Imagine this: Pakistan take the field at the World Cup 2011 and the opening bowlers are not from Rawalpindi and Karachi but two lanky rookies from the snow-ridden valley of Chitral and the flats of Bannu: the same pair who shone in the previous year's junior World Cup and have progressed steadily through various age-groups.
It may seem a far-fetched prospect presently - Chitral and Bannu being represented as much as a seamless transition through different age levels - but it may well become a credible vision soon. Or so a new talent hunt scheme launched earlier this year hopes.
Mobilink Hunt for Heroes, a joint effort between the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and Mobilink, Pakistan's premier mobile-network provider, was launched after the debacle at the 2007 World Cup. The embarrassing exit not only left the country weeping for a second successive World Cup, but also forced the entire cricket fraternity wondering into introspection: where was Pakistan cricket going wrong?
At grassroots level, it was discovered. And so amid the broad belief that there lies hidden treasure in the most obscure corners of the country, this massive program was unveiled. Covering 52 districts throughout the country and all four provinces, the hunt reached out not only to residents of urban centres such as Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi, but also to locations off the beaten track, such as Hub, Mirpurkhas, Sukkur, Nawabshah and Chitral.
The plan was not to spot talent ready to be drafted into the first-class system and, after a couple of seasons, in to the national side. No, for that would, in effect, not be different from other talent hunt schemes in the past. This joint venture aimed solely at 13-16 year-olds who believed they had what it takes to play for Pakistan.
"Post the World Cup, we felt that the problem was not with the current team but with our existing system," explains Khurram Mahboob, Mobilink's talent hunt in-charge. "And there was a massive need to update and upgrade the middle-tier, namely the 13-16 age group.
"For whatever reason, the board was not able to reach those far-flung areas and had to rely on whatever talent they had on display on the domestic circuit."
Haroon Rasheed, the former Test batsman and coach who heads the scheme for the PCB and has worked with Inzamam-ul-Haq and Waqar Younis at the junior level, says it is high time basic skills were developed and honed at a young age.
"Before we went ahead with the scheme, there was no grass-root level unearthing of talent or development in the country. Being involved at the junior level for so long, I felt that basic knowledge was not passed on at the right age. This resulted in the catastrophe earlier this year."
Over 6,000 youngsters turned up for the first day of trials in Karachi. "That turnout was nothing compared to the excitement and eagerness seen in areas of the North-West Frontier Province, where we had kids literally begging us for a chance to show their prowess," Khurram Mahboob said.
The hunt began in September and is hoping to produce results for the Under-19 World Cup in 2010. A mass promotional campaign prior to it produced a fantastic response. According to Mahboob, over 6,000 youngsters turned up for the first day of trials in Karachi.
"That turnout was nothing compared to the excitement and eagerness seen in areas of the North-West Frontier Province, where we had kids literally begging us for a chance to show their prowess," Mahboob said.
With talent officers, including former internationals such as Tauseef Ahmed and Ehtesham-ud-din, accompanying the team that visits every district, the project was undertaken simultaneously in all four provinces. The team spends ten days in each district, of which the first two are open trials. From the mass, 15 players are short-listed who then undergo basic cricket training from the coaches for the next five days. The final three days are set aside for three limited-over matches.
For the majority, the sojourn ends there; a chance of being part of a squad trained by former internationals. But for some, there lies a place in a regional team, of which twelve will be formed by the end of January. Following a mini-tournament, the national junior selection committee plans to handpick 36 individuals to be taken to the National Cricket Academy (NCA) from where, finally, a 15-man Pakistan U-16 squad will be picked.
"It's a massive project but one we felt was of utmost importance," Rasheed said. "The process won't end with the formation of the squad. We will invite other countries to send in their junior squads or even send ours abroad so that, two years from now, we have an experienced and well-trained U-18 squad ready to take on the world at the 2010 World Cup."
Cricket, as Mahboob acknowledges, is one platform that brings the entire nation together and by seriously investing in cricket, Mobilink and PCB hope to make a change. "We have set a target of three years to see the results. However, from the response and feedback thus far, we hope to carry on indefinitely.
"Our aim is to produce the Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis of the future."