How the Hobart Hurricanes' Pakistani connection became established

How the Hobart Hurricanes’ Pakistani connection became established

A friend makes bionic limbs. Back when he was studying for his master’s degree, he went to his supervisor with a question about a process he had gone through.

“Possibly a stupid question,” he asked the tutor, “but I noticed that everyone does this thing this way. But why can’t we do it this way?”

“I don’t know,” was the reply. Six months later, a bionic member friend would give a presentation to an international audience about his discovery.

Sometimes it’s worth asking why not. In August, in this season’s BBL Draft, the Hobart Hurricanes were the talk of the town after pursuing a unique draft strategy that saw them exploit an underutilized corner of cricketing talent: Pakistan.

“Surprised everyone,” was one review. “An interesting tactic,” another. “Bettor [Ricky Ponting] explains the betting project,” a third.

The ratings were accurate, in that the Hurricanes left the convention, with no other team picking a single Pakistani player (Usman Qadir has since joined Sydney Thunder as a replacement) and the Hurricanes picking three. But also puzzling, in that there doesn’t seem to be any reason why the Hurricanes’ remarkable strategy should be of such, well, rating. It’s not the IPL, there’s no ban on signing them here.

And sign the Hurricanes did. What’s more, in chadab khan, Asif Ali and Fahim Ashraf, the Hurricanes’ “draft bet” saw them field the three most internationally experienced players among all team picks, with 181 caps between them. Sydney Thunder was next closest with 144; Adelaide Strikers are even further off the pace with 115.

In particular, Shadab was their man. During the very first planning meeting months after the draft, the idea was that the team needed a versatile and powerful player. Months of conversations whirled around as all parties aggressively agreed that Shadab, yes, Shadab, was the one they wanted.

I always spoke with Darren [Berry] on the basics because [in Pakistan] we don’t have coaches since childhood, we are self-taught players so he helped me with all that

chadab khan

The only problem for the Hurricanes was that they had the last pick on auction day. But, if the past few months have proven anything, it’s that they’re delivering value where others haven’t. And Shadab was not chosen.

“We could have lightened two and a half months of planning,” head coach Jeff Vaughan said, in a kind of turf law, “but we’re really excited to have our man.”

As well as a global superstar in Shadab, they added Asif, a powerful mid-level hitter who represented Pakistan at the recent T20 World Cup. Asif’s choice came as a surprise to most, but again, best-case scenario for the Hurricanes.

“We were very happy to have Shadab in Asif Ali,” Vaughan said. “Another one of our top two picks.”

In a sport increasingly focused on marginal gains buried in laptops, the Hurricanes were raking in money off the floor that everyone was too busy to notice.

This connection with Pakistan is no coincidence. Vaughan spent time in the country earlier this year while coaching with Australia as Ricky Bridge, the head of strategy, has long been a public defender of Pakistan’s white-ball talent. But the real link is through the assistant coach Darren Berry who spent two years coaching at Islamabad United alongside the late DeanJones.

“It was a brilliant experience with Dean Jones and Darren,” said Shadab, who worked extensively with the duo when they led the team.

“I always talked with Darren about the basics because [in Pakistan] we don’t have coaches since childhood, we are self-taught players, so he helped me with all that. I spent two years in Islamabad with Darren so it’s good for me because in a new setup, the coach is the same.”

For all the money that’s poured into franchise leagues, you can’t put a price tag on the importance of personal relationships. And it was Ponting in particular who wanted to build on that. Cricket is a global game, but it would be naïve to assume that coming from abroad will always be easy. Playing alongside those you know from back home can ease the transition. Not only are Shadab, Asif and Faheem compatriots, but they are all teammates too, with Islamabad.

“It’s great,” Shadab says of being signed alongside Asif. “Because it’s not usual that we play like that when we play in foreign leagues. I play a lot so my English is a bit better, but that means I can help Asif. Because [the] the accent is a bit difficult for me,” he adds with a laugh. “Sometimes even I don’t understand and I can take care of him too.

“It’s definitely something we’ve discussed throughout,” Vaughan said of the Hurricanes’ focus on ensuring the environment is as welcoming and friendly as possible. “I mean, number one was picking the best players. But we all know that when we play cricket and when we travel the world with people we know or are comfortable with and with whom we are friends, it makes your time and life much easier.

“And just seeing Shadab and Asif over the last week and a half has been great, they’re like brothers, they really are.”

The theoretical availability of Pakistani players had been the final piece of the Hurricanes’ strategy puzzle, though those best-laid plans were nonetheless partially undermined. Shadab leaves in January for a series of clean balls which was expected, but Faheem’s inclusion in the Test squad was not, with Zak Crawley and Jimmy Neesham chosen as replacements respectively.

“Faheem was the one we planned to probably not be in the [England] Series of tests,” Vaughan said. “I’m very happy for him that he was selected, but it was definitely part of the strategy, weighing the best players, but also their availability. And I think most teams have gone that route of not necessarily picking the best players who can only play four or five games. Longevity was also a big part of that.”

Historically and currently, English players have had the strongest ties to the BBL. And in particular, English second-string players, as their availability is often near perfect.

But now, with the T20 Sands moving globally, the BBL could see other sides following the Hurricanes’ lead. It is particularly important that the two new T20 tournaments in competition, the ILT20 and the SA20, are almost entirely Indian-owned. Of the six ILT20 teams, five are run by Indian companies with the only Pakistani player signed, Azam Khan, taken over by the only American franchise Desert Vipers. Meanwhile, the six SA20 teams all belong to the same companies that operate the IPL and have not seen any Pakistanis signed, although the league has said it wants Pakistani players involved in the future.

A caveat here is that Pakistan’s run of clean balls at home to New Zealand and the West Indies means the availability of their best players would have been poor, but that nonetheless plays into the creeping fear of Pakistani cricket which, at As the IPL spreads its wings, their players may be further marginalized and denied opportunities in the global leagues.

How fictional or remote that reality really is doesn’t really matter today. The monster under the bed may not be real, but it still keeps people up at night. An increasingly powerful IPL is unlikely to be good news if you are a Pakistani player. Which, on the other hand, makes board-owned tournaments such as the Hundred or BBL a more attractive and likely destination for Pakistani stars.

For the BBL, Pakistan offers available and high quality players. Which begs the question, why spend your life doing this way, when you could do it this.

Cameron Ponsonby is a freelance cricket writer in London. @cameronponsonby

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