How Hobart Hurricanes’ Pakistan connection came together in BBL

A friend makes bionic limbs. Back when he was studying for his masters, he went to his supervisor with a question about a process he had been following.

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

“I don’t know,” came the reply. Six months later and bionic limb friend would give a presentation to an international audience on his discovery.

Sometimes it pays to ask why not. In August at this season’s BBL draft, Hobart Hurricanes set tongues wagging after they pursued a unique draft strategy that saw them tap up an under-utilised corner of cricketing talent: Pakistan.

“Surprised everyone,” was one review. “An interesting tactic,” another. “Punter [Ricky Ponting] explains draft gamble,” a third.

The assessments were accurate, in that Hurricanes had departed from convention, with no other team picking a single Pakistani player (Usman Qadir has since joined Sydney Thunder as a replacement) and Hurricanes choosing three. But also confusing, in that there doesn’t seem to be a reason why Hurricanes’ noteworthy strategy should be of such, well, note. This isn’t the IPL, there’s no ban on signing them here.

And sign them Hurricanes did. What’s more, in Shadab Khan, Asif Ali and Faheem Ashraf, Hurricanes’ “draft gamble” saw them bring together the three most internationally experienced players of any teams’ picks, with 181 caps between them. Sydney Thunder were next closest with 144; Adelaide Strikers further off the pace with 115.

In particular, Shadab was their man. At the very first planning meeting months out from the draft the view was that the team was in need of a power-hitting, spin-bowling allrounder. Cue months of conversations going round-and-around in circles as all parties aggressively agreed with each other that Shadab, yes, Shadab, was the one they wanted.

I always talked with Darren [Berry] about the basics because [in Pakistan] we don’t have coaches since childhood, we’re self-made players so he helped me with all this stuff

Shadab Khan

The only problem for Hurricanes was that they had the last pick on auction day. But, if the last few months have proved anything, it’s that they were placing value where others weren’t. And Shadab went unpicked.

“We could have alleviated two and a half months of planning,” head coach Jeff Vaughan said, in a sod’s law sort of a way, “but we’re really pleased to get our man.”

In addition to a global superstar in Shadab, they added Asif, a powerful middle-order batter who represented Pakistan in the recent T20 World Cup. Asif’s pick was a surprise to most, but again, the best case scenario for Hurricanes.

“We were very pleased to get Shadab into Asif Ali,” Vaughan said. “Another of our first two picks.”

In a sport increasingly focused on marginal gains buried in laptops, Hurricanes were picking cash off the ground that everyone else was too busy to notice.

This connection with Pakistan isn’t a coincidence. Vaughan spent time in the country earlier this year when he was coaching with Australia while Ricky Ponting, the head of strategy, has long been a public advocate of Pakistan’s white-ball talent. But the real link comes through assistant coach Darren Berry who spent two years coaching at Islamabad United alongside the late Dean Jones.

“It was a brilliant experience with Dean Jones and Darren,” says Shadab, who worked extensively with the pair when they headed up the team.

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

For all the money that gets handed around franchise leagues, you can’t put a price on the importance of personal relationships. And it was Ponting in particular who wished to lean on this. Cricket is a global game, but it would be naive to assume that coming from overseas will always be plain sailing. Playing alongside those you know from home can help make the transition easier. Not only are Shadab, Asif and Faheem countrymen, but they are all club-mates too, with Islamabad.

“It’s brilliant,” says Shadab of being signed alongside Asif. “Because it’s not usually we play like that when we play in overseas leagues. I play a lot so my English is a bit better, but it means I can help Asif. Because [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 as well.

“It was certainly something we discussed throughout,” Vaughan said of Hurricanes’ focus on ensuring as welcoming and friendly an environment as possible. “I mean number one was to pick the best players. But we all know when we play cricket and when we travel the world with people that we know or we’re comfortable with and we’re friends with, it makes your time and your experience a hell of a lot a lot easier.

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

Asif Ali almost stole a remarkable victory at the SCG•Cricket Australia/Getty Images

The theoretical availability of Pakistan players had been the final piece of the puzzle for Hurricanes’ strategy although these best laid plans have nonetheless been partially undermined. Shadab leaves in January for a white-ball series which was expected, but Faheem’s inclusion in the Test side was not, with Zak Crawley and Jimmy Neesham chosen as replacements respectively.

“Faheem was one that we planned on probably not being in the [England] Test series,” Vaughan said. “I’m very pleased for him that he did get selected, but that was certainly part of the strategy, weighing up the best players, but also their availability. And I think most teams went down that route of not necessarily selecting the best players who can only play four or five games. Longevity was a fair bit of it as well.”

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

But now with global T20 sands shifting, the BBL could see other sides following Hurricanes’ example. Of particular significance is that the two new competing T20 tournaments, the ILT20 and SA20, are all-but completely Indian owned. Of the ILT20s six teams, five are run by Indian business with the only Pakistani player signed, Azam Khan, being picked up by the sole American franchise Desert Vipers. Meanwhile, the SA20’s six teams are all owned by the same companies that operate the IPL and has seen no Pakistanis signed, although the league has stated they wish for Pakistan players to be involved in the future.

A caveat here is that Pakistan’s home white-ball series against New Zealand and the West Indies means availability of their top players would have been poor, but it nonetheless plays into the creeping fear of Pakistan cricket that as the IPL spreads its wings, their players may be further marginalised and denied opportunities in global leagues.

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

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

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

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