Salman Ali Agha: Test Debutant in Waiting?

After many years of toil and hard work on the domestic circuit, the 28-year-old could make his Pakistan debut soon.

Every player who plays any form of professional cricket is naturally gifted. It is the reason that they were able to separate from the crop at school, street, and club levels. But as the saying goes, “All men are created equal, but some are more equal than others.” There comes a point where talent is not enough; that point differs from player to player, and it usually decides how far he or she can go in their career. There will be those whose talent is only enough for second XI domestic cricket and others (although much fewer) who will graduate to international cricket very early on because the rest is beneath them.

Cricket has given players a second option, a tool to make up the difference and compete with the generational talents who had international cricket as their destiny. That tool is the commitment to work hard and fine-tune your game; to come to the nets at 5 am in the morning and not leave till 6 pm is the sort of stuff you will see in your usual sports movies.

In 2019, Pakistan reformed its domestic structure for the umpteenth time. A problem identified with the previous structures was that too many players were involved in Pakistan’s top-level domestic cricket. Sixteen teams were involved in Quaid-e-Azam Trophy 2018/19; the next edition would have only six. There was an opinion that the previous system enabled mediocrity, with the disparity between regional and departmental teams meaning many players who were not meant for the top level would be participating, diluting the overall quality of the competition.

The old system was not particularly kind on spinners, with most teams treating them as surplus to requirements with the pitches assisting medium pacers, forcing teams to play more of them. It is here where batsmen who can bowl spin became more valuable as teams could have their spin variety and medium-pace options without sacrificing the batting.

Salman Ali Agha’s overall FC record did not have much to write home about, but he fit the requirements of a broken system. It is why he played 49 FC matches despite averaging only 31 with the bat. His output matched that of Moeen Ali when he used to play for England at home, a fitting example because Pakistan’s domestic pitches were even more extreme versions of England’s home Test ones from 2014 to 2021.

However, Moeen still got to bowl more than Agha did in FC cricket. To see how teams used him, one has to look a bit closer to home. Iftikhar Ahmed, like Agha, is a batsman who can bowl off-spin, and from 2012 to 2019, he was pretty much the better version of Agha, or one could say Agha was the “Poor Man’s (or Regional Team’s) Iftikhar.”

Player

Moeen Ali in England Tests

Salman Ali Agha in QeA till 2019/20

Iftikhar Ahmed in QeA till 2019/20

Matches

35

49

58

Runs

1764

2492

3767

Average

33.3

31.2

40.9

50s

9

14

18

100s

3

5

11

Wickets

104

62

58

Average

33.5

31.6

24.4

Economy

3.78

3.16

2.56

Agha took more easily to List A cricket, where his natural rate of scoring was suited to the pace of a One-Day innings. However, over here, the system worked against him, not for him. While his skills may have prolonged his First-Class career, they probably impeded his One-Day one as teams saw an aggressive batsman who could bowl and immediately sent him down to bat at 6/7. 40% of his List A innings have consisted of him batting at number 6 or lower. While Agha is a fast scorer, he is not a late-order hitter – something domestic teams find difficult to differentiate between. Whenever he has batted at number 5 or higher, he has shown why he should be batting there, be it in the old system or the current.

Top 5

Batting Position

6 and below

36

Inns

24

1435

Runs

405

44.8

Average

20.3

95

SR

92

10

50s

0

3

100s

0

Agha had always shown flashes of brilliance but never with much consistency. There is a magnificent 113 off 80 balls in a List A game, a score of 56 when his team was bundled out for 96 in a First-Class game, and a 48 off 35 in Sharjah in a 121 plays 121 T20 tie. Now it was sink or swim time; the new system had been introduced to phase players like him out to the lower levels. Sure, he may make the One-Day teams, but those are usually heavily influenced by FC and T20 performances, and in T20s, he is still considered an anchor, while in FC, he is inconsistent. His bowling will no longer save him because there is a lesser demand for an all-rounder with the number of teams decreasing. If he wanted to survive, he would need to change, he would need to get better, and that’s just what he did.

Starting off in QeA 2019/20 2nd XI, he scored 457 runs at an average of 41 in 7 matches while taking 17 wkts at 23 to get himself promoted to First XI; there, he would have only three matches before the season ends to cement his place. After two games, he had scores of 45 (60), 24* (36), 6 (14), and 8* (39). In the last game of his season, walking in at number 7 at 171/5 trailing by 426, knowing perhaps this may be the last FC game he plays in a long while, he rattled off 140 at an SR greater than 80.

After cementing his place and gaining the confidence of the team management, next season, he would regularly oscillate between the batting positions of 4 and 6. Three years on, Agha’s calling card is no longer “batsman who bowls” but rather “one of the best batsmen in Pakistan’s domestic cricket.”

In One-Day cricket, Agha was given a top-order batting position, and he has thrived, with 609 runs at an average of 47 at an SR of 100+. He received Tests and ODI call-ups.

Agha has often talked about the mindset change he underwent in the 2019/20 season, where he became more focused on his fitness, training, and mental toughness. He said that in the past, he would often get complacent after scoring big, but now he has pushed himself to stay hungry and scale greater heights.

But this Cinderella story seemed to have an unhappy ending when Agha traveled around with the team for a year or so and was then dumped without playing a single game after the 3-0 ODI series loss to England in 2021. And that could’ve been it. It’s difficult to demand a debut in the national side after turning 30, and Agha is only about a year away from that mark.

Cricket has an interesting way of coming around. Agha, for six years in domestic cricket, was pretty much the “Poor Man’s Iftikhar,” but in a twist of fate, Pakistan needs an off-spinning all-rounder to compliment their slow left-arm and leg-spin options, and Agha finds himself finally ahead of Iftikhar in the pecking order. Agha is an excellent player of spin and already has a 103 in Sri Lanka from when he toured for the Shaheens. With Sri Lanka preparing turning pitches and Pakistan losing faith in Sajid Khan, it seems the faiths have aligned to hand Salman Ali Agha a Test debut.

There is little chance Agha will average 40+ in Australia or South Africa, but as luck would have it, Pakistan is not touring there any time soon. What they do need is a dependable, fast-scoring batsman who can bowl a bit of off-spin and bat at 6/7. Who knows, if they manage to prepare turning tracks for the England and New Zealand series, we might see Agha play all the Tests of the remaining World Test Championship. Similarly, Pakistan are struggling to find a reliable number 4/5 in their ODI batting lineup who can play at a modern SR while not getting bogged down vs. spin. Agha’s off-spin will even complement the leg-spin of Shadab and left-arm spin of Nawaz in an India World Cup where spin will play a major part.

Agha is by no means a generational talent. For all intents and purposes, no one would have given him a second thought four years ago when he averaged 20-odd in his last two FC seasons. But his hard work and commitment may mean that he has fashioned himself into the missing cog of Pakistan’s lineups in Asia.

Salman Ali Agha started off by meeting the requirements of a broken system. He may yet end up being the new domestic system’s greatest triumph.

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