined his career. His aggression, commitment – questionable at times – to the cause, intent and the lust for living a ‘normal’ life as a cricketer aided his ascent to stardom but played its fair share in the constant tugging to pull him off it.

He hasn’t taken more than three wickets in a One-Day International (ODI) since October 2007 but in the 29 ODIs since then, he was left hoping for an ‘effort’ column next to the wickets taken. Since the Asia Cup last year that marked his comeback after more than twelve months in hibernation, Shoaib has featured in almost every ODI Pakistan has played – a testament not only to his revitalised fitness levels, but also his attitude towards the team and the sport, and the need to end on his own accord.

Shoaib said he decided to retire after the World Cup while on the surgery table. The cause towards shedding weight the attempt at increasing his stamina falls right into place now. He wanted to walk out and not be pushed, to have a chance of a final swansong and a parting statement instead of following his idols’ footsteps and being shunned by the evil world that is Pakistan cricket.

For that, the run-up was shortened but the hostility remained on par with his younger days. The ball didn’t leave his hand as fast as it did but it was fast enough. The image of a stunned Eden Gardens, a shocked Stephen Fleming and an injured Brian Lara epitomises the fast-bowler as a force, an image the various bans, doping violations, hitting his teammates, the warts, and speaking out against his ‘dearest Pakistan Cricket Board’ fell flat against in comparison.

And as he lit up and looked in the distance after one of his finest performance off the field in the press conference, with Colombo stretched out in front of him, Shoaib looked every sort the hero that walks away into the shadows, content with his effort. He gave cricket a lot and his fans a lot more.

The search for a replacement will never start for Pakistan can neither produce nor afford another Shoaib.

© Faras Ghani 2011
Published in The Express Tribune Mar 19, 2011

Friday, January 07, 2011

'Selectors are influenced by match-fixers'

Pakistan’s selection committee has come under heavy fire from the Karachi City Cricket Association (KCCA) which has termed the omission of various Karachi-based players from the 30-man World Cup squad a way to promote match-fixing.
Notable omissions from the preliminary squad include Fawad Alam, Mohammad Sami and Khalid Latif, all of whom represented Pakistan in the last year.
However, according to the KCCA President Sirajul Islam Bukhari, the trio’s absence is because of their clean background.
“These players have a clean background which is why they haven’t been selected for the World Cup,” Bukhari told The Express Tribune. “The selection committee is under the influence of match-fixers and that’s the reason they’ve selected players with a questionable past.
“We see a gradual overlooking of Karachi players and it’s all because of the match-fixing issues. None of the cricketers coming under the scanner recently are from Karachi. Danish Kaneria [questioned by Scotland Yard] was the only one suspected but was cleared last year.”
Bukhari also questioned the continued omission of fast-bowler Sohail Khan who made his debut for Pakistan in 2008 but has failed to cement a regular spot in the squad.
Kamran Akmal, according to the KCCA president, was glaring proof of how suspected individuals keep returning to the squad.
“Akmal was a doubtful inclusion due to his alleged involvements with bookmakers and now he’s back in the squad despite being overlooked for the last two tours.
“I’m glad Shoaib Malik hasn’t been included otherwise things would’ve been worse for Pakistan cricket at a time when we’re already under so much scrutiny.”
Akmal is the second highest run-scorer in the ongoing Quaid-i-Azam Trophy with 767 runs from nine matches while Malik has scored 745 in just five matches at an average of over 120.

© Faras Ghani 2011
Published in The Express Tribune Jan 7, 2011

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Umar Akmal: The boy who cried milestones

For a boy tipped to emulate the legends, termed the best piece of talent touching wood this decade, and one oozing unprecedented fearlessness – be it at the crease or with his choice of lip balm – Umar Akmal’s fall has been shocking.
Drafted into the side following Pakistan’s 2009 World Twenty20 triumph, Akmal – with age, confidence and domestic milestones on his side – was handed an opportunity not many Pakistani debutants are given – playing for a side in its ascent.

Impressing straight away
A 66 in his second One-Day International was immediately followed by a swashbuckling 102. A century on Test debut – with a 75 in the second-innings – away from home predicted laurels for the boy, still in his teens. And despite stumbles en route the achievements, it seemed that Akmal – once the dressing-room jester, the boy who refused to grow up and concentrate – could be handed a responsibility as huge as shouldering a nation’s hopes.
With 555 runs in his first five Tests, more of the same was predicted. However, as Pakistan fell away at the turn of the year, so did Akmal, in a manner wretched and mortifying for his fans and the team management — just 267 runs in his next eight Tests.

The change that did not come
The aggression and the willingness remained. But so did the reluctance to adapt and to adjust. It was believed that things had changed at the Wanderers against the West Indies, but then his youth caught up with him.
Akmal’s waning at international level can be partly blamed for the lack of experience around him. When he glowed, he had the radiance of Mohammad Yousuf or Misbahul Haq around him. But as the Pakistan Cricket Board went astray, the glow was reduced to a mere flicker.
A sensational title-winning maiden domestic season for SNGPL comprised a double century – with a second denied by the mischief mongers – and brought him 855 runs. There, around him, were experienced individuals. Mohammad Hafeez and Misbah, and Azhar Shafiq to an extent, nourished and guided him. It did not change his approach, and neither did the constant bellowing, but there existed options for the 17-year-old to turn to.
Not after the Australian whitewash. Temporal punishments meant a revamped batting order and suddenly, the apprentice became the mentor. Expectations grew and reached an inequitable high and he still spoke of confidence eloquently, striding to the crease. But as the results failed to come for Pakistan, the outcome affected Akmal too. This time, there was no radiance around him but just promising sparks. There were no branches he could cling on to but seedlings that needed his comfort. The coaches shared their experience but, going solo, Akmal had to manoeuvre, navigate and accomplish all alone.

The problems
The attitude, defiance and traces of arrogance emanating from the young blood have to be blamed but so are the circumstances. With glory and uninterrupted dose of admiration shoved his way – every comment about the youngster pointed to a godly future – the head was found somewhere in the skies.
Akmal realised he had something special in him but failed to implement that on a constant basis, a trait that was badly needed by Pakistan given the circumstances. The eagerness to be one above the competition existed but the drive to get on with things, ironically, hampered the progress.
For Akmal to revive his career, he needs support. Even Sachin Tendulkar had to rely on the experience en route providential ascent to the skies.

© Faras Ghani 2010Published in The Express Tribune Dec 19, 2011

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A stroke of patience

Pakistanis are impatient. For us, success needs to be instant. Every time one of our teams takes centre stage, the result should go in our favour. No one cares about a transition period or gradually building a team towards eventual success.

Earlier this year knives were out for the hockey team that fared its worst in a World Cup — a dismal bottom place finish in New Delhi. Protests, retirements and new appointments followed but the results stayed the same. There were calls for the federation to undergo a revamp. Petitions were signed, press conferences organised and effigies burnt. Some players opted for a temporary break and some went into self-improvement mode, opting to rekindle the spark by turning their backs on Pakistan and participating in foreign leagues.

The Pakistan Hockey Federation insisted the Asian Games gold — and the 2012 London Olympics berth that accompanied — remained their primary target. Not many were prepared to listen, especially after fifth place at the Azlan Shah Cup and sixth at the Commonwealth Games. Worse than the results were the losses against India that complemented the humiliation. Even the hiring of a Dutch coach, with a whopping salary, failed to turn the fortunes around.

The voices still urged patience for the results that matter which, according to players and officials, were in the making. And as experience made a comeback to the squad, courtesy meek opposition, a rush of goals, and the oozing confidence that accompanied, allowed the nation to dream of the impossible. Pakistan edged past defending champions South Korea to play the final for the first time since 1990. The mighty neighbours suffered a shock defeat, presenting us with an easy ride to the podium.

With the achievement however, Pakistan hockey, similar to cricket, has set itself a dangerous precedent: to win every time they play.

© Faras Ghani 2010
Published in The Express Tribune Nov 27, 2010

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Shattered windows that built hope

Drop-outs are seldom respected in any society. Spending one’s childhood, as a girl, on the streets, on the grounds, attracting the quizzed and questioning gaze and not worrying much about the complexion oppugns the very concept of our ‘conservative’ society. Confused individuals – defying the culture and its norms – running after unattainable goals, with limited backing, do not usually survive to tell the tale.

Unless, getting off a plane, you have a gold medal around your neck.

Never the one to give up on her dreams, Sana Mir, captain of Pakistan’s victorious women’s cricket team, planned to join the army, the airforce or the cricket team just to wear the uniform and a chance to represent her nation.

While the first two choices fell astray to poor timing, her intent on the streets, and the courage and confidence gained through shattered windows and scolding aplenty, ensured her crusade to make a name produced a bang.

“Everyone knew I was a bit different, never the type to sit at home and play with dolls,” said Mir.

“Even when my cousins were getting their mehndi done before Eid, I would be out playing cricket. And when I finally joined the Pakistan cricket squad, everyone thought that was the right place for me.”

Despite the elation that accompanied her inclusion in the squad, Mir’s road to glory included dropping out of university – despite being an above-average student – and opting, instead, for less greener, and less plausible, pastures: women’s cricket.

“It was a difficult choice to make, especially considering the image of women in sport at that time and the fact that I belonged to an army family.

“I didn’t even have anywhere to go at that time. I just needed practice, needed matches, time and outlet.”

The oozing determination was part courtesy Imran Khan’s efforts in 1992 with Mir praying for a chance to emulate the pathan’s feat and the podium stance. While the longing for a cup remains, the thirst for success, of a first-place finish, has been quenched for now. The route includes pooling in to buy cement as the street’s potholes became too dangerous for batting, taking up spin just to be able to play past sunset with a plastic ball, and surviving a stress fracture and the dreaded words of doctors.

With an incident-filled half decade behind her, the future, it seems, may offer much of the same.

“It’s really difficult to plan but I know that I want to pass on whatever I’ve learnt to the youngsters. Due to our culture, you play till you’re 28 and then you start your second life [get married]. We have an improved side, better facilities and a greater interest. I don’t know how long I’ll play for but when I leave, I want to leave a good team behind.”

World Cup qualification, second-round appearance in the mega event, Pakistan’s first away win, propelling the team to sixth in rankings and the Asian Games gold, Mir will leave a trail of unmatched achievements that will propel her into the ‘second life’ much satisfied.

© Faras Ghani 2010
Published in The Express Tribune, Nov 24 2010

Sunday, October 24, 2010

'Cricket is not a gentleman's game'

For a nation deemed oppressive to women, blamed of confining them to the indoors and forcing them to act out their trade with utensils and needles, the sight of eleven girls hopping around in track suits and not shalwar kamiz, and with heads covered in caps and not dupattas would certainly rob Pakistan of the unwanted titles.

While the men’s team makes headways into uncharted territories amid a spate of turmoil, their female counterparts continue to flux opposition off the field – despite its mediocrity on it. And as opponents are left dumbfounded by Pakistan’s mere participation in the events, the nation itself sits in oblivion.

“There is no dearth of interested individuals in the country,” said the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) Women’s Wing Chairperson Shirin Javed. “We have girls coming from Quetta, from Gilgit, from remote villages that we didn’t even know existed and with names we can’t even pronounce. They are barred from leaving their houses apart from going for training and matches.”

Arguments, conflicts and scandals have played their part in ensuring the interest in the sector develops, and grows, for the wrong reasons. However, from the days of girls playing alongside boys on roadsides, on makeshift pitches and on rented grounds, the interest has only increased.

“Times have changed,” added Javed. “No longer are the parents worried. We have girls playing in track suits. We have parents dropping their daughter for training on a bicycle. A kitchen is not the only place girls belong to now.”

Words of one, not realised and echoed by the rest, however. Critics are after their heads, labelling them budget-wasters, hopeless performers, sinners even. The marriage factor is their primary aid. Playing with boys, their bodies open to scrutiny by the onlookers, and an inferior win-loss ratio, the secondary.

“We get critics almost every day but it’s part of our duty as female cricketers to ignore those,” said Nain Abidi, a Karachi-based player forming the backbone of Pakistan’s batting line-up. “It hurts, especially after we’ve achieved so much for the country. People just don’t want to see us play.

“But I’ll still encourage individuals to come forward despite the criticism, the glare, and the condemnation. Sport, apart from physical benefits, teaches us punctuality, respect, responsibility and, in our case, how to convert negative thoughts into positive actions.”

For some, cricket is a respite before the inevitable wedding ceremonies. Some even leave everything behind – despite the limited freedom – their studies, their jobs and perhaps their future. Only to pursue dreams alien to our culture, albeit temporary, and to emulate their male counterparts. All the while aiming to go one better.

“You’re spending so much on the men’s team,” said Abidi. “They play all year round, unlike us. And look how many trophies they’re bringing us. We’re also doing our fair share. We should be treated as equals and people should realise that cricket is not just a gentleman’s game.”

© Faras Ghani 2010.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 24, 2010

Monday, October 04, 2010

Newcomers will make a difference: Sana

Captain Sana Mir has rested high hopes in the newcomers to end Pakistan’s dismal international run as the team left for South Africa for the Women’s Cricket Challenge following a two-week camp in Muridke.

Pakistan, ranked sixth in the world, lost all three matches in the 2010 World Twenty20 in the West Indies – the team’s last international assignment – and will play five One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and at least two Twenty20s without several key players including former captain Urooj Mumtaz and strike-bowler Qanita Jalil.

“Obviously we’ll miss the experienced individuals but we’re hopeful that the new faces, who haven’t experienced winning or losing yet, can provide us with a change in fortunes,” Mir told The Express Tribune. “The lack of exposure can actually be a good thing since our opponents are oblivious to their style and potential and we can capitalise on that.”

With the tournament comprising teams ranked fifth to 10th in the world, every match will carry points hence rewarding performing teams with an improved place in the table. Mir, aware of the Pakistan’s lack of experience and limitations, has set the team an aim of not falling below eighth when they leave South Africa.

“Right now, I won’t go big with statements and aims. If we can finish on eighth after the tournament, I’ll be really satisfied. Losing constantly can get really frustrating, especially when you’ve performed as an individual but as a player, the only thing that sport teaches us is to stand up again. And that’s what I’m telling the team.”

Pakistan will play its first match of the tour against Ireland on Wednesday.

© Faras Ghani 2010
Published in The Express Tribune, October 4, 2010

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Aisam hopes for a medal in Delhi

Following his US Open heroics, Pakistan’s top-ranked tennis player Aisamul Haq Qureshi has vowed to ensure a repeat performance as he left for New Delhi yesterday with Aqeel Khan to represent Pakistan at the Commonwealth Games.

Qureshi, who reached the finals of the mixed doubles and men’s doubles at Flushing Meadows, was involved in a training camp in Lahore with Aqeel and Pakistan’s tennis captain and coach for the Games Mohammad Khalid after his return from New York.

“The Commonwealth Games won’t be easy despite my individual performance of late,” Qureshi told The Express Tribune. “There are teams from all over the world and they’re sending four players instead of two so they have an advantage.

“Obviously after being recognised for my US Open performance, the expectations are really high and I’d ensure that they are met and I perform on the same level as I have been.”

Aqeel, who has been Qureshi’s Davis Cup partner for 12 years, acknowledged the help Pakistan’s number one provides in the absence of tough competition at home and hoped for a favourable draw in order to progress to the finals of the event.

“We have a lot of understanding and that’s come because of us playing together for a number of years,” said Aqeel. “He’s been playing international tournaments and his pace helps us get accustomed to what we’d expect abroad. We’re hoping for a good draw that’ll help us progress but if you want to win a medal or a tournament, you need to beat the best out there.”

Qureshi also ruled out fatigue as a factor that could hamper Pakistan’s chances of a medal despite being on tour for most of the year. Following his long Europe tour, Qureshi was involved in Pakistan’s relocated Davis Cup tie in New Zealand before flying out to the US for the Pan Pacific tournament as well as the US Open.

“The travels are part of being a professional tennis player. I have a slight disadvantage because being a Pakistani, the tournaments are held away from the country and that makes things a lot difficult. However, as a player you need to learn how to deal with it.”

© Faras Ghani 2010
Published in The Express Tribune, October 3, 2010

Monday, September 27, 2010

Give them more cricket, not camps: Rana

Pakistan women’s cricket coach Mansoor Rana has urged the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) to ensure the players remain involved in the sport all year round in order to improve their performance on the international level.

The squad is currently assembled in Muridke for a training camp before it flies out to South Africa for a six-nation One-Day International (ODI) and Twenty20 tournament from October 6. This will be Pakistan’s first involvement on the international circuit since a poor 2010 World Twenty20 in the West Indies earlier this year and Rana is not expecting miracles from them.

“We’re underdogs in world cricket and I’ve told the players to use that to their advantage,” Rana told The Express Tribune at the training camp. “We have the potential to do well but we need to play more matches, get more exposure and spend enough time playing in the middle to do that.”

The absence of a full domestic season and the reluctance of foreign teams to visit Pakistan, according to the coach, has not only hampered the team’s chances of improving on their number-six ranking but also the individuals unable to make a name for themselves.

“They need to spend time in the middle as 30 runs in the middle is equal to spending ten days in the nets. We assemble for short camps and then jet off for foreign tournaments. You can’t expect miracles from the team then.

“We also need to be playing quality opposition regularly. Just holding camps is a complete waste of money if there’s no structure to follow.”

Pakistan, missing several key players due to personal commitments, will be departing on October 4 and will take on Ireland in the first match.

© Faras Ghani 2010
Published in The Express Tribune, September 27, 2010

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Finally, fame and recognition for a star unknown

Aisamul Haq Qureshi and Shah Rukh Khan are contrasting personalities, have contrasting careers, fan-base and celebrity value remain strikingly different. One has been a global icon for decades while the other, from Lahore, has barely adjusted to the spotlight which, according to him, has taken a long time coming.

They have one thing in common though: wanting world peace. With both emphasising that on their trips to New York – at the airport and on a tennis court – Qureshi, through a speech that seemed like an after-thought as the microphone pulled away from him, left the king of Bollywood in his wake. Not because Qureshi is from Pakistan, but because the act was genuine. It was not a stunt, but an uncut, unrehearsed uttering of a tennis star unknown not only to the world, but to most of his countrymen as well.

Khan spoke for himself but Qureshi expressed the voice of millions, with a stutter, and without thinking of the consequences.

“I had no idea it was going to create such an impact,” said Qureshi. “The perception in the US is unbelievable, it’s mind-bothering. You bring out a green passport, you get raised eyebrows. Life is short, I had to take the chance and God gave me the courage and belief to say those words.”

With the win – Qureshi terms his twin losses a victory – the 30-year-old has achieved what he wanted since he started playing: recognition, fame, appreciation and being considered a role-model. The flattering scoreline, especially in the second final, was the result of 15 years of hard work that went unacknowledged. Rightly so, breeding the omnipresent desire of being famous and successful that a common man has.

“We all want to be famous. I’ve always wanted to be a role-model, a door opener for talent. I knew it’d take a long time and a huge effort. It motivates me, being a celebrity. I’m enjoying the attention. People who know nothing about tennis come and laud my efforts. For the first time in 15 years, I felt that my country was proud of me.”

But Qureshi has had doubters and critics, who have not questioned his ability and talent but his patriotism and self-interest. Hammered for pulling out of a Davis Cup tie for a doubles tournament, he managed to beat Roger Federer. Accused of not spending much time training for this year’s relocated Davis Cup tie as he travelled with doubles partner Rohan Bopanna, winning and losing, Qureshi’s US Open feat may allow Pakistan an easy passage at the Commonwealth Games.

In a year that has seen an ATP title come his way as he reached the quarters at Wimbledon and the US Open success, Qureshi is aware of the waves he has created.

“Last year I joined hands with a soft drinks manufacturer with the motto of badal do zamana (change the times). I believe, with the efforts I’ve made, times are indeed changing.”

© Faras Ghani 2010
Published in The Express Tribune, September 26, 2010