An autopsy of Pakistan’s World Cup blues
It has barely been a fortnight since the inauguration of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 in Australasia and team Pakistan has already found itself in a position where a group stage exit looks probable.
As expected, Pakistani fans have wasted no time in expressing their anger and disappointment at the team’s dismal and lacklustre outings against India and the West Indies. Criticism is on display in its many forms; from bashing Misbah and his boys on social media to burning effigies and staging mock funerals in the streets of Multan.
Former players including Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar have expressed their annoyance on live television as well, by blasting the approach and attitude of this seemingly incompetent Pakistan team. In short, a storm has arrived in the shape of a countrywide emotional breakdown, stemming from nostalgia of the fierce and flamboyant cricketing side that Pakistan once used to be.
While it may seem comforting and appropriate to join the bandwagon of swears and curses, it is important to recognise the many reasons that led Pakistan cricket to this point. Before getting to the ‘what went wrong with Pakistan cricket’ conundrum, we must take a trip down memory lane to the last time Pakistan’s ODI 11 managed to make positive headlines.
On March 2, 2014, Shahid Afridi theatrically saved Pakistan from an embarrassing defeat against arch rivals India in an important Asia Cup encounter at the Shere Bangla National Stadium in Mirpur, Bangladesh. Pakistan was on course to chase a relatively easy target of 246 runs, when Ravichandran Ashwin triggered a batting collapse by dismissing a well set Mohammad Hafeez in the 44th over. At the time of the dismissal, Pakistan had scored 200 runs for the loss of five wickets. Within the space of less than six overs and 36 runs, team Pakistan lost four more wickets and almost managed to throw it all away before Afridi struck two mammoth sixes off Ashwin’s spin bowling, to knock India out of the Asia Cup. It was a fitting end to a fantastic contest as the game was won in the final over and that too in a familiar and dramatic ‘Pakistani’ fashion.
A scintillating victory against hosts Bangladesh followed, as Pakistan’s batsmen successfully chased down a gargantuan total of 327 runs. Even though Ahmed Shehzad was the top scorer with 103 runs to his name, it was the pair of Shahid Afridi and Fawad Alam that provided the impetus for this unlikely chase. Alam played a fluent knock of 74 runs off 70 balls, while Afridi carried on his blistering form by hammering 59 runs off just 25 deliveries.
The feat was celebrated by cricket viewers all over the world but little did anyone know that this victory would go on to mark the beginning of the end of Pakistan’s ODI stronghold. Out of 16 One Day Internationals since that epic win, Pakistan has lost 13, which is the worst win/loss ratio among the top eight ODI teams in the past 12 months.
Before we discuss the internal problems with the team, let’s shed some light on a few external setbacks that have heavily dented Pakistan’s chances of emulating the class of 1992 by lifting the coveted trophy in Australia:
The Magician’s bend
On September 9, 2014, Misbahul Haq’s strategies were dealt with a serious blow as Pakistan’s biggest bowling asset, Saeed Ajmal, had been banned from bowling in international cricket. Over the past five years, Ajmal had established a reputation for himself as the best spinner in the world and Pakistan’s bowling schemes revolved around his expertise. Ajmal’s action was reported as suspect on the tour of Sri Lanka in August due to which the off-spinner had to travel to Brisbane for testing. The results of these tests showed that the flex in the Magician’s bowling action was more than twice the permissible limit of 15 degrees. After working strenuously for months in an attempt to straighten his bowling arm, Ajmal got his action re-tested in Chennai in late January. Even though his action was declared legal by the ICC earlier this month, it was too late for Ajmal to be a part of Pakistan’s World Cup plans as the 15 man squad had already been announced.
In addition to Ajmal’s absence, Pakistan’s squad has been plagued with injuries in the past few months. Talented left arm fast bowler Junaid Khan, who has been a key member of Pakistan’s bowling attack for a good part of the last four years, was sidelined with a thigh injury a few days before the start of the World Cup. Shortly after, opener batsman Mohammad Hafeez was ruled out of the World Cup with a calf injury which further added to Pakistan’s injury woes.
Restricted to Asia
In November 2013, Pakistan became the first Asian team to win an ODI series in South Africa. Unfortunately, the final ODI of this tour played at Centurion Park was the last time Pakistan played an international game of cricket outside the Asian continent. Playing conditions are significantly different in Asia than the rest of the world, due to which Pakistan’s limited overs prowess has greatly suffered. Pakistan’s batsmen have only played on flat Asian decks for the past year, as a result of which they have struggled to adapt to the bouncy tracks in Australia and New Zealand. The depressing reality is that Pakistan has not toured Australia or England (excluding the Champions Trophy in 2013) since 2010 and 10 out of the 15 players in Pakistan’s World Cup squad have never played in Australia before.
A useless cricket board
When asked about the reasons behind Pakistan’s humiliating start to the World Cup, the Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board’s Executive Committee, Najam Sethi, was quick to point out that the Pakistan team was missing several key players and lacking experience. However, his reasoning soon started to sound like a complain as he went on to state that Pakistan had played less international matches than other cricketing nations, leading up to the grand event. This is the sort of answer one should expect from a PCB executive, as the board has never hesitated in making excuses, failing to acknowledge and outline the many frailties in the team. Every cricketing nation has four full years to prepare for the World Cup and it is the nonexistence of a futuristic vision for Pakistan cricket that has led to such rubbish justifications by Sethi. Pointing fingers has been a prominent attribute of the incapable board which is infamous for its turbulent relations with several players in the past. The repeated change of chairmen last year serves as a glimpse into the dodgy state of affairs underway at the PCB headquarters.
The inevitable decline
The terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team bus in March 2009 signalled the end of Pakistan’s international cricket hosting rights. The manner in which the Pakistan team has competed in world cricket ever since is worthy of praise but a team can only maintain its high standards up to a certain point after having lost home ground privileges. The players that held the team together in these dark times have aged significantly, with the shadow of retirement looming over their respective careers. It is impossible for the new crop of youngsters to blossom in the same manner by playing home games in Dubai and Sharjah rather than Lahore and Karachi, where they play their domestic cricket. The effects of not being able to play at home have finally started to kick in six years after the tragedy and if international cricket does not return to Pakistan in the foreseeable future, the Asian giants might starve to an untimely demise.
Three wins in 16 games has arguably been Pakistan’s worst run since the inception of One Day International cricket. External elements might have handicapped the men in green but there is still no excuse for the manner in which they have failed. To lose to a World Cup fixture against a not so highly rated West Indies team by a colossal 150 run margin indicates that the current team is trying to survive rather than thrive.
Highlighted below are the many factors that are hindering Pakistan’s chances to stay alive in the World Cup:
Trouble at the top
Finding a consistent opening pair has been the main worry for selectors since the start of the new millennium and misfiring openers still remain a major chunk in Pakistan’s armour. The team’s top order batting can be argued to be at its lowest ebb as Pakistan succumbed to 1-4 in their recent clash against the West Indies. It is baffling how an out-of-form Younus Khan was given the nod to open the batting against India ahead of the aggressive Sarfraz Ahmed, who had a memorable 2014 with the bat and has been selected as a third opener in this 15 man squad, according to chief selector Moin Khan.
In the match against West Indies, Sarfraz should have been an obvious choice ahead of Nasir Jamshed, who was a last minute replacement for the injured Mohammad Hafeez. It was no surprise to watch Nasir fail to make a comeback to the team for the umpteenth time. The big man has rarely featured for Pakistan in the past year and lacked the agility and balance required to cope with the short pitched delivery from Jerome Taylor that got him out for a silver duck.
At the other end, Ahmed Shehzad has looked shaky to say the least, failing to rotate the strike and dispatch bad balls. His vulnerability outside the off-stump early on in the innings has been identified by opponent bowlers, and in order to silence his critics he must immediately adjust his questionable technique by playing shots closer to his body. What is more worrying than these opening pair disasters is the absence of a genuine number three batsman. Mohammad Hafeez, Asad Shafiq, Younis Khan and several others have been tried and tested at this position over the past year and to Pakistan cricket’s misfortune, none of these players have done justice to this all-important batting slot.
The inability to chase
Long gone are the days when Inzamamul Haq and Mohammad Yousuf used to play their trade at the heart of Pakistan’s middle order and chase down targets with relative ease. The current ODI team comprises of an inferior and inconsistent middle order which has continued to let captain Misbahul Haq down, who is often left with the responsibility to bat out the 50 overs with the tail. Top ODI teams look to accelerate progressively during the middle overs right up to the 40th, keeping wickets in hand for a slog in the final ten.
The Pakistan team does the opposite; by decelerating in the middle over and losing wickets at untimely intervals, the team is forced to play for survival in the last ten overs. Due to this repetitive and upsetting batting pattern, Pakistan has failed to chase the majority of targets in excess of 200 runs in the last four years. The current generation of Pakistani batsmen has developed a dreadful habit of failing to rotate strike due to ‘over-blocking’, which is consequently responsible for a constantly decreasing run rate. Due to this inability to pace an inning, Pakistan’s evolution as a limited overs side has been stalled substantially.
The roots of cricket may suggest that it is a gentleman’s game but let me assure you that like any other sport, modern day cricket is first and foremost an athlete’s game. The biggest responsibility of every professional sportsperson is to pay special attention to fitness training, without which success is very hard to come by. Judging by the direction Nasir Jamshed’s belly is heading, Pakistan cricket’s priorities clearly lie elsewhere. Nowadays a vast majority of cricketers have athletic bodies which help them stay alert in the field and prevent them from playing lazy shots with the bat in hand. In light of current injuries and an excess of sluggish shots from Pakistani batsmen, fitness routines should be placed at the top of the agenda right away!
Perhaps Misbah’s biggest challenge in the months leading up to the World Cup has been to find the right combination of players. Even though Pakistan cricket has been blessed with world class all-rounders in the past, the current generation of players consists of specialists only. Limited overs cricket is dominated by batsmen in the modern era and keeping Pakistan’s fragile batting line-up in mind the obvious strategic dilemma for the captain is whether to play five specialist bowlers or seven specialist batsmen. The latter has been opted for quite often and shows no signs of promise outside Asian conditions. Captain Misbah’s prolonged faith in Haris Sohail as a fifth bowler must come to an end otherwise a quarter-final spot looks ominous for the men in green.
Cricket’s age old adage “Catches win Matches” has been rocket science to Pakistani fielders since the very beginning. Innumerable fielding coaches have been hired time and again but Pakistan cricket’s fielding nightmare continues to linger on. In the World Cup opener against India, Misbahul Haq’s fielding unit had a below-par performance as two important catches were dropped. To rub salt on the wounds, it was India’s Maverick, Virat Kohli, on both occasions.
The make-shift wicketkeeper Umar Akmal dropped a regulation catch when Kohli was on 79, after which the star batsman went on to score a memorable hundred; the first by an Indian against Pakistan in the World cup. The team’s fielding imperfections took a turn for the worse in the match that followed as five catches were put down, which allowed the West Indies to post a sizeable first innings total of 310 runs.
Pakistan’s poster boy Shahid Afridi was the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons on this occasion; his energetic presence in the field was short lived as he was accountable for two of the five missed chances. Fielding coach Grant Luden has a tough task ahead of Pakistan’s match against Zimbabwe on Sunday, as it could be assumed that a few more bad fielding efforts might trigger the end of his stint.
Speaking of Grant Luden, recent reports suggest that the fielding coach had contemplated resigning due to the attitudes of a few players who had questioned his low-profile cricketing past during fielding drills. While this story has been brushed aside as a rumour by the PCB, other incidents of indiscipline have surfaced as well, most notably a breach of curfew by eight players, including former captain Shahid Afridi. The players were reportedly 45 minutes late after dinner at a restaurant in Sydney and were fined 300 Australian dollars each. To supplement the tensions in the Pakistani camp, chief selector Moin Khan (who had accompanied the team to Australia) has sparked controversy in the media by being spotted in a casino two days before Pakistan’s match against the West Indies. An investigation has been launched by the PCB with respect to this incident and Moin has been asked to return home.
The role of Umar Akmal
Having been a regular feature in Pakistan’s ODI set-up since the past five and a half years, it is high time someone questioned Umar Akmal’s role in the team. Is he a middle-order batsmen or a finisher? Is he there to bat till the very end or is he simply there to provide impetus? Don’t even get me started on his role as a wicket-keeper. It is indeed frustrating to look back at Akmal’s career as he has shown no signs of growth as a batsman since his debut and continues to throw his wicket away cheaply after managing to get solid starts. Considered as the future of Pakistan’s batting at a time, it is safe to say that Akmal has been responsible for more losses than wins.
Representing your country in a World Cup is a great honour for every sportsman and with this important duty comes a great amount of pressure to perform. 11 of the 15 selected players have played less than 70 One Day Internationals, which goes on to show the extent of inexperience in this particular Pakistan squad. The pressure created by Pakistan’s bad form over the past year is causing these players to lose confidence in their abilities individually, and as a team. It is very easy for young cricketers to get overwhelmed by the magnitude of this mega-event which can cause them to hit the panic button and lose the battle before it is actually lost.
Pakistan’s youngsters have been ‘overwhelmed’ a bit too often and have failed to back themselves mentally in the tournament so far; especially while batting second. The mental strength of a side defines its character and its ability to cope in pressure situations. Pakistan will require a lot of character, especially from the senior players in the team if they are to make it to the quarter finals in this edition of the world cup.
After a thorough examination of Pakistan’s various weaknesses, let’s discuss the challenges that lie ahead. Here is the bottom line with respect to the team’s position in the on-going World Cup:
If the men in green are to stand any chance of making it to the last eight, they must aim to win all four of their remaining matches in the group stage.
After two heavy defeats against India and the West Indies, Pakistan has nosedived to the bottom of Pool B. With a pitiful net run-rate of -2.26, the team could well be packing its bags sooner than expected if it finds itself tied with another team (possibly Ireland or the West Indies) for fourth position in the group. If Misbah’s boys are to dictate their fate in the tournament, they must turn things around fast. As unachievable as this might sound, it is definitely not impossible.
Two of Pakistan’s four remaining games are against associate teams; Ireland and the UAE. While the Pakistanis are expected to overcome the UAE challenge with ease, they must not get complacent against an always impressive Irish team. Ireland has been a party spoiler for Pakistan in the 2007 world cup and has already delivered the first upset of the 2015 edition by convincingly beating the West Indies in their opening fixture.
The remaining two opponents, South Africa and Zimbabwe are expected to be bigger thorns in Pakistan’s journey. Zimbabwe’s recent form suggests that Elton Chigumbura and Co are hungry for victory and in form with the bat. Zimbabwe has also beaten Pakistan in an ODI as recently as August 2013 when the two sides faced each other in a three match series on African soil. In the first ODI, Zimbabwe convincingly thrashed Pakistan by chasing down a modest total of 245 runs with seven wickets in hand and 10 balls to spare. Even though Zimbabwe poses a legitimate challenge, the Pakistanis should be able to manage victory if they play to their potential and bat sensibly.
The match against South Africa will prove to be the ultimate test for team Pakistan in the group stage. Not only do the South Africans have two of the best current ODI batsmen in Hashim Amla and AB DeVilliers, they also possess the most feared fast bowler of the last half-decade; Dale Steyn. South Africa also leads Pakistan by a whopping 3-0 in head to head encounters in the World Cup. Even though the Proteas start as heavy favourites with history on their side, if the Pakistanis can pick up some much required momentum in the tournament they can certainly not be written off.
Listed below are a few possible remedies to Pakistan’s playing XI:
– Sarfraz Ahmed should be immediately brought into the fold as a replacement for out of form and out of shape opener Nasir Jamshed.
– Captain Misbahul Haq should bat at the number position as he is Pakistan’s in-form batsman and therefore must take on the responsibility of playing at the most important position in the batting card. Batting one down will give Misbah enough time to build his inning, at his desired pace. As a passionate Pakistani fan would put it: He must emulate the great Imran Khan by leading his cornered tigers from the front.
– The five specialist bowlers must be played at all cost.
– Yasir Shah must be given another chance. Playing two spinners is a practice not very alien to Pakistan cricket and it has brought much success in the past.
– Younis Khan should be dropped in wake of his old age and miserable attempts to counter short length bowling.
– The middle order should comprise of Umar Akmal, Sohaib Maqsood and Harris Sohail. These three young batsmen should be instructed to keep the scoreboard ticking at a steady pace, in order to avoid a drought of runs in the middle overs.
– Sarfraz Ahmed should replace Umar Akmal as the wicketkeeper.
Lastly (and very importantly), for Pakistan to turn the tide, it is very important for Shahid Afridi to perform well. It has been a rather unusual start to the world cup for the veteran who has looked more in form with the bat than ball, the latter being his primary weapon. After playing international cricket for nearly two decades, Afridi must look to deliver the goods in both departments as Pakistan requires his heroics now more than ever.
Retiring from the 50 over game at the end of the tournament, ‘Boom Boom’ will be desperate to make amends for a forgettable day at the office against the West Indies by trying to salvage Pakistan’s world cup dream in the remaining group games.
Courtesy of the historically mercurial nature of Pakistan cricket, fans (including myself) continue to hope against hope for a miraculous turnaround similar to the one Imran Khan’s young team pulled off in 1992.
It is this unpredictability that has taught every Pakistan cricket fan to keep the dream alive, no matter how dark the times may get.
You never know what to expect from the Pakistan cricket team. As a fellow cricket enthusiast and blogger from England likes to put it:
‘Rule one of Pakistan cricket: Results will be completely random and not dictated by form, logic, conditions or anything that makes sense.’
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.