The two Shoaibs, Akhtar and Malik, made comebacks which would rightly be considered remarkable anywhere else but in Pakistan, as the PCB announced a 15-man squad for the Asia Cup, due to begin in Sri Lanka from June 15. There are a few new faces in the squad as well, but much of the attention will fall on the returning pair.
The fast-bowling Shoaib, nearing 35, last played for Pakistan over a year ago and had been off the selection radar since. But a sudden, impressive comeback in the domestic Pentangular limited-overs tournament and some weight-loss put him back in the frame. Shahid Afridi, the Pakistan captain, was keen to have him in the squad and he underwent a rigorous fitness test yesterday, bowling as many as 12 overs. Though some management officials weren’t entirely convinced of his general fitness initially, he seems to have passed approval.
“We got an okay from the medical team and Shoaib [Akhtar] was given a good report so he has been picked,” Mohsin Khan, chief selector, told Cricinfo. “We took the both of them to nets yesterday and gave them an extensive playing and fitness test, for nearly five hours and I’m happy to say both of them passed it.”
Fitness, of course, was never an issue with Malik. Only a few months ago he had been banned by this very board for a year from playing for Pakistan for being, vaguely, a poor disciplinary influence on the side. But after a frankly farcical judgment, in which the board said they monitored him over three months of no cricket and found him to be rehabilitated, he is also back in the squad.
Ijaz Butt, PCB chairman, had said last week that Malik was free to return for Pakistan though the board of governors had to ratify the decision first; whether or not that is the case could not be confirmed by the board. Mohsin did say, however, that all the selected players had been granted approval by Butt. There was speculation prior to the announcement that Afridi wasn’t keen on selecting Malik because of their fairly-publicised differences; the issue will no doubt rear its head in coming weeks.
There is a first call-up to the ODI format for Shahzaib Hasan, the no-nonsense opener, who played a quiet yet key role in Pakistan’s 2009 World Twenty20 triumph. Space has also been found for some new faces in the middle order. Both Umar Amin and Asad Shafiq have impressed domestically for some time and have hovered on the fringes of national selection. Both are rewarded with call-ups to bolster an order that will be missing Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf. “The pair has been on the selectors’ radars for some time now,” Mohsin said. “We’ve been very impressed by them and we all thought this is a good time to give them a go.”
The arrival of this pair and the return of Malik means there is no place for Fawad Alam in the squad; given that he was one of the very few bright lights in Pakistan’s last ODI assignment, the 5-0 whitewash in Australia where he averaged nearly 40 in three ODIs, it seems strange to reward him with a place among the stand-bys. “Fawad has a very bright future ahead of him we all know that,” Mohsin said. “There is a lot of cricket coming up, in England, against South Africa, so there will be more opportunities later.”
With the return of the two Shoaibs, the touring party is a potentially volatile one, threatening to keep Yawar Saeed, the team manager, busy. Kamran Akmal is the first-choice and only wicketkeeper in the squad and travelling with him will be Aaqib Javed, the assistant coach who made allegations against Akmal of deliberately underperforming in a PCB inquiry.
After various selectorial run-ins in his short stint, Mohsin was keen to stress that the composition of the squad left no stakeholder unhappy. “This is a balanced side and it has been selected with the approval of everyone – the captain, coach and selection committee – so there is no question of any disagreement.”