Lahore Qalandars’ Parallel Pipeline to Success – the Players Development Juggernaut
After a bumpy start, the PDP has become a cornerstone of the Lahore Qalandars identity.
It is remarkable what Lahore Qalandars have managed to achieve in the 8 years since the league and franchise’s inception. Through their crown-jewel project, the Players Development Program (PDP), they have essentially gone out and built a parallel system for scouting and developing players that are either on the fringes of or fall entirely outside of the existing domestic structure. The PDP works in expanding the available talent pool, allowing Lahore to pick from an almost exclusive cohort of 15-20 players that they have scouted and developed throughout the year to have them ready to make the step up, as and when needed; however, the true extent of its benefits, often hidden in the background, extends beyond squad-building and narrates a greater success story.
Lahore’s success in setting up this structure did not come without its trials and errors, which could often be attributed to clumsy overexcitement. In 2016, when the PDP was in its infancy, Lahore Qalandars unearthed an ambidextrous pacer, Yasir Jan, and signed him to a 10-year developmental contract with claims that Yasir could bowl “around 145 kph with his right arm and not less than 135 kph with his left arm.” In the months to follow, updates on Yasir’s development dwindled as he faded back into obscurity without ever representing Lahore Qalandars.
Yasir Jan wasn’t the first or last rookie to be hyped by Lahore Qalandars as the next big thing. In 2016, Aqib Javed commented on another pace prospect discovered by Lahore, Ehtisham Sultan, saying that he “is ready to play for Pakistan.” In 2019, Lahore showcased another find of theirs, this time a 7-foot-4-inch bowler, Muhammad Mudassar, a claimant to the world’s tallest cricketer title. It is unfortunate, albeit not entirely surprising that neither of these prospects went on to play for Lahore Qalandars. In fact, claims like these, while earning the franchise short-term goodwill and media attention, did more to question the credibility and seriousness of the Player Development Program beyond a nettlesome gimmick and PR exercise for the franchise.
PSL 8 Squad & the PDP Class of 2022
Lahore Qalandars squad for PSL 8: Shaheen Shah Afridi, Rashid Khan (Sam Billings), Fakhar Zaman, Haris Rauf, David Wiese, Hussain Talat, Abdullah Shafique, Sikandar Raza, Liam Dawson, Kamran Ghulam, Shane Dadswell, Dilbar Hussain, Mirza Tahir Baig, Ahmed Daniyal, Zaman Khan, Shahwaiz Irfan, Jordan Cox (Kusal Mendis), Jalat Khan, Ahsan Bhatti
Fast forward to the present day, six (Haris Rauf, Ahmed Daniyal, Dilbar Hussain, Jalat Khan, Tahir Baig, Ahsan Bhatti) out of the 19 players selected by Lahore Qalandars for the upcoming season are products of the Lahore Qalandars’ Player Development Program, meaning 32% of the reigning PSL champion’s roster is entirely homegrown. This is unprecedented for any privately-owned franchise across any league in the world, regardless of its size, resources, and global footprint. It also highlights the incredible amount of trust Lahore Qalandars place in their system.
3 out of these 6 players, Jalat Khan, Mirza Tahir Baig, and Ahsan Bhatti, were part of Lahore’s PDP Class of 2022 and have earned maiden PSL gigs. None of the three have played any domestic cricket yet. Both Jalat and Tahir were signed to one-year developmental contracts earlier this year and have been training and residing at Lahore Qalandars’ base, the Qalandars High-Performance Centre (QHPC).
Hailing from Layyah, Jalat is the latest tape-ball prospect from Lahore’s pace conveyor belt. While he was described as a ‘left-arm Malinga’ during the draft courtesy of his slingy action, his bowling style could be likened more to former ‘flash in the pan’ South Africa and Kings XI Punjab pacer Yusuf Abdulla. While not the same brooding presence as Abdulla, Jalat generates similar curvaceous swing, naturally angling the ball in towards right-handers, also possessing a confounding slower ball. If he could pick up one skill from Abdulla’s trick set, that would be the wide yorker, which from his bowling angle, would make it an unplayable delivery.
Looking beyond Lahore’s love affair of slingy pacers, the PSL champions drafted hard-hitting opener Mirza Tahir Baig in the Silver category, a prospect of Jaguars Cricket Club in Sialkot. While Pakistan have recently been blessed with an injection of young openers across the domestic scene, Tahir Baig’s batting style is more hard-hatting and could be likened to prime Mukhtar Ahmed, albeit with much better feet movement and shot range across the off-side. Tahir Baig’s involvement with Lahore Qalandars dates back to his involvement in the PDP Tournament in 2018, where he represented Rawalpindi Qalandars alongside Haris Rauf, and the following year, when he featured for Bhatti Bahadurs in the Battle of Qalandars, a T10 tournament organized by the Qalandars.
Both players were also part of the development squad’s tour of Namibia, where they played a tri-series against Namibia’s Richelieu Eagles and South Africa’s DP World Lions. Jalat’s best performance of the tour, 3-24, came against a strong Lions side consisting of Cameron Delport, Reeza Hendricks, and Temba Bavuma, whereas Tahir played two impressive knocks of 47 (33) and 30 (20) against both sides. In addition to these two, two additional standout performers from Lahore’s 2022 PDP Class were batting all-rounder Ahsan Hafeez Bhatti, who averaged 36 with the bat at a 138 strike rate to go with his 4 wickets at a 6.1 economy rate, and opener Mohammad Naeem, who averaged 30 during the squad’s tour of Namibia while striking at 146. Ahsan Bhatti was later picked up by the Qalandars in the supplementary and replacement draft.
Qalandars High-Performance Centre & Offseason Approach
Prior to the inauguration of the Qalandars High-Performance Centre, the pathway for players beyond talent identification through talent hunt programs was restricted. With the QHPC now established as its home, Qalandars, in addition to the reduced dependency on PCB or LCCA for grounds, have at their disposal a year-round training and ground facility for its selected PDP players to practice and prepare while also doubling as accommodation for them, and allowing for more robust performance tracking. Lahore’s coaching and support staff, consisting of Aqib Javed (Head Coach), Waqas Ahmed (Bowling Coach), and Shahzad Butt (Fielding Coach), are all available during the offseason as well to work with these players and play a crucial role in tracking the squad strength and form, which plays a huge role in forming the squad ahead of the draft. While not comparable in resources or success, the Qalandars’ laid-out map on how they approach the offseason and have an exclusive coaching and support unit available year-round shares similarities with Mumbai Indians, who have often credited this to be one of the hallmarks of their success story.
During the offseason, the PDP players are exposed to plenty of match time. Within Lahore, the QHPC has hosted several exhibition matches between PDP players and college teams from Kinnaird College and Punjab Group of Colleges. During 2022, Lahore’s PDP Class of 2022 also played multiple series against Ghani Institute of Cricket (GIC). Interestingly, this is also when wicket-keeper batsman Shawaiz Irfan, a prospect of GIC and the recently-concluded PJL, caught the Lahore management’s eyes and was rewarded the same week with a maiden PSL gig. These games are supplemented by international tours with Lahore Qalandars’ several international partnership programs and active participation in multi-team series across Australia, UAE, and most recently, Namibia, dating back to 2017 when the first Qalandars Rising Stars team toured Australia.
Lahore’s offseason work with the PDP squad, in many ways, operates the same as a Pakistan ‘A’ team, with selected players getting an extended run of games, exposure to different conditions on foreign tours, access to high-performance facilities and skill-based programs, with the opportunity to impress and graduate to the ‘next’ level, which is representing Lahore Qalandars at the PSL.
Expanding the Pool
It is also, of course, understood that any players scouted by Lahore Qalandars are not exclusive to the franchise beyond short-term developmental contracts and that the long-term objective of any talent hunt and players development program is to be able to identify and develop players to succeed in the country’s competitive cricketing landscape. Lahore Qalandars’ work at the grassroots has prepared previously amateur players to play at a level that not only expands but strengthens the existing domestic talent pool.
Since making their professional debuts in the PSL, many Lahore Qalandars development players received maiden call-ups to their respective domestic First and Second XI squads. During the recent domestic season, Ahmed Daniyal and Mohammad Faizan cemented their positions in the Central Punjab First XI, with the former also making his FC debut and the latter becoming a first-choice opener in limited overs, leapfrogging the likes of Mohammad Akhlaq and Abdullah Shafique. Maaz Khan became the first-choice spinner for KP Second XI and also made his List A debut for KP First XI earlier this year. In the past, Dilbar Hussain and Farzan Raja, following their PSL debuts, made their domestic debuts for Southern Punjab and Northern, respectively.
While the aforementioned are a few examples of Qalandars’ developing net-new players and feeding them into the system, the PSL champions have played an equally important role in revitalizing the careers of many who had either left the sport or had one foot out the door. Arguably, the most prominent example of this would be the second lives of Usman Qadir and Sohail Akhtar. Qadir’s career never took flight beyond age-group cricket, and he seemed resigned to quit Pakistan cricket before he was brought back into the fold by Lahore Qalandars in 2017 and made captain of the first-ever PDP touring team to Australia. Qadir has in the past thanked Lahore Qalandars for helping him get the initial contracts and opportunity in Australia, which led to a resurgence in his career, and he has now gone on to establish himself as the second-choice leg-spinner for Pakistan in limited overs behind Shadab Khan. While not every player has had the same storied success, Lahore has played a similar role in the careers of players like Sohail Akhtar, Ali Majid, Salman Irshad, Ahsan Mirza, and Mohamad Irfan Jr., among others who had slipped through the cracks.
Not only domestic teams but other PSL and foreign franchises, too, have reaped the benefits of Lahore’s development efforts. For the upcoming PSL season, Peshawar Zalmi have retained the services of Salman Irshad and Ali Majid, both players whose reintegration into the domestic scene following the structural revamp was catalyzed by Lahore Qalandars. Meanwhile, Quetta Gladiators picked up rookie Mohammad Zahid Jr. aka Karnal Zahid, who was involved with Lahore’s player development setup last year and whose first exposure to professional hard-ball cricket came under Lahore Qalandars’ T10 franchise during the 2021 edition of the Abu Dhabi T10.
Decentralizing Access to Facilities
The benefits of Lahore’s work, however, extend beyond building a title-winning squad. For many players already part of the domestic system, the QHPC, built in collaboration with Kingston College, has helped catalyze a resurgence in their careers by providing them with the environment and world-class facilities to work on their fitness and fine-tune their skills to match those of elite players. Players who are not involved in the international schedule are able to practice in the off-season facility.
Pakistan’s most recent maiden Test centurion, Salman Ali Agha, had been sporadically involved in the Lahore Qalandars setup since 2018, and since the 2019/20 domestic season has completely transformed his game resulting in first domestic and now international success. In the build-up to this remarkable transformation, Agha spent many a day during the domestic off-season at the QHPC working with Lahore Qalandars’ coaching staff, setting daily targets for himself like facing 1,000 balls a day to focus more on his fitness and mental toughness and better prepare for the rigors of top-flight cricket.
Similar to Agha, leg spinner Usama Mir spent the 2022 off-season at the QHPC, training and playing alongside the PDP Class of 2022. He’s arguably enjoying the best year of his career thus far, having finally broken into and cemented himself as the lead spinner for Central Punjab First XI. He also finished as the highest wicket-taker in the recent Pakistan Cup, landed himself a PSL contract with Multan Sultans, and then made his Pakistan debut in the New Zealand ODIs in Shadab Khan’s absence.
Success stories like Agha’s and Usama Mir’s are further examples of how Lahore Qalandars’ platform goes beyond the more obvious and exciting aspects of talent identification and development by extending its benefits to current domestic players for whom playing and development opportunities have otherwise been sparse and access to National High-Performance Centre (NHPC) facilities limited.
The Juggernaut Rolls On
Lahore Qalandars, in spite of their shortcomings and lack of success in the earlier years, have finally managed to develop something not every franchise has fully managed to do so across eight seasons; a clear understanding of the type of franchise they want to be and the type of cricket they are good at, and they’re willing to trust their own. Of course, there is no one way to be successful, especially in sport, but Lahore Qalandars have created a blueprint, one that is not easily replicable, that works for them, and they have stuck to it, even at their lowest.
The Players Development Program’s journey mirrors that of Lahore Qalandars in the PSL. Its start was flashy and well-intended, but often confusing and struggled to provide meaning beyond entertainment. Today, Lahore Qalandars are PSL champions, having played two of the last three finals. The poster child of their Players Development Program is no longer an ambidextrous rookie but a successful all-format pacer – the fastest in the country – who represents everything that Lahore Qalandars is; controlled chaos.
The opinions expressed solely belong to the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Grassroots Cricket.