There’s nothing particularly vain about Fawad Alam, but for the best part of a decade, he might have wondered if the policies of Pakistan cricket were molded for the sole purpose of disadvantaging him. Two Tests after he had compiled a third-innings 168 on debut in Colombo in 2009, he would be dropped after a couple of failures in New Zealand. Not dropped in that he was eased into domestic cricket to bounce back after he had some runs under his belt, more like thrown out of an aircraft without a parachute. He disappeared, as if he didn’t exist in the first place.
In the decade that ends along with this Test, Alam might well have disappeared, even as he topped every run chart anyone bothered to look at from the first-class scene in Pakistan. By 2013, Alam had the highest batting average in Pakistan’s first-class history, a record he still lays claim to. He has scored more runs than anyone else on the first-class circuit since the start of the 2015-16 season, and among active players, only Steven Smith and Hanuma Vihari boast better first-class averages than Alam’s 56.60.
As Alam piling on the runs every time the Quaid-e-Azam trophy rolled around became a familiar sight, so did another altogether less pleasant spectacle. When squads for upcoming tours were announced, chief selector after chief selector, captain and coach alike would field questions from the media and never satisfactorily explain why it was the man who had more runs at a superior average than everyone selected ahead of him, who was consistently given the cold shoulder. There were murmurs about squad balance, lip service to horses-for-courses and, though no one said it publicly, private anxiety about his ungainly, crab-like stance. This at a time, mind you, when Shivnarine Chanderpaul topped the ICC Test rankings at the age of 40.
There’s absolutely nothing the various stakeholders in Pakistan cricket agree upon, but everyone through the door at the PCB through various reigns of chairmen, coach, manager or captain appeared to have made formed a pact to freeze Alam out of getting near the national side. That might sound conspiratorial, but if there was a genuine cricketing reason to ignore a man whose average flirted with 60 season upon season even as first-class games in Pakistan routinely saw games end before lunch on day three, it was never quite made plain.
“Without ever saying a word in his defence, he had taken them all on. They were all wrong, and Fawad Alam was right”
Things would get worse for Alam. If successive coaches and chief selectors were leaving him out, people wondered, often aloud on primetime television shows, there must be a reason no one seemed to want him near the national side. After all, it is difficult to question the collective wisdom of Dave Whatmore, Waqar Younis, Mickey Arthur, Grant Flower, and Misbah-ul-Haq, not to mention the myriad others who enjoyed prominent decision-making roles about the national side during decades in isolation.
All Alam had the audacity to do during this time was chip away at the last shavings of the arguments levied in favour of his isolation, and the blunt tool he used was the sheer volume of his runs. He scored so many, so frequently and so predictably he almost began to appear obsessive. And every time he was snubbed, for home series, away series, series in which players were rested, you could be sure he’d pop up with another huge hundred at some nondescript cricket ground around the country.
A decade passed. The youthful, boyish looks gave way to a more wizened countenance, a bushy beard and a glorious handlebar moustache. The batting stance grew somewhat more extreme; it didn’t do the run-scoring any harm. The 23-year-old who was dropped in Dunedin saw his 20s trickle by without another sniff at a national side that appeared perpetually in need of batsmen who could play long, patient innings, particularly in seaming conditions like England and New Zealand. When, a decade on, he finally did get a shot, it came against perhaps England’s best ever bowling attack, and he would manage 30 runs all series.
Babar Azam’s injury gave him another go in New Zealand, but while Alam might be grateful for the opportunity, it was hard not to watch him grind out that innings without feeling righteous indignation bubble up inside every now and then. This man was told his domestic form wouldn’t translate to international success, that flaws in his technique would be exposed if he stepped up to international cricket again, that this cricketer who averaged over three runs more than anyone in Pakistan’s first-class history was such a hopeless cause he didn’t merit so much as one opportunity to put on a Test cap ever again.
Anyone who has bothered to actually watch Alam play cricket over this time saw a man dealing with the New Zealand attack in the same way he has approached first-class cricket in Pakistan. He turned the final day battle into a war of attrition, left alone 64 of the 269 balls he faced, and defended a further 89. He left Neil Wagner and Kyle Jamieson when they went too short and pulled them when the ball hung around chest height. He was watchful against the quick bowlers, but attacked Mitchell Santner when he was introduced. He might have been batting for National Bank of Pakistan in the QeA; it was the same playbook, and it very much translated to international cricket.
Eleven years, five months and 16 days on from that other lifetime when he scored his first Test hundred, Alam pulled Wagner behind square – that shot had served him well both in defence and attack – past a diving deep fielder to bring up a second Test hundred. It had come in the same country as his last Test match, and this was no one of the most meaningful centuries a Pakistan player could ever hope to score. Only Javed Miandad has ever faced more deliveries in a fourth innings for Pakistan outside Asia, against a nation that is stronger at present than it has ever been. This was the 18th successive Test New Zealand have remained unbeaten against Asian opposition at home; they have won 15 of those. Their pace attack boasts over 800 Test wickets between them. Alam wasn’t being eased into this side; if anything, he was set up to fail.
But none of that fazed him. As he raised his bat and helmet to his dressing room, the sense of vindication must have almost been transcendent. He knew that, despite a career that will never see its potential fulfilled, he had proven his point. They were all wrong to say he didn’t belong at this level, wrong to say he was technically feeble, wrong to tell him his first-class statistics deserved to be overlooked.
Without ever saying a word in his defence, he had taken them all on. They were all wrong, and Fawad Alam was right.
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