A cricket captain, particularly in Pakistan, really has to lead by example. -Photo by AP
Where is Pakistan’s next captain?
That is the question on the minds of Pakistani fans, analysts and former greats alike.
The entire Pakistan cricket setup needs a overhaul, however, with the 2015 World Cup only 19 months away, Pakistan cannot afford to be too radical – at least for now. The most obvious flaws, though, must be addressed immediately: flagging batsmanship and to a great extent Pakistan's current approach to cricket.
Some are eager to jump the gun while others have called for a more long-term approach which includes rebuilding the domestic structure, revamping of the board and basically tying up all the loose ends before expecting results from the team. While batting misfortunes have been discussed in great detail already, Pakistan’s approach is very much tied to leadership, hence, worthy of an evaluation before or after the World Cup.
It is common knowledge that the role of a cricketing captain is quite unique as compared to any other sports. Unlike football or hockey for instance, a cricket captain does not simply toss the coin. He has to plan, implement, evaluate, amend, re-plan and execute again. This process is constant, until the match is over.
This is a job that requires that the man in charge is one who can wear different thinking caps.
A cricket captain, particularly in Pakistan, really has to lead by example. He has to fulfill his role as a player, whether that's as a batsman or bowler, as well as keeping the team together and bringing the best out of them. Victory can mask a slump in form but losses compound the failure of the captain as a player even more.
The history and legacy, the success and failures of the men in green are all indicative of something very Pakistani. It is the natural flamboyance that has always been the hallmark of Pakistani teams which were the envy of the world in the not too distant past.
Abdul Hafeez Kardar, the first captain of the Pakistan team, started this tradition of exuberance, which resulted in some notable victories at the start of Pakistan’s journey in top-flight cricket, mainly due to his aggression and willingness to let the players exhibit their natural flair.
But then, somehow it was lost. Our teams of the 60s and early 70s struggled to take the tradition forward. The best they achieved were safely played, drawn series with only a handful of significant wins. Then in the late 70s, Mushtaq Mohammad brought that aggression and flair back to our national team – this served him and Pakistan cricket well.
It was then that the world really took notice of a team which was capable of beating even the best.
Imran Khan took the aggression of the Pakistanis to another level. He was always known for playing to win, not to save matches. Javed Miandad was in the same vein as were most of the captains that followed. Wasim Akram, who captained what was arguably the finest assembled bunch of players for the World Cup in 1999, was also a proactive captain.
A new direction
A look at the team today and the one thing that is clearly missing is that intensity. The intensity that turned those “cornered tigers” into World Champions.
The current captain, Misbah ul Haq, has been our best or next best batsman in the recent past. In 2012, he led the team to a historic 3-0 Test series win against the world number one side of that time, England. Still, if the performances under his leadership are recalled, the one element that seemed absent was the willingness to preempt.
Misbah is a cool customer, who believes in playing for safety first and going for victory if the opportunity really presents itself. He has brought the element of pragmatism into the team which was good for the team after the spot-fixing saga that left the team in tatters. The players were lacking confidence as each and every action of theirs was being viewed suspiciously and Misbah’s pragmatism served them well in the aftermath of the scandal.
Defensive tactics worked for the team and resulted in occasional victories. Misbah’s strategy suited not only himself but Pakistan cricket too – supporters praised the team even when they only managed to draw series. But, with the passage of time, it started hurting our cricket. The naturally flamboyant players simply cannot afford to remain defensive in their approach.
Already 39, and by his own admission in some recent interviews, at the sunset of his career, Misbah must start thinking of the legacy he will leave. He may or may not be part of the team when the next World Cup starts but it will be wise to explore the options Pakistan has as far as leadership, and ultimately, the direction the team wants to go in are concerned.
There are a few tried and tested names who have been recommended by former players, some with little or no captaincy experience.
He has been made the captain of the T20 team, a move, termed by some, as a learning curve for him, so that he can take over from Misbah when needed. He has shown some brilliance with the bat and the ball as well, whenever he played as a captain, however, his Test and ODI batting average is nothing to write home about.
As captain, his tactics during games suggest that he is always crunching in his head, always trying to out-think the opponent. The recent T20 series against South Africa personified what's good about Hafeez. The Test and ODI series, in which he wasn't the captain, highlighted what could be his undoing as a long-term candidate.
It is his flaws as a batsman which make his position at the top of the order questionable and puts into doubt his place in the Test and ODI teams. If he is allowed to continue to bat at one of the top three positions his career might end much sooner.
If he is willing to move down the order and play more of a batting all-rounder's role, he should be retained in all formats. He can continue to captain Pakistan in T20s, a format that suits his style. But if the above mentioned culture of the Pakistani team is the barometer to go by, his role as a specialist batsman and ultimately that of a leader in ODIs and Tests becomes uncertain.
Afridi, who has already served as captain, may be given the job again. He may be only 32, but the dip in his form which has been going on since almost a year now, indicated that he may only be able to play for a couple of more seasons. Secondly, his indifferent attitude, at times becomes a curse for the team. Ideally, he should not be considered for the position but keeping the strange ways of Pakistan cricket in mind, who knows he could make a comeback as ODI captain.
Younis' name has also popped up in the media and some former players believe he should once again take the reins. It will, again, be a stop-gap solution as Younis had previously relieved himself from captaincy duties. His contributions to Pakistan cricket aside, it is not a good idea to depend on someone who has already accepted the fact that he cannot handle the burden of taking the team forward.
Hence, for all logical reasons, he should not be considered either.
Some quarters have asked for Azhar Ali to be made skipper. Since his debut against England at Lord’s in 2010, Azhar has been pretty much a permanent member of the Test squad. His batting average of 41 in 27 Tests may not raise eyebrows in most cricketing countries these days, but in Pakistan's scenario, it is actually quite decent.
His limited ability and approach are reflected in another number, his strike rate of 39 in Tests and 64 in ODIs. He is a defensive batsman for sure and that has benefited Pakistan's frail batting order in Tests. But, importantly, he is almost bound to apply the same approach if asked to captain the side. His value as a Test batsman, and perhaps ODIs in the future, means he must not be put in a position where his confidence as a player also suffers.
Asad is widely believed to be the best of the recent lot of batsmen in the team. He averages 40 in Tests while his strike rate of 42 is slightly better than Azhar’s. His ability to absorb pressure also sets him apart from some of the new players in the team. When required, he can be aggressive. His partnership with Younis Khan against South Africa during the second Test in the recent series was quite a fair testament to this effect. He is one player, who is likely to be a part of the team for the years ahead.
Considering the limited number of choices, Shafiq may be a good choice as captain but it will not end there. Our board, media and more importantly, the fans would have to support him just like South Africa did, when Graeme Smith was made captain at 22.
He was the star performer during the 2010 U19 World Cup and has since played eight ODIs and three T20s for Pakistan. He is a naturally gifted all-rounder, although the current team management believes his bowling is on the weaker side. If the 'long-term approach' is going to be employed, Azam can be a good candidate for captaincy. But first, Pakistan must include him in the fold and maximise the player's potential as an all-rounder.
The scarcity of options, as this list suggests, means the Pakistan Cricket Board, which itself is in transition these days when it comes to a leader, may go for the most obvious choice when the time comes. Whether it works only time will tell but at the moment it is also indicative of another deficiency in the Pakistan setup: the lack of natural leaders, men who put up their hands in tough situations and take the team across the line.
Shoaib Jamil tweets @ShoaibBinJamil