Five changes Pakistan cricket needs to make to save itself

Published: April 5, 2014
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At the moment, our players are underexposed, and by all accounts, our domestic cricket standards are poor. PHOTO: AFP

At the moment, our players are underexposed, and by all accounts, our domestic cricket standards are poor. PHOTO: AFP At the moment, our players are underexposed, and by all accounts, our domestic cricket standards are poor. PHOTO: AFP

On April 1, 2014, Pakistan produced one of the most embarrassing performances in recent memory, breaking like glass under pressure. At the beginning of the 17th over, the West Indies seemed like they were out of the game, having scored only 107 runs.

Then, courtesy of Sammy and Bravo, came an assault which made the Red Wedding in R R Martin’s A Storm of Shadows seem like a friendly tea party. 45 runs came off the last three overs in this knockout game. It was an assault which reminded me of Ajay Jadeja’s battering of Waqar Younis in the 1996 World Cup quarterfinal, where the Pakistani fast bowler, who although was at the top of his game, was mercilessly gutted without warning by the Indian batsman, eventually allowing India to set a huge target.

Sadly, this was far worse.

In that particular game, when Saeed Anwar and Amir Sohail came out to bat, they smashed the Indian bowlers for 10 overs, and it seemed for a moment that Pakistan would win comfortably. But here, we were never in the game after the Sammy and Bravo show. It was as if the Pakistani batsmen were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Of course, the West Indies were brilliant, and thoroughly deserved the game, but the defeat was made worse because Pakistan batted like a team of patients. Not a few days earlier, Pakistan had scored significantly more against Australia, but that was when the boys in green had been batting first without the pressure of a tense chase.

As followers of team green will know, this isn’t a new story in the Pakistani cricket soap opera. The episode we saw on April 1st was plagiarised by the scriptwriters from countless tragic comedies that have been airing since Pakistan started playing cricket. Clearly, our team has the skill to beat anyone, but needs long-term and short-term fixes.

Here are five changes that I think need to be made, or history will continue repeating itself.

1) The domestic league needs improvement

In the above mentioned quarterfinal from 1996, after Saeed Anwar and Amir Sohail gave Pakistan a fantastic start, Ijaz Ahmed and Inzamamul Haq gave it away with terrible shots under pressure.

20 years later, we continue to produce batsmen who can’t score when it matters. Meanwhile, the person who can, Misbahul Haq, is treated like a man who carries a highly contagious version of the Ebola virus by the public, because he dares to value his wicket when there is chaos around him.

There are many reasons our players are even less mentally sound than before, and some of these factors are out of our control. Because of the political situation in Pakistan, our cricketers have less exposure to international cricket. What’s more, while other players are honing their T20 skills in the Indian Premier League (IPL), our cricketer’s are not. I am not blaming anyone here, it is how it is.

At one point in history, most of our cricketers were sharpening their swords in county cricket; Majid Khan, Zaheer Abass, Javed Miandad, Imran Khan, Asif Iqbal, Mushtaq Mohammad, to name a few of the greats, cut their teeth in the intensity of domestic cricket overseas.

When the great Imran Khan defeated the best test match sides in the world, he did so through the services of players who had been battle hardened in heated Sheffield Shield matches in Australia and first class competitions in England.

In Imran Khan’s autobiography, he mentioned that he persevered with wicketkeeper Salim Yousuf not because he was a fine athlete, but because he was a street fighter who could handle the demands of tense matches. Similarly, Sohail made it into Khan’s World Cup 92 squad because he recognised the Lahore batsmen’s mental toughness.

Currently, our players are underexposed, and by all accounts, our domestic cricket standards are poor. While we can’t attract top international players to our local matches, surely we can improve standards so that these matches simulate the pressure of real knockout matches. Right now, it is like we are sending our boys straight into real battle after training them on the Xbox. Another way to enhance mental toughness is to hire a sports psychologist, who can certainly help these men conquer their demons.

2) Selectors must be held accountable

Why are Shoaib Malik and Kamran Akmal continuously brought back into the team after repeated failings? It seems that there is a cycle where the two are dropped only to make a comeback in the next big ICC tournament, where they fail again. Why are the selectors not explaining this?

What’s more perplexing about Kamran’s latest comeback is that in the longer 50 over version of the game, his brother Umar Akmal, a part time keeper, is donning the gloves. If anything, since Umar isn’t a specialist wicketkeeper, isn’t it more logical that he would find it easier to keep wicket in the shorter format?

Yet, Umar is asked to keep wicket in 50 overs, but a specialist keeper is brought in for 20 overs cricket. This makes the same amount of sense as hiring someone to carry your bags to the next room, but insisting on carrying them yourself up the mountain.

Kamran seems to have made a comeback against the odds so often that I have no doubt that his cricket is just a cover, and that he is some sort of a superspy who blackmails influential people.

Let’s look at the facts. During the dodgy Sydney test, Kamran, who after having ruined Danish Kaneria’s career for many years, dropped and missed so many easy chances off of Kaneria that we wondered if Kamran thought his objective was to not catch the ball. Yet later, it was Kaneria who was dropped from the team, and not Kamran!

During the World Cup in 2011, Shoaib Akhtar was so frustrated with Kamran dropping his catches that he reportedly had a heated encounter with the nam ka keeper after the match against New Zealand. But even though Akhtar was bowling well, and it was Kamran at fault, it was the Rawalpindi Express who was discarded! In fact, Akhtar never played international cricket again, while Kamran continued to make comebacks!

What is going on here?

Is Kamran some sort of a bad luck wizard?

Is he Mr Bean with gloves?

Why are the victims of Kamran’s mediocrity suffering, and not him? How can we convince the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) that Kamran is bad news? DNA evidence? Four witnesses?

3) Talent needs to be recognised and respected

Hugely talented players such as Mohammad Irfan and Akhtar have spoken about not getting financial support in their early cricketing years. Cricketers have said that they were sleeping outside the stadium because they didn’t have accommodation. Meanwhile, the PCB is said to have housing resources. Why isn’t it offering these resources to such individuals?

In Akhtar’s autobiography, he spoke about senior cricketers sabotaging his prime cricketing years because of jealousy. He also revealed that the cricket dressing room’s atmosphere was ugly, full of envious players who resorted to Xanax in order to deal with pressure.

Let’s also look at Saeed Ajmal, who is our best bowler and the best Pakistani spinner since Abdul Qadir. Ajmal debuted for Pakistan close to his mid-30s, which for many sportsmen is the retirement age.

Why was a talented cricketer like Ajmal not serving Pakistan since his 20s? Zulfiqar Babar, at 35, is another excellent bowler who has come on to the scene at least 10 years later than he should have.

Of course, Fawad Alam, who had an excellent international record, was dropped because of a well-documented bias from a Pakistani selector. When he finally returned, he played two excellent knocks.  Alam was fortunate that public pressure and countless top domestic performances eventually returned him to the team, but how many other cricketers like Ajmal and Babar will be forced to make their debuts when they are near retirement age, while individuals such as Kamran and Shoaib Malik make regular comebacks?

We also need to be patient with younger talent. Players like Bilawal Bhatti and Anwar Ali have the potential to be fine cricketers and should stay with the team in order to develop. One of our greatest all-rounders, Abdul Razzak, did not start off as a flashy batsman, and took years to develop into the dangerous hitter.

4) We need a fresh captain

Pakistani cricket fans have a problem; when Afridi performs poorly, they demand he be tied around a stick and barbequed over an open fire, but when he performs well, they worship him like a gift from the heavens.

Afridi is my favourite cricketer in the team even when he is inconsistent, and I believe he should always be in the squad because of his strong positive energy. That being said, his limitations must be accepted. Currently, after hot performances against Bangladesh and India, Pakistanis have been struck by Lala fever, and believe that he should be the next T20 captain.

This would be a terrible mistake.

First of all, as captain, Afridi has proven himself to be a poor tactician on numerous occasions. And in sharp contrast with his aggressive cricketing nature, Afridi is a dangerously defensive leader. What’s more, it is an open secret that Afridi is about as sharp as a butter knife.

Who can forget his brainless behaviour when he was caught dancing on a pitch in order to rough it up for the bowlers in a match we were winning?

Not that I condone cheating, but how smart is it to cheat in a match where you are close to victory? This is not WWE wrestling!

Then, there was the humiliating ball chewing incident. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want a captain who likes biting balls in public. Some fetishes should be kept private.

Also, keep in mind that Afridi is officially 34 (though he is said to be much older), and is hence only a short term option. With the next World T20 two years away, we don’t need a stopgap solution since T20 cricket doesn’t feature major ICC tournaments in the short term.

A younger cricketer should be groomed as the next T20 captain, and should be identified and stuck with through thick and thin. Eventually, the next Pakistani T20 captain can take over the Test match and ODI captaincy from Misbahul Haq when he retires.

Umar could be the man for the job, although he will certainly need to stop acting like Kamran’s conjoined twin. Perhaps as skipper, Umar will also bat more responsibly.

Another alternative is Alam, who is not only a dependable batsman, but from his interviews, seems like a smart thinker.

5) Our batting line-up needs serious adjustment

Teams like India boast a line-up of specialist batsmen, whereas Pakistan is expected to score through makeshift batsmen and all-rounders. Actual batsmen such as Sohaib Maqsood and Umar are sent after the team is in dire straits, while part-time batsmen such as Hafeez, Kamran and Sohaib are sent up the order. If these three individuals boast the batting averages of lower order batsmen, then how is the team expected to score well?

We should emulate India by using specialist batsmen at the top of the order as we did in the 90s. Maqsood began his career well against South Africa at number three, but then was infuriatingly forced down the order after a few failures. Pakistan should learn from South Africa in this regard.

Jacques Kallis was quite subpar at the top of the order, yet South Africa persisted, and eventually Kallis turned into a legend. Similarly, Hashim Amla also struggled at number three but the selectors kept faith in him and today he is one of the best batsmen in the world.

Maqsood has shown potential as an excellent number three player against the best fast bowlers in the world. He should be sent at one down with full support from the coach and management for at least two dozen matches. As wicketkeeper batsmen, Umar should be kept at number four followed by Alam and Misbah. Our dependable captain doesn’t have the stamina to score more than 50 in ODIs, and should be fine at number six. Hafeez is our best all-rounder, but shouldn’t come before number seven.

The World Cup in Australia is around the corner, where the higher bounce will test our cricketers’ technique. It is no place for part-timers.

Here is my line-up for Australia, which I bet would do well.

1) Ahmed Shehzad

2) Big Nas/Khurram Manzoor/Sharjeel Khan

3) Sohaib Maqsood

4) Umar Akmal (wicketkeeper)

5) Fawad Alam (vice-captain)

6) Misbahul Haq (captain)

7) Hafeez/Shahid Afridi

8) Bilawal Bhatti/Anwar Ali

9) Saeed Ajmal

10) Mohammad Irfan

11) Junaid Khan

Noman Ansari

Noman Ansari

The author is the editor-in-chief of IGN Pakistan, and has been reviewing films and writing opinion pieces for The Express Tribune as well as Dawn for five years. He tweets as @Pugnate (twitter.com/Pugnate)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.