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.
If these words sound familiar, it’s because there’s a chance you may have read them before. This is, verbatim, the introductory paragraph to last year’s piece discussing the questions the PCB’s list of centrally contracted players for the year ending June 2019 raised. But if last year was a head-scratcher, the central contracts for the upcoming 12 months are bathed in more mystery than Shahid Afridi’s actual age.
For starters, they’ve been selected by non-selectors, since Pakistan’s chief selector’s contract ran out last week. You might wonder whether pegging selectors’ contracts to end just when they’re required to take the most important decision of the year might be the best move. We all are.
Why has the list of centrally contracted players been “trimmed” from 33 to 19 players?
The PCB’s press release announced they were “trimming” the list of centrally contracted players, which might make you wonder if they’d dropped one or two. But cutting the list to half its size last year is as much a trimming as your barber giving you a bald patch right down the middle of your skull.
There have been casualties everywhere. Last year, there were five categories of centrally contracted players. The fifth category – Category E – a PCB media release had proudly announced, was introduced to “recognise performers on the domestic circuit as well as to encourage the continuing development of emerging cricketers from the junior cricket level”.
It turns out that that lofty ambition was a 12-month project, or just another example of a change of regime spelling a shift in approach. Let alone domestic or junior cricketers, even some senior ones may count themselves lucky to have made the 19 at all. Because it isn’t just Category E that’s been killed off; Category D has fallen by the wayside as well, with Faheem Ashraf, Asif Ali, Hussain Talat, and the outgoing Shoaib Malik and Mohamad Hafeez dropping out altogether.
Mind you, the PCB have said once a selection committee is in place, additions to this pool of 19 can be made. This, then, may just be a first draft.
Why are there just three players in Category A, and why is Yasir Shah among them?
All right, we get it. Pakistan are not playing too much cricket in the upcoming year. There are six Tests, nine T20I and just three ODIs. But pegging a central contract to the amount of cricket players have scheduled – emphatically not in their control – appears a slightly dubious way of determining the size of the centrally contracted list. Category A now just comprises three players: Sarfaraz Ahmed, Yasir Shah and Babar Azam.
Sarfaraz’s inclusion may well be based on his status as captain in all three formats, though how long that remains the case is very much unknown. Yasir in Category A does raise some eyebrows, though. He may be a Test specialist, and Pakistan do have six Tests in the upcoming year. Two of those are against Australia, where, you might remember last time around, he took eight wickets in three Tests and averaged 84.
It’s not just a one-off; earlier this year in South Africa, he bowled just four overs in the first Test and sat out the third, taking two wickets at 123. His record in the southern hemisphere reads nine wickets at over 95, so he might not be nailed on for the Brisbane and Adelaide Tests. Category A for at best four Test matches – particularly when he’s only one of three players in it – does seem somewhat generous.
Tests are the priority. So why are Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq in Category B?
The PCB, ESPNcricinfo understands, put Test cricket front and centre of these new contracts. That makes sense, since 30 of the 42 days the players are due to play international cricket will be with the red ball. It explains, if very loosely, why Yasir Shah sits in the top bracket. But then, why does Asad Shafiq, who has played every one of Pakistan’s last 64 Test matches, not make the top category too? Or Azhar Ali, tipped as potentially the next Test captain – and a Test-match specialist for the past three years – sit in Category B? That, mind you, is the same category as Wahab Riaz, who hasn’t played Test cricket in nearly a year, T20Is for over two years, and only just returned to ODI cricket at the World Cup.
Is Mohammad Amir being punished for retiring from Test cricket?
The PCB would point to the fact Amir’s demotion to Category C is a reflection of the priority they hold Test cricket in. But Amir was the leading wickettaker for Pakistan at the World Cup with 17, and, according to the outgoing coach Mickey Arthur, would be a fresher, more dangerous limited-overs bowler now he had shed his red-ball workload. Besides, Pakistan do play nine T20Is in the upcoming year, which isn’t exactly a tiny number. Placing him in the same category as Abid Ali and Mohammad Rizwan – who have one Test match between them – does make you wonder if there was more than just analytical algorithms going on in the decision room.