Haris Sohail leaves his hell behind

Haris Sohail nudges one behind point
Pakistan v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Abu Dhabi, 4th day October 01, 2017

As unfair as it may appear to start a story about Haris Sohail with Fawad Alam, specifically on the occasion of the former's debut Test, it is impossible to do otherwise.

Everyone knows the tale but it's useful to sprinkle some details. Since his breakthrough season in 2005-06, Alam has bestrode the Pakistan first-class circuit like it's the Ranji Trophy and he its new run-making behemoth. In 12 seasons, in order, he has averaged: 53.6, 49.11, 55.27, 97.70, 83.60, 64.00, 62.47, 48.54, 54.83, 71.90, 56.00 and 55.44. Two seasons where he has averaged less than 50 and even then, barely.

Whatever your thoughts on the quality of first-class cricket in Pakistan and the value of such figures, keep them aside, because, for consistency alone, they are impossible to ignore. They are staggering. In that time he has played three Tests for Pakistan, in the first of which he played one of the most astonishing innings a Pakistani has ever played. Four innings later, having already been moved one position down from the position he made his debut at - both of which were not positions he regularly played at - he was dropped, never to return.

Nobody in the years since - not selectors, not chairmen, not captains, not sources, not team-mates - has properly articulated why they don't want him in the side. Sometimes it has been said that he doesn't look right. Some have said he bats too slowly. A senior figure in this side, a few weeks ago, couldn't explain it other than that he has a "touch" to him - local slang for attitude. Wild conspiracy theories - none publishable - abound. None of it makes sense. It is the great mystery of this age.

So when Haris - and Usman Salahuddin - were selected in Pakistan's squad as the first to try and fill the giant MisYou black hole, the first of many who will no doubt be ultimately sucked into it, naturally a sense of injustice erupted. Both have had good, productive domestic seasons but neither matches the consistency of Alam. And Haris had not played a first-class match since January 2014.

It is plainly ridiculous that Alam has not played more Tests and even in Pakistan, where there are more stories of cricketers hard done by than there are cricketers, his could end up looming over all. But today, it's worth reminding ourselves of Haris' own story - in a different way as resonant as Alam's - because, for a man who has only just begun his Test career, Haris has been through a hell all of its own.

In February 2013, still uncapped, he had to return from a tour of South Africa with an ankle injury. A few months before that, he had nearly missed an India tour with another ankle injury. He finally did make his Pakistan debut in July that year in the West Indies, and over two years, in a troubled, regressive ODI side, he established himself to the degree that he was the clear future.

Then, while on tour to Sri Lanka in July 2015, Haris picked up a knee injury while training, a crack of some kind in his left knee. It was serious though nobody was sure how serious. He rehabbed for four months, before going for surgery in December that year, in the UAE. A few things are unclear about this, namely that nobody can - or will - say unequivocally whether this was done against the advice of the PCB, who wanted him to go elsewhere for surgery, or with their acknowledgment. You'll recognise the contours of this mess though.

Rehab after the surgery didn't go well and reports emerged that his career might already be over. They weren't accurate but Haris admitted that he often wondered whether they might actually come true. Nevertheless, he persisted and went to England for some more rehab, this time with Dr Zafar Iqbal, who has worked with several English Premier League clubs. He came back to Pakistan, following his rehab programme and basing himself at the National Cricket Academy (NCA). For a year-and-a-half, he reckons, he did not even hold a bat, let alone have a net.

Imagine, at your physical peak, having made it as an elite athlete, to be unable to hold the instrument with which you make a living, to do the one thing you have been doing all your life and the one thing you are better at than probably 99% of the population. Imagine, as he says, spending all that time shuffling between the gym and a room - in his case at the NCA - tiring yourself out enough in one to be able to switch off and rest in the other. What tolls this ascetic life?

Well, the end of that story was today and his innings, which was many things. Smartly paced and, in parts, elegant. A range of strokes, off spin and pace alike. Intuitive, in knowing when to farm the strike and when the tail had been out there long enough to be trusted. It was, given how the Test stood when he started and how it stands now, also a game-breaker. From the first ball he faced and redirected to the point boundary, it had a certainty to it that this was what it was supposed to be. There was no sign that he was on debut, or that Pakistan were in trouble. It bore no burns from the hell he had gone through, or any acknowledgement that there's a guy in Karachi who millions think should've been here, doing exactly this right now.

Inside, of course, all the signs were there. He said later it was like making a comeback and a debut at once: "The last two years were very difficult. I struggled a lot. It was that kind of injury. Things weren't right for me. That time, only I know how much I struggled. I heard many things [about my career ending]. But my goal was only one thing - to return."

He'd tried to stay away from the debate over his selection, even though it is all anyone can talk about. A few messages snuck through yesterday and it can't have been an easy night, knowing he was to face his first ball in Test cricket the next morning. And then the first ball, only nominally from Nuwan Pradeep, but in reality from those 12 seasons and thousands upon thousands of ignored, unselected runs, from a modern day cause celebre, from a groundswell of injustice, and thanks I'll have four there please and be on my way.

He agreed later it was the "best day of his career", which, with all that he has been through... Sure, it's valid for your heart to burn for Alam, just make sure it's big enough to be gladdened by the man who isn't him.

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