In an era of lucrative T20 leagues and sensational youngsters being fast-tracked into the international cricket scene, Salman Ali Agha took the road less travelled.
Coming through the hard grind of Pakistan’s conventional clubs and first-class cricket system, Salman has emerged as a mainstay in the country’s One-Day International (ODI) and Test outfits in less than a year since his debut.
The 29-year-old Lahore-born player is all but set to don Pakistan colours at the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup in India in five-month’s time and will most likely be a part of the national squad for the three-match Test tour to Australia later this year.
Salman earned his Test cap during Pakistan’s two-Test tour to Sri Lanka in July last year on the back of averages of more than 46 and 55 over the last two seasons of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy — the country’s premier first-class domestic tournament.
Salman Ali Agha has recently emerged as one of Pakistan’s key cricketers heading into the World Cup later this year. Eos meets up with him for a tete-a-tete
After announcing his arrival in the red-ball format with a gritty 62 against Sri Lanka in the second Test at Galle, Salman was at his best in the whites when he slammed a quickfire 103 against New Zealand in Karachi in December.
The right-hander had already made his ODI debut by then, with his first 50-over game and his maiden half-century in the format coming against the Netherlands in Rotterdam in August last year.
But Salman announced himself as a top player truly during Pakistan’s recent ODI series against New Zealand, potentially the side’s last set of games ahead of the World Cup, filling into the number six position with perfection at a time when Pakistan were struggling to find a batter to fit into it.
The Lahore-born cricketer amassed 58 and 57 runs in the last two ODIs of the series, which Pakistan won 4-1, showing impeccable game sense and reliability at a crucial spot in the batting order.
Like most Pakistani children, Salman loved playing cricket in the streets. But his journey turned into a serious pursuit when one fine day his friend asked him to accompany him to Lahore’s Carson Cricket Ground, the home turf of the famous Apollo Cricket Club.
Salman eventually made it to the club side. Not long after that, he found a place in the regional U-16 squad and rose through the ranks, first playing U-19 cricket and then making it to the first-class level.
“Obviously, hurdles are a part of the journey and I overcame a fair share of them,” Salman says. “Be it travelling to matches in rickshaws or on the rooftops of buses, I’ve done it all. If there are no hurdles, as they say, there’s no story to tell, there is no fun.”
Salman has shown a level of ease at the international level over the past few months, demonstrating maturity with the bat, ball and in the field as well.
It can be safely said that he has shown that he belongs at the top level. He also believes the time that he has spent playing domestic cricket has translated into his prowess at the international stage.
“When a player makes it to international cricket at the age of 17 and 18 or 22 and 23, he gains experience at the top level only,” he says.
“But I played seven to eight years of first-class cricket before earning my Pakistan cap. I believe I had gone through most of the experiences during that time that an international player would potentially face in his career,” he adds.
“Obviously the pressure in international cricket is different, but I think the sport is the same. If you know how to handle pressure, the experience of first-class cricket is enough to help you make better decisions on the field.”
Salman’s hard times in first-class cricket proved handy in the third and final Test between Pakistan and England in Karachi last year.
Seeing Babar Azam getting run out at the other end in the first innings when the Pakistan captain was nearing a century at a crucial moment in the game, Salman felt nervous. To make it worse, England’s star players, including captain Ben Stokes, chirped around the batter to pile up the pressure.
“It was the first time I felt the pressures of international cricket,” Salman recalls.
“But I tried to settle down, trying to apply my skills that I’ve learnt over the years and I think I did well,” he says.
And he did, going on to score 56, although Pakistan went on to lose the match and the series 3-0.
Playing against the best, nevertheless, was a “dream come true” for Salman.
“I was sharing the field with players I had only watched on the TV till then. It was unbelievable and it’s a feeling I can’t describe in words,” he says.
Although Salman was lucky to be in the Pakistan Test side and to be facing top teams in the early days of his career, he is part of a unit which has struggled in red-ball cricket ever since the season started with Australia’s first tour to the country in 24 years in March last year.
In the home season, which saw Pakistan play eight Tests at home, Pakistan won none and drew one. The national side is set to kick off the 2023-25 cycle of the ICC World Test Championship with a two-match series against Sri Lanka in July before it takes on Australia in December-January.
Speaking on behalf of his teammates, Salman calls for patience. “Unlike the white-ball sides, Pakistan’s Test team is made up of players who haven’t played enough matches,” he points out.
“It’s important for players to gain a certain level of experience to become a strong Test side,” he says.
Putting in solid displays in Test and ODI cricket hasn’t translated into Salman’s success as a T20 player so far. When almost all his Pakistan teammates were playing in the HBL Pakistan Super League (PSL) a few months ago, he was watching them on TV at home.
“The PSL’s atmosphere is like Eid,” he says, “and I have to say that I’d love to play in it.
“I was a bit disappointed when I was not in the players draft last year but I felt sadder when I wasn’t there in the replacement list as well,” he says.
The PSL came up with a slogan that represented the celebration of local talent, but for Salman, not being a part of that celebration was disappointing. Nonetheless, all that he has achieved so far for Pakistan is worth applauding. He may well become a hero at the upcoming World Cup.
“More than results, I believe in the process. I’m determined to put in performances that are expected of me,” he concludes.
The writer is a member of staff.
He tweets @shabbar_mir
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 28th, 2023