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There is an inescapable sense, not least because of Mohammad Rizwan’s multilingual chirping behind the stumps, that the Pakistan national side is fast becoming a Pakhtun-dominated outfit.
Rizwan’s audible and effervescent Pashto aside, the accents on display in the Pakistan Cricket Board’s (PCB) excellent YouTube channel and in post-match conferences signal a cultural change afoot in Pakistan cricket, at least at the highest levels. This is a welcome change. Ideally speaking, it will serve as a springboard for Pakistan cricket to reach communities and markets still untapped.
Let’s step back for a second. To help us get a big-picture perspective, the Outside Edge column gathered some data (thanks, Wikipedia). Specifically, I found the birthplace for all 246 men who have played Test cricket for Pakistan, dividing them by the decade in which they made their debut. Because we only just started the 2020s, I cheated and counted the six players from this decade as if they were from the 2010s.
In any event, I had a bunch of city names in front of me, many of which I recognised, and some of which I did not (hello, Mandi Bahauddin). Then, using freely available tools online (thanks, My Geo Center), I found the “average” location of each decade’s worth of debuts. I weighted cities, such that those with more debutants counted more heavily than those with fewer. The resulting average location could be described as the centre of gravity for Pakistan cricket for the respective eras.
In recent years, the centre of gravity of Pakistan cricket has inexorably shifted from the Punjab to the Pakhtun belt. It signals a welcome change, but we can and must do better
The map threw up some interesting results. We can start with the slightly incongruous fact that the average birthplace for Pakistani cricketers in the 1950s and 1960s was not even within the sovereign country that they were representing. Indeed, the 1960s’ midpoint is even deeper in Indian territory than that of the 1950s.
With some reflection, this should not be surprising. Almost half of the cricketers to represent Pakistan in these two decades were born in cities within post-Partition India, including some — such as Varanasi, Lucknow or Hyderabad — a fair distance from Pakistan. Conversely, those cricketers born in Pakistani cities were almost all from places close to the border, primarily Lahore.
Moving on to the 1970s and 1980s, these locations make perfect sense. The desert areas of Rahim Yar Khan lie about halfway between Karachi and Lahore, the (only?) two hotbeds of talent production in those decades.

Finally, it is the last 30 years, and especially the last decade, which have seen the centre of gravity of Pakistan cricket shift northward. If anything, the map above understates the diversity of Pakistan’s cricket factories compared to eras past.
Consider where we started. For example, of our first 24 Test cricketers, a single city — yes, Lahore, you can puff your chest out now — accounted for an unfathomable 13. Karachi and Rawalpindi contributed two each, Peshawar one.
But the percentage of players from traditional powerhouses has seen a downward trajectory for decades. The picture remains the same whether we define “powerhouse” narrowly, including only Lahore and Karachi, or more expansively, adding the five GT Road cities that have historically formed the backbone of the national side: Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Sargodha, Sheikhupura, and Sialkot.

To illustrate, since 2010, half of Test debuts have been handed to players from non-traditional towns, an all-time high. And it is more than likely that a similar analysis done of our white ball squads would reveal an even steeper decline.
Part of this has been because of a shift within Punjab itself. It is now Islamabad and Rawalpindi, not Central Punjab, that consistently produce young match-winning talent: Shadab Khan, Haris Rauf, Mohammad Nawaz and Imad Wasim all proof.
But part of it, possibly a bigger part, has been cricket’s spread outside the so-called breadbasket province of Punjab. In fact, the Pashtun population is where the game’s expansion has really told in the last decade.
Until the 1990s, Pakistan had given Test caps to a pitiful four — yes, four — players born in what is now KP. Three of the four were from Peshawar.
Today, there is a sea change. Ten players from Pashtun cities and towns made their debut in the last decade, most of them from outside Peshawar, all of them proudly unknown to Wasim Akram on commentary.

What can we attribute this to? As with most big changes, the causes are multifaceted. Peter Oborne notes in Wounded Tiger, his overview of Pakistan cricket, that the confluence of the expansion of cricket on television and the development of superstars with Pakhtun heritage, such as Imran Khan or Shahid Afridi, were instrumental in pushing the game to KP.
Knowledgeable people inside Pakistan cricket, meanwhile, credit the development of an infrastructure, especially in an era of NATO wars, that afforded kids the physical space and equipment that more cramped cities, such as Karachi or Lahore, fail to provide. Some regional stakeholders, for their part, point to a highly competitive club cricket scene, as well as the physical prowess of “people from the mountains”, in the essentialist words of a pair of coaches from the erstwhile Fata region to Cricinfo.
Regardless of its provenance, it is clear that Pakistan has benefitted immensely from the injection of talent from a previously under-tapped part of the country. Two of our three most valuable cricketers hail from the region: Rizwan from Peshawar and Shaheen from Landi Kotal. Each can legitimately be considered the best in the world at what they do.
Fakhar Zaman is a white ball monster. Yasir Shah is basically done, yes, but he won us multiple Test series, not just multiple Test matches, in the not-so-distant past. Naseem Shah will take a lot of wickets and, fitness permitting, will be around for a long time. Mohammad Wasim Jr adds valuable depth to our white ball squads.
Pakistan cricket in general, and events such as the Pakistan Super League (PSL) in particular, represent the best of the country. It is not perfect, mind, but our cricket works much better than PIA, parliament, or the police. There are few facets in which we can compete against the world’s best — our hospitals? our universities? — but cricket is undoubtedly one.
The PSL, and the PCB in general, actually make money. Since the bad old days of Ijaz Butt and Naseem Ashraf, they have been reasonably meritocratic, competent and professional. They promote gender equality and women’s empowerment in ways starkly more coherent than the rest of society; where else, by the way, will Pakistani men cheer on Pakistani women doing their job? Pakistani cricketers are perhaps the only Pakistanis in a global limelight that are applauded and appreciated as a matter of course.
Even so, we have a long way to go. Perhaps reflecting a wider, more systemic exclusion beyond cricket, representation from Balochistan at the highest levels of our national side remains criminally negligible. That there have been three more Pakistani Test cricketers born in Kuwait (three) than in Balochistan (zero) is a travesty. Sindh, apart from Karachi — which often feels like its own country, let alone province — is similarly dire.
Notwithstanding the considerable advances made to expand access to cricket, this is still essentially a sport played by two provinces and a city. We can and must do better.
The writer is an assistant professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in the US.
He tweets @ahsanib
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 1st, 2022 Pvt. Ltd. ( for Dawn.
Copyright © 2022, Dawn
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