On 14th May, the departmental squad of Habib Bank Limited landed in Kabul to play two 4-day and four OD matches against an Afghanistan Development Squad in Alokozay Kabul International Cricket Stadium. After nearly a month of neck-to-neck, high class matches between the two sides, the series came to an end with plenty of positives for both teams.

Local standouts pleading their case

The Habib Bank Limited departmental team, when announced for the tour to Afghanistan, emerged as a weaker one as compared to previous times when it could boast about having the likes of Younis Khan, Azhar Mahmood and Asad Shafiq at its disposal. Nonetheless, the team consisted of adequate upcoming talent led by a seasoned campaigner in Imran Farhat. Although everyone involved in the team deserves immense praise for their valiant efforts in a different cricketing environment, one that tests greatly the resolve of bowlers on batting favouring pitches, two players in specific outshone the others by performing consistently for the team. Usman Khan, or Usman Shinwari is what the local fanbase might remember him as, proved his worth with the ball by taking 10 wickets in 5 matches on slow pitches that yielded big scores, ending the series as the overall second highest wicket-taker and highest wicket-taker for Habib Bank. Shinwari, who has been criticised mainly due to his high economy rate, also had the highest number of maiden overs, 11, in the series, against a hard-hitting, always attacking Afghan batting line-up. Alongside Khan, Muhammad Waqas showed glimmers of promise for Habib Bank when his teammates crumbled in front of a potent Afghan bowling unit. He ended the series as the second highest run-getter for Habib Bank with 276 runs, including 3 half-centuries, all coming at crucial times. The final figure he achieved could have been higher had his batting number been fixed to either 4 or 5 rather than getting pushed down the order. He possesses the temperament that is required to bat for longer time periods and needs to be nurtured well for better results. Zohaib Shera, a highly rated prospect and one of the prized products of Rashid Latif Cricket Academy in Karachi, despite being part of the squad, failed to feature in any of the games which was indeed a massive disappointment considering his recent performances for Port Qasim A and how highly he is rated by Rashid Latif himself.

Afghanistan mastering the art of spin

Afghanistan, like all Asian teams, have a bowling unit that is their strength. While Afghanistan, since their early days, have often been praised for producing fiery, genuinely fast bowlers, one after another, it is actually their spin attack that has bailed them out of tough situations. Already blessed with the likes of Muhammad Nabi, Samiullah Shenwari, Amir Hamza and the young Rashid Khan, Afghanistan now have at their disposal a chinaman bowler who spun Habib Bank out of both the four-day matches. Zahir Khan, who only played the two four-day matches, ended as the series' highest wicket-taker with 18 wickets, including two five-fors. Chinaman bowlers are among a rapidly diminishing, rare breed of spinners that can either be unplayable or really expensive. At 17 years of age, Zahir has picked him 28 wickets in 5 matches and could be the X factor for Afghanistan in their quest towards achieving Test status. Zahir was unavailable for the shorter format of the series due to its clash with the domestic Sayed Jamaludin Provincial Elite Cup. Another legspinning prodigy, Rashid Khan, who emerged as the spearhead of the Afghan spin-attack during the recently concluded T20 World Cup, troubled the Habib Bank batsmen with his high-arm action and varieties that keep the batsmen guessing. Along with the two youngsters, who played a pivotal role for the development squad, Javed Ahmadi and Sharafuddin Ashraf shared 15 wickets between them. While Ahmadi bowls conventional right-arm off-break, Ashraf, on the contrary, is a slow left-arm orthodox bowler. Ahmadi, the more successful of the two, is also a highly capable batsman who found great success with the bat as well. The series proved yet again that Afghanistan have young, highly talented spinners, ready at their disposal, who could raise a few eyebrows if unleashed onto the international scene anytime soon.

Improving cricketing ties with Afghanistan and other Associate Nations

Currently ranked 9th in One-Day Internationals and 7th in T20Is, Pakistan are, as harsh as it may sound, no longer among the big boys when it comes to the quality of cricket that has remained stagnant since the past decade. Pakistan, therefore, need to adopt a more flexible approach towards playing against Associate nations. The cricket played between the two sides will yield mutually beneficial results. Pakistan will be able to test the upcoming crop of talent in the country against easier yet competitive oppositions. A short winning streak against easier opposition will not only allow Pakistan to bridge the gap between upper-ranked teams, but will help in restoring lost confidence. Meanwhile, the Associate nations will be able to attain more of what they have been yearning for the past decade: playing regular cricket against Test-playing nations. The matches will provide these nations will immense exposure and help in familiarising them to what international cricket is all about. Currently, Afghanistan play their home matches in Greater Noida, India and it will take a while before Afghanistan can begin hosting matches on their home soil. Despite the ongoing security situation and the lack of international standard facilities in Afghanistan, Habib Bank playing in Kabul is an indication of the confidence that Pakistan has shown in Afghanistan, in an attempt to coax Afghanistan Cricket Board into sending the national team for a short series in Lahore. The series does indeed reflect the willingness of both the boards to help each other in restoring and, in Afghanistan's case, bringing international cricket in their respective countries and a home-series against Afghanistan could materialise sooner rather than later.

The ascending Imam Ul Haq

Imam Ul Haq, like his maternal uncle, has made a statement with his thunderous entry into Pakistan's cricketing scenario. At 20 years of age, Imam is another product of the U19 programme initiated by the Pakistan Cricket Board who has been trying tirelessly to make his presence felt. Imam has had a fair share of opportunities with Lahore Lions and Khan Research Laboratories, but his inability to intially settle down into one specific batting number robbed him off the potential success that he could have had. Finally, settling down into the role of an opener, Imam has found quick success that has catapulted him straight onto the national scene. Going unpicked initially during the Pakistan Cup draft, Imam received his chance as a stroke of luck when Misbah Ul Haq became unavailable during the final group stage match for the Federal team. Imam pounced on the opportunity like a hungry predator by scoring an important century for his side. Imam became part of the Habib Bank Limited team touring Pakistan as an opener alongside Nauman Anwar. Unlike his opening partner, Imam played with great poise and consistency that allowed him to end the tour as the highest run-getter with 650 runs in 6 matches at a staggering average of precisely 130, including 3 centuries and 2 half-centuries. In more than one tough situations, Imam single-handedly carried his team to respectable totals, following typical Pakistani collapses in batting, that silently paid homage to both his relatives, Misbah and Inzamam, who have played a similar role for the national team in the past. Imam also proved to be handy with the ball as he ended the tour with 9 wickets and the overall third highest wicket-taker. Imam sure seems to have a bright future ahead of him and he has made a strong case for his selection into the A team, but having his uncle as the chief selector could prove to be disadvantageous if Inzamam decides to hold him back on purpose in order to establish himself as a credible and honest figure of authority.

Habib Bank Limited touring Kabul is a highly positive step in the right direction. It is reflective of the immediate objectives that the board has set for itself which is restoration of international cricket in Pakistan and development of young players. Kudos to Habib Bank Limited for accepting the invitation and testing the upcoming talent in Pakistan in a completely new environment. The initiative must not be restricted to one department and more departmental teams should try to gain more exposure through similar series and tours. Pakistan and Afghanistan share a high level of understanding between them when it comes to cricket, partly due to the Pashto and Pakhtun influence. Pakistan have remained a constant during the development of cricket in Afghanistan, be it through having a team from Afghanistan play in the local domestic cup or through provision of coaches in the form of Kabir Khan and Inzamam Ul Haq. Now it is time for Afghanistan to repay its faith in Pakistan by agreeing to a home-series in the near future.