New Delhi: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that was later adapted to a movie starring Brad Pitt, gives a fictional account of a man who ages in reverse. The real account of the ageing process of Pakistani cricketers, though, is way more curious (tip of the hat to Fitzgerald’s fellow American writer Mark Twain for saying “truth is stranger than fiction”).
You might have heard of Naseem Shah, the latest finished product from the assembly line of Pakistani fast bowlers. You might have heard about his classical side-on action that reminds fast bowling aficionados of the great Sir Richard Hadlee himself. Waqar Younis likens him to Dennis Lillee and Naseem himself says that he thinks he resembles Shane Bond. He has pace and aggression. He gets bounce and movement off the seam from his lovely high action. Everything seems right about this promising youngster. Except for one minor detail. His age. On paper, he is 16 years old.
Shah — who is playing his first Test today, against Australia — is not the first Pakistani cricketer whose age at the time of debut has raised a few eyebrows. On paper, Shahid Afridi was also 16 at the time of making his debut, although earlier this year he clarified in his book that he was 19 at that time.
According to records, Aaqib Javed, the 1990s medium-pacer, was only 12 when he made his First-Class debut and 16 when he made his international debut. Javed’s book and information on his real age are still awaited.
Unfortunately for Shah, he plays his cricket a time when apart from raising eyebrows, people can Google old articles about him where his age is tracked. A piece published in Pakistan’s Dawn quotes West Indian fast bowling great Andy Roberts speaking about Naseem, “I must say that I very much liked a young fast bowler by the name of Naseem. He is just a 16-year-old.”
Trouble is, the piece is dated 7 October 2016. If you search some more, there are tweets and YouTube videos in which, as a part of Quetta Gladiators squad, Shah is mentioned as a 17-year-old. When it comes to Shah’s age, as Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity notes, time truly is a malleable entity; it can go forward, or backwards, or standstill.
This age obsession has been a constant theme in Pakistan cricket. Mushtaq Mohammad, one among four Mohammad brothers who played for Pakistan, made his debut in 1959 when he was still 15 years of age — the youngest cricketer to play international cricket in his time. His record was broken by Hasan Raza, who made his debut at the age of 14 years and 227 days.
Even as doubts remain over Raza’s true age, he remains the youngest cricketer ever to play Test cricket, a record perhaps more unbreakable than Sachin Tendulkar’s 100 centuries and Brian Lara’s 400 not out against England in 2004 — setting the record for the highest individual score in a Test innings.
How India has cracked down on age fudging
It would be naïve to think that age fudging is native to Pakistan. Throughout the subcontinent, the culture of cutting corners is fair game, whether for livelihood or just for the thrill of it. If you do a government job, changing your year of birth allows you an extra year of service. In sports, staying young on paper allows you to participate at various age-group levels for more years.
According to a report published a few days before the start of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, a youth coach said, “Over 95% of professional footballers in India have incorrect dates of birth.”
In cricket, though, India has taken huge leaps in curbing the menace of age fudging. One of the most prominent authorities on youth cricket in India, Makarand Waingankar, has been comparing age fraud to match-fixing in his writings for more than a decade. When Rahul Dravid echoed the same thought in his MAK Pataudi Memorial lecture in 2015, those in power had to stand up and take notice.
Apart from cultivating a culture of cheating at an early stage of a child’s career, Dravid argued that age fudging has a detrimental effect on the budding talent pool. “The truth is that the player who has faked his age might make it at the junior level not necessarily because he is better or more talented, but because he is stronger and bigger.”
Dravid further argued that this affects not just a few players who couldn’t make it on merit, but it poisons the entire ecosystem. “That incident will have another ripple effect: An honest player deprived of his place by an overage player is disillusioned. We run the risk of losing him forever.”
As a result of these efforts, the BCCI has introduced measures like bone density tests to confirm the age of players. Last year, the Board announced a two-year ban for players found guilty of age fraud. It also put a cap of one U-19 World Cup tournament per player. India’s U-19 coach, Dravid, welcomed the move as a deterrent to age fudging.
“Being allowed to play only one U-19 World Cup will mean people are less motivated to alter the age. Honestly, U-19 cricket should be more about exposure and less about results.”
In Pakistan’s case, while we all enjoy the occasional laugh at the expense of a player who shaves twice in a day’s play to avoid giving away his real age, it’s really not the player’s fault unless PCB introduces strong deterrents to this malpractice.
Afridi telling everyone that he hid his age throughout his playing career is a worrying pointer at the state of affairs in Pakistan. But what’s more worrying is that no administrator, ex-cricketer or writer said anything about putting measures in place to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Until the cricket intelligentsia in Pakistan starts to put pressure on the authorities, age is truly just a number in Pakistan cricket.
Rajesh Tiwary tweets @cricBC and is known for his blend of cricket insights and irreverent humour. A self-confessed cricket geek, he prides himself in remembering every frame of grainy Television cricket coverage of the ’90s.