PSL: Where are all the Pakistan batsmen?

Shane Watson raises his bat after getting his fifty Pakistan Super League

33-year old Sohail Akhtar has never played for Pakistan, and most likely, never will. He's too far gone the other side of 30, has never received the sort of media coverage selectors in Pakistan often allow themselves to be led by, and for his age, hasn't played nearly enough cricket to suggest a wealth of experience. Moreover, Akhtar's first-class average, both batting and bowling, hovers around 28; he has never managed a hundred and only ever one five-for. Perhaps he simply isn't good enough to represent Pakistan at international level.

This would be a fairly unremarkable story most of the time. After all, there are several cricketers languishing in domestic cricket never destined to rise to the top, and for all the flaws of Pakistan's domestic structure, most playing their trade domestically are simply playing at the highest level their abilities will allow them to go. This year at the PSL, Akhtar was the 16th highest runscorer at the PSL, scoring 241 at an average of 30 and a strike rate just under 140. So what makes him unique? Well, he was the highest scorer among players Pakistan players who have never played international cricket.

And this strikes at the heart of an age-old problem in the country. Bowling talent may be unlocked without seemingly even trying; indeed this year, both Mohammad Hasnain and Umer Khan were amongst the top ten wickettakers at the PSL. One of them will debut next week; for the other, an international cap is merely a matter of time.

For all the PSL is doing in Pakistan, for all the national side's T20 success gets attributed to it and the unarguable role it has played in bringing more cricket back to Pakistan, the asset upon which the success of the whole format globally has been built - big hitting batsmen - is conspicuously absent in Pakistan. It's something that doesn't generate as much discussion as it should, for over the years the case can be made the PSL cannot claim a single batsman to have emerged and staked a regular place in the national side.

This may be harsh on Asif Ali and Fakhar Zaman in particular, but looking at their cases individually shines light on what is a fairly uncontroversial point. Asif has proved a revelation for Islamabad United over the last two years, and his power hitting statistics outdo any player, foreign or local, in the PSL this season. But when it comes to international cricket, the 27-year old has struggled to make the step up. In 18 T20I innings, he has crossed 25 just three times, with his performances tailing off as the quality of the opposition increases, especially of late. In ODI cricket, he has unquestionably been misused, with Mickey Arthur admitting he was batting at least one position too high at number 6 in the Asia Cup last year. But it also suggests Asif has work to do if he is to evolve as a more nuanced batsman in the longer formats, able to both construct an innings and then launch as the situation requires.

Fakhar rose to national prominence after entering a rich vein of form with his domestic side Habib Bank. In the Quaid-e-Azam trophy immediately preceding the PSL, he amassed 663 runs at 51, including 170 in the second innings of the final. The following Departmental One-Day Cup saw him smash three half-centuries in nine innings at a strike rate of 96.51. It was those performances, more than what he did during a rather ordinary PSL season (177 runs averaging 22) that arguably saw him picked for the international side, where, despite recent struggles, he is a fixture in at least two formats.

The drought of local talent in the PSL may not be spoken of too often, but make no mistake, the franchises understand this only too well. Take Islamabad United. The most successful side in the PSL, Islamabad have, year upon year, finetuned a strategy of stockpiling foreign batting stars at the top of the order, supplementing them with local bowling talent. In the last three games of the tournament this year, Islamabad's top four read Luke Ronchi, Cameron Delport, Phil Salt/Alex Hales and Chadwick Walton.

It was by no means unrepresentative of the strategy Islamabad used across the season, and indeed across the PSL's history. In the earlier years, it was common to see them field a top order that saw all of Dwayne Smith, Shane Watson, Brad Haddin and Sam Billings play, and were richly rewarded for it. They are the side that have adopted a strategy which allows decisions to be increasingly guided by analytical data, and analytical data makes little provision for wet behind the ears Pakistani batsmen in the top order. This year, only three uncapped Pakistan batsmen scored more than 50 runs over the course of the tournament - Akhtar, Ahsan Ali and Umar Siddiq.

Across the PSL, sides with destructive foreign batsmen, supplemented by Pakistan players who have been around the international circuit - think Kamran Akmal, Umar Akmal, Ahmed Shehzad, Babar Azam and the like - have found rich rewards coming their way. With enough ability around the pool to go around by way of bowlers, both spin and quick, the tactic of using up the four precious overseas players slots for power-hitting batsmen reigns supreme. Indeed, you have to go all the way down to number 10 in the wickets charts to find the first overseas player - Lahore Qalandars' Sandeep Lamichhane. He is the only overseas bowler among the top 20 wicket-takers in the PSL this season.

But just as the space for overseas bowlers has shrunk to the point of virtual non-existence, the scope for local, untested batsmen in the franchise's ranks has become increasingly constricted. As data becomes an evermore prominent commodity in the arsenal of all franchises, these difference look set to become even more entrenched with each passing year. The blame can hardly be placed at the franchise's feet; after all, T20 cricket is a shrine to capitalism, and long-term planning for the greater good of Pakistan cricket can't be expected to be a priority for private entities trying to turn a profit in a cutthroat league. But when the welfare of the PSL is regularly touted as equivalent to the welfare of Pakistan cricket, this obvious vacuum is only ignored at the national side's peril.

Most Pakistanis will have heard - and perhaps even used - the truism of there being lots of talent in Pakistan ad nauseum. The PSL's raison d'etre was to unlock all that talent and place at it Pakistan's disposal. It has indeed uncovered diamonds in the rough that might otherwise have taken years to emerge in the traditional, haphazard manner Pakistan players often get noticed. But it has also meant a list of local players - batsmen mostly - have languished in anonymity even as millions of players watch them ply their trade. After all, who noticed Ahsan Ali when Shane Watson stood at the other end? Who, really, watched Umar Siddiq when James Vince and Liam Livingstone's artistry was on full display? With 15 players above him in the list, who had time for number 16 Sohail Akhtar?