“At Dublin’s Malahide Imam really kept himself gathered under the difficult weather conditions and against a lively bowling attack to earn a positive result in the end”.
When Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) announced their squad for the upcoming tours of Ireland and England, in no time the critics and cricket enthusiasts had criticised them for picking Imam-Ul-Haq over Fawad Alam. The debate was triggered more because Imam was the nephew of Pakistan’s Selecting Committee’s chairman Inzamam-Ul-Haq, slamming the former Pakistan captain with accusations of nepotism.
Apparently, nepotism has become a household practice in Pakistan, which is highlighted whenever the Pakistanis are asked to list down reasons for the failure of the country on so many fronts.
However, every time Imam was slapped with these allegations, he has always hit back the critics with a firm answer with the bat. It all began in 2017, when Imam was picked in the 16-man squad for the ODI series against Sri Lanka. But, the way Imam struck back would be remembered for a very long time. By hitting a century on debut, exactly 100 runs, he became the second youngest centurion on debut. Following the match, the youngster had said that it was not his fault that he was the selector’s nephew. “The best way to answer them [critics] is by performing on the ground. Its not my fault that I am Inzi’s nephew but all I can do is to perform as well as I can for as long as possible. I am proud of my record as the second youngest debut-century maker and I will do my level best in the future too,” he said.
Little did he know a few months later the debate would get reignited. This time the issue was that Imam was selected ahead of Fawad Alam, the player who has been consistent in the domestic circuit for a while now. When PCB chose top-order batsman Saad Ali, on the basis of his domestic performance in the previous year then the question was why was Fawad ignored, yet again?
In the previous season of Pakistan’s First-Class tournament, Quaid-Azam Trophy, Fawad had scored 570 runs in 10 matches to Imam has 222 runs in five matches, whose average was not even 30. If the selectors took the age factor into consideration, Fawad was better than most of the youngsters in the team even a decade back. In the last three seasons, Fawad had 672 runs in eight matches, 499 runs in nine matches and 570 runs in 10 matches in the Quaid-Azam Trophy. Then there was Fawad’s performance in the Endurance Test, that was organised just before PCB chose the squad for the England/Ireland tour.
Fawad was among the 25 players, who were called for the training camp at the Gaddafi Stadium. He scored an impressive 19 on the Endurance Test, ahead of skipper Sarfraz Ahmed and much younger players like Hasan Ali, Babar Azam and Zaman. Hence, that stimulated the nepotism tension more.
But then, there is never an assurance in cases like Fawad because performing on the highest level of international cricket is way different than the domestic level. Although, the domestic circuit was made in the first place to prepare the players for international cricket but then the history is the proof that not all players replicate their domestic dominance against the best of the world. Infact, Pakistan itself has a few examples to prove that point. The likes of Zahid Fazal and Asif Mujtaba who were fine domestic players but could not pull it off in Test cricket.
Zahid scored 5000-plus runs in First-Class, but when it came to Test cricket, in his first year, he played three Tests against West Indies, where he managed only 75 runs at an embarrassing average of 12.50. Eventually, his Test career ended with nine Tests with 288 runs at an average of 18 with no hundreds and one fifty. On the other hand, Mujtaba, who averaged almost 50 in First-Class cricket, ended up with a below-par average of 26.04 in Tests. While he scored 49 hundreds and 93 fifties in the 291 First-Class matches, he managed only eight Test fifties and no hundreds.
More than Fazal, Mujtaba is the better example of domestic kings not turning out to be the same in Test cricket. Similarly, Fawad’s game has testified that he does not have the temperament and technique required to survive in Test cricket but the 22-year-old Imam has and that’s what he proved in Pakistan’s tour of Ireland.
Although the Irish players were making their Test debut, they have played a lot of County Cricket and were good enough to trouble the Pakistani batsmen. Pakistan played two warm-up matches before the one-off Test in Dublin against Ireland and Imam made his presence felt in all the three games. In the first warm-up match against Kent, Imam top-scored for Pakistan in the first innings. While no top or middle-order even reached 20, Imam scored 61 off 111 balls; the next best batsman was Hasan Ali, who scored 24 off 11 balls. In the second warm-up match against Northamptonshire, in the first innings, he failed but stepped up in the second one.
Northamptonshire set Pakistan a target of 133 runs. Chasing that, Imam remained unbeaten with Haris Sohail and helped Pakistan go into the one-off Test with a win.
Imam replicated the same when Pakistan were again put to bat in the final innings against Ireland a few days later. Before that, Imam had a nervous start to his Test career when he opened innings for Pakistan on the first day.
Tim Murtagh bowled Ireland’s maiden Test delivery, over-pitched that landed on Azhar Ali’s feet. Azhar flicked the ball down the ground and within a split-second took off for a quick single. The run was a needless risk, more because it was just the first ball of the innings. Imam, from the non-striker’s end, ran in a rush, only to collide with both the keeper, Niall O’Brien and Kane, who was sprinting in from square-leg. The next second saw Imam flat on the ground. The sight was not pretty and everyone thought he was injured seriously. However, the youngster passed the concussion test and was back on his feet five minutes later.
That start was shaky and he lasted only 26 balls at the crease. However, his best awaited for the fourth innings on the final day. Ireland set Pakistan a target of 160 runs. While the total was not a lot, then again, Ireland was up against Pakistan, the most unpredictable side so a few early wickets would bring Ireland back into the match. Only three times in the 141-year history of Test cricket have a side won after following-on and at a point in the Test, Ireland saw itself becoming the fourth side to do so.
Pakistan went three down for just 14 runs before Imam along with Babar Azam took the matters to their hands. The two added 126 runs before Babar was sent back. While their fourth-wicket stand rescued their side, it ended up crushing Ireland’s dream debut. Two more wickets fell following Babar’s wicket but Imam stood strong at the other end to take his side successfully on the other side of the line.
His match-winning knock of 74 will certainly release the pressure before the England tour. His knock, that almost lasted for 200 minutes and included eight fours, will help him retain his spot as Pakistan’s opening batsman for the two Tests against England, where the conditions more or less will be similar to those Pakistan encountered at Dublin’s Malahide Imam really kept himself gathered under the difficult weather conditions and against a lively bowling attack to earn a positive result in the end. Pakistan will hope to watch Imam retain his same confidence, temperament and technique against a sturdier England side.