Monday May 16 2022

Tapping the potential of our youth

Children play cricket at a playground in Lahore, Pakistan, Nov. 19, 2020. — AFP/File
Children play cricket at a playground in Lahore, Pakistan, Nov. 19, 2020. — AFP/File

The year is 2016, marking the inaugural edition of the Pakistan Super League. My wife and I are having breakfast when Professor Deano – as the lovable late former Australian great and Islamabad United coach Dean Jones was called — taps me on the shoulder and greets me with a pointed reference to my moustache as if outlining a USP. This amuses my wife, who gladly makes way for him. We soon lock heads on the dilemma facing our two respective sides: reaching the playoff. We both have two games in hand. Eventually, United defeats Karachi Kings, and Quetta Gladiators chase down an unfancied 200 plus against us in the penultimate encounter.

For perspective, our bowling unit comprises Ehsan Adil, Zia-ul-Haq and Adnan Rasul. Our ‘emerging player’ is 34 years of age — something one is unable to fathom being new to the franchise trade: shouldn’t ‘emerging’ imply someone young?

After losing the last game as well, where a sitter from Misbah-ul-Haq goes abegging, it leaves me in tears as I make my way out of the ground. Amid the emotional setback, a scribe stops to seek a sound bite. I apologise on behalf of Lahore, the franchise that represents my city, with a promise to go talent hunting across Punjab and see if we still have what it takes to make a comeback statement that the world will take notice of.

For reflection, the Joshua Bell Metro experiment is definitely worth a recall here. Some of us may already know the bare-knuckle story but according to Gene Weingarten, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote it for the Washington Post, it has since turned into a majorly scrappy little tale thanks to the lazy Internet ‘legend’. The one you read here is more concise.

January 12, 2007, 7:51am, rush hour: A man stands outside a metro station in an indoor arcade in Washington DC playing the violin — six classical pieces attributed to Bach, Massenet, Schubert, Ponce and Mendelssohn for the next 43 minutes. During this time, 1,097 people pass by, most of them on their way to work.

For perspective, three days before he appears at the metro station, the musician has filled Boston’s stately Symphony Hall to capacity, where decent enough seating fetches $100 per head. Two weeks later, at the Music Center at Strathmore, he plays to a standing-room-only audience that is so respectful of his skill that they try to stifle their coughs.

So how many notice the masterly violinist playing masterpieces with a prized instrument valued at $3.5 million at the metro? Only seven — the first after three minutes into the performance — and includes a three-year-old looking back in curiosity as his mother rushes him to school.

Eventually, 27 donate a measly $32 (and 17 cents) in nearly three-quarters of an hour. Finally, only one recognises Joshua Bell, whose technical accomplishments and versatility in classical and popular music puts him on a pedestal as one of the most successful and critically acclaimed violinists of all time. Contrast this with how Bell could easily command $1,000 a minute in the theatre at the time of the unheralded metro experiment. As if a proof is needed, he is handed the Avery Fisher prize in recognition for being the best American musician the same week.

So why is this story important? There may be many related aspects in terms of appreciation including the obvious one according to Weingarten — if a great musician plays great music but no one hears, is he any good? But the inescapable one and which is at the heart of this piece is this: the extraordinary will appear ordinary and even overlooked and undervalued in an environment that does not lend itself to growth, much less recognise their genius.

The Bell experiment provides food for thought. Its universality should awaken us to perhaps a greater need for providing an enabling and conducive environment in Pakistan’s context. A country with a youth bulge — 63% of our population is in the age bracket 15-33, making it according to one estimate, the fifth-youngest nation on the planet — ought to prioritise, not just recognise, the potential for growth.

Unfortunately, despite the human resource indicators — at 8.5% we also have one of the highest youth unemployment rates in South Asia — we are continuing to fail our youth by not even acknowledging their presence or potential in terms of envisioning a broader policy framework that would harness their potential and talent.

In a country with a youth bulge, as young adults enter the working age, the country’s dependency ratio — the ratio of the non-working age population to the working age population — wanes. In such a scenario, the bulge can either become a demographic dividend or a bomb depending on how they are employed productively.

Against the disheartening state of affairs, every once in a while, latent talent emerges from the fringes to make many of us stand up and take notice. However, it is mostly an exception to the rule rather than an assembly line that a more alive state would care to nurture.

One pertinent example amongst many is that of Hasan Raza. In 1995, he was pitchforked into the hard grind of Test cricket at the tender age of 14 years, 227 days — a world record then (Pakistan Cricket Board withdrew the claim after doubts surfaced but it was still assumed he would have been around 15). The story goes that he had to seek permission to play from school as a ninth-grader. However, his talent was wasted simply because he could not handle the pressure on the international stage, arriving unprepared with a lack of grooming in an environment that would have ideally nurtured his potential.

But by no means is this missing component of success limited to cricket, which may be a national metaphor given our proclivity to see upward mobility in a society that it fetches, but it is still only a minuscule reflection of how we sell our youth short — in other far more important areas — and what we essentially need to do to ring a paradigm shift.

Let’s begin by creating an enabling environment.

To be continued...

The writer is a petroleum engineer, businessman and philanthropist. He can be reached at: [email protected]

Originally published in The News