Four points about the Pakistan central contracts that don't add up
Much of what the PCB does, and what it took to get to that stage, is full of mystery, and guaranteed to remain that way until someone writes a tell-all book, or Younis Khan finds out and hastily summons a press conference to explain what happened and why it was a personal affront to him. The same mystery applies to the way the PCB determines who is awarded central contracts for the upcoming year, and in which of the five categories they fit. There is a method that's supposed to look at performance over the past year, and the player's prospects of excelling in the future, but as the method itself has never been disclosed, all we can do is analyse the conclusions it throws up.
On Monday, the PCB awarded central contracts to 33 players for the upcoming year in five categories - A to E - A being the most prestigious and lucrative, and supposed to be awarded to players who are the most valuable assets to Pakistan cricket. There were no really big surprises in terms of omissions; nearly everyone who was supposed to get a central contract got one. But the categories in which certain players were placed raised questions.
Does Category B actually have better players than Category A?
Test it out yourself. Pit Azhar Ali, Sarfraz Ahmed, Babar Azam, Shoaib Malik, Yasir Shah and Mohammad Amir against Fakhar Zaman, Faheem Ashraf, Shadab Khan, Hasan Ali, Asad Shafiq and Mohammad Hafeez. Can you tell which set of players were given Category A contracts? The fact there is ambiguity, and some unusual choices in each set, makes you wonder how they went about assigning categories to each player. As it turns out, the former set is Category A.
Very well, you might argue. The former set has players who are regular Test cricketers for Pakistan, while Category B has players, who, while immensely exciting over the past year and a half, have largely made their name in white-ball cricket. But in that case, why on earth is Malik, who last saw a competitive red ball hurtling towards him in late 2015, included in the higher category?
Is it time we got over our love affair with Mohammad Amir?
If any young cricketer wanted to be a fast bowler, they'd choose to be like Amir. With a clean run-up and quite a beautiful action, Amir looks like he's about to get prodigious swing, or bowl a yorker that cannons into the base of middle stump. And of course, he has the hair for it all.
But while spectacular performances since his comeback refuse to fade from memory - think Asia Cup against India in 2016, or more epically, the Champions Trophy final last year, he has a worse wicket-taking ratio than almost every other Pakistan bowler he plays alongside, and is ranked 28 in ODI cricket and 32 in Tests. Hasan Ali is Pakistan's top-ranked bowler in ODI cricket, and Mohammad Abbas is in the country's top three in Test cricket, but Amir is the only fast bowler included in the list of Category A cricketers.
Is that based on hard analytics, or a teenage love affair in England eight years ago?
Why are Mohammad Abbas and Imam-ul-Haq in Category C?
Mohammad Abbas will never be the man this Pakistan side is built around - in truth, he could go back to his old school and even today, he wouldn't be the man they built their side around. He's not going to be the most followed player on Instagram, or the one large screaming mobs wait outside hotels and airports to get a glimpse of or autograph from. He is a non-fussy, uncomplicated, slow fast bowler, but he does exceptionally well. He has been, by far, Pakistan's best Test bowler since he made his debut last year, taking 42 wickets in eight games at an average of 17.69. If the PCB justifies the group of players awarded Category A contracts because of their prowess in Test cricket, then why does Abbas find himself languishing in Category C?
To some extent, the same applies to Imam-ul-Haq. The exciting young left-hander made his debut against Sri Lanka in an ODI last year, scoring a hundred on debut and making the opening slot his. He now has four hundreds in his first nine ODIs and, earlier this year, displaced Sami Aslam at the top of the Test batting line-up, where he played all three Tests on Pakistan's tour of Ireland and England. He scored a crucial, unbeaten 74 against Ireland on debut to prevent a shock defeat, and with Sami Aslam not awarded a central contract at all, Imam is set to play a lot more Test cricket over the next 12 months.
When he came into the side, there were whispers of favouritism, with the 22-year old being chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq's nephew. But now that he's established himself as an ODI and Test opener, isn't there a case to be made that he's been treated slightly harshly?
Why is Asif Ali all the way down in Category D?
The wider cricket world may not have known who Asif Ali was until the Pakistan Super League this year, but since then, he has to be defined as the success story of PSL 2018. Called up to make his international debut barely a week after helping Islamabad seal the title, he's already made his name in the limited-overs side as a lower-order power hitter. He hasn't missed a single white-ball game for Pakistan since, averaging 40 at a strike rate of nearly 160 in ten T20Is. In ODIs, he's been even better, with an average of 57 and a strike rate over 180 from five games.
Making a career in international cricket is all about grasping the chances you're offered, and there isn't much more Asif could have done to make a lower-order spot in the side his. Already, it seems almost inconceivable he won't go to the World Cup, and in truth he will probably start every game Pakistan play there. For a player of that profile, then, to be placed in Category D seems quite odd, especially when a player like Imad Wasim, who hasn't played for Pakistan at all this year, is in a higher category (C). Similarly, Haris Sohail, who struggled to get into the Pakistan side while Asif was already in it over the past few months, is in a higher category too.
What is that method the PCB use again?