Young Punjabis pack a punch

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Former fast bowler IAN CALLEN identifies one of the secrets of Pakistan’s most recent triumph – they’re not afraid to give young talent a go:

AT THE FOOT of the Himalayas lies “the Punjab”, the land of five rivers which makes it the most productive region of the sub-continent. For millenniums, these multiple watercourses have been a source of life and culture, firstly to Indo-Aryan people and now for the Punjabis covering India in the east and Pakistan to the west.

There is something very special about this region and perhaps there is truth to the myth that something is in the water, because if you were able to catch the recent ICC Champions Trophy final you surely would have been impressed by the number of young talented Punjabi cricketers, aged between 18 and 25, representing Pakistan against their most serious rival.

The most intriguing was a left-arm pace bowler from the Rawalpindi district well known for its fast bowlers. (Who can forget, Asif “Two Step” Masood, Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and, of course, the “Rawalpindi Express” Shoaib Akhtar.)

Mohammad Amir made his first class debut in 2007 as a 15-year-old and two years later he stormed onto the Test scene. I watched this teenager demolish Australia’s top order at the “G” taking 5/79 and then to England, first at the Oval and then at the home of cricket, Lords. But who could forget St Lucia with Australia 5/191 and set to cross the 200 mark during the ICC T20 World Cup of 2010, where he came back at the death to bowl a five-wicket maiden (one caught, two bowled and two run out)? He was a phenomenon.

Unfortunately, as quickly as he’d arrived, tragically he was gone, enticed into the underworld of match-fixing by his captain Salman Butt _ an impressionable and vulnerable boy exploited! Amir received a five-year ban for allegedly bowling two deliberate “no-balls”. He was guilty, but still I could not help but feel the punishment was very harsh. To his credit, however, Amir pleaded forgiveness, paid the price and – as it should be – was welcomed back into the game.

At 25 and seven years on, he still has years in front of him and here he was leading the attack for Pakistan in England against India and it was with great anticipation that I was one of the billion viewers watching as Amir prepared to take on the most feared batting line-up in world cricket. It was a special occasion and it was as if his talent began to swirl and gust about the Kennington Oval, for he destroyed India’s top order in a matter of moments, setting the scene for the youngest Punjabi.

Enter Shadab Khan, an 18-year-old right-arm leg break bowler from the Indus Valley whose cricket journey began with a successful Under 19 World Cup on to T20 cricket to ODIs and Test Cricket. I’m not sure that he’d even played a first class match, so confusing is the Pakistani system, but not since Shane Warne have I seen someone with the ability to flight and land the ball at will.

When Shadab trapped Yuvraj Singh in front with a beautifully-flighted leg break the umpire’s call was “Not out.” But so confident beyond his years is this young man, he convinced his captain to go upstairs and Yuvraj was on his bike!

We certainly cannot forget the competition’s leading wicket-taker. Waiting patiently for his chance was another Punjabi, Hasan Ali from Sialkot, now 23, who began his first class career at 19. Within 6.3 overs of tight line bowling he’d claimed 3/19 and Pakistan had wrapped up a famous victory.

For followers of the game, how refreshing it is to see these young cricketers from Pakistan being given the opportunity to play without fear and in such an uninhibited style. I congratulate the Pakistan coaching staff and the selection panel for they are continually producing top class cricketers without the money, infrastructure or resources that are provided by Cricket Australia’s high performance managers. They make our coaching ideas look very floral and second rate.

So, to cricket clubs, selectors and administrators looking to rebuild, take notice of Pakistan and think seriously how you intend to use your hard-earned funds, for these Punjabi kids have none of the things you have in life, except that they are certainly not over-coached or indoctrinated with mind-bending BS that makes the game harder than it is. They just get out there and work hard to get on!

This was once the way of Australian cricket in a time when “community” cricket, District cricket, was the pathway to the highest levels. It was a time when clubs were always on the lookout for the next generation. An era when young exciting talent, aged 16 to 18, was being let loose with and against those who’d survived in the game, against the best on offer. They went shoulder to shoulder competing alongside players who may have been arriving home from an overseas tours or interstate from Sheffield Shield matches. They batted in the nets with the best going around or just worked hard on their bowling, running in all night, working the lines, searching for a way to beat the bat – against batting legends.

I am so pleased that in one part of the cricketing world this type of development program still exists where quality cricketers are being produced using methods that must surely embarrass modern coaches elsewhere.

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Author: Ian Callen

IAN CALLEN is a former Victorian and Australian fast bowler, Test cap No 291.

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