**Pakistan was rescued yesterday by one man’s dazzling performance. The mercurial Shahid Afridi scored 76 and claimed seven wickets to pummel the West Indies in a comeback performance of epic proportions. He walked in the middle when the Pakistan's score was a sorry 47-5, and combined with captain Misbah-ul-Haq for a record-breaking sixth wicket partnership of 120 runs.
Starting his innings in typically aggressive fashion, he took the fight to the West Indian bowlers, who never looked to threaten the flamboyant all-rounder, before repeating the act with the ball. At the end of the day, Pakistan completed a stunning come-from-behind 126-run win.
Afridi's brilliance in Guyana, however, should not mask what was once again a pitiful effort with the bat by Pakistan. Out of the six batsmen before Afridi, only two made it to double figures. The first being the skipper, who by now, is used to facing the brand new ball and the other Umar Akmal.
Ahmed Shehzad, also making a comeback, played a gentle out swinging delivery from a bowler playing only his fourth ODI onto his off stump, unsure whether to play or leave. The heavily experienced Mohammad Hafeez was bowled while offering no shot, perhaps out of fear of getting out in the slips. Asad Shafiq too played a poor shot to edge one to makeshift wicketkeeper Johnson Charles who pulled off a stunner whereas, Nasir Jamshed was unlucky to be on the receiving end of a harsh umpiring decision.
The Pakistan batting lineup, brittle as ever, has suffered from similar lapses for quite a while now. Maybe taking a leaf out of the captain’s book, they have failingly tried to play slower than their natural abilities would allow. It could be the constant fear of failure or the lack of faith shown by selectors in the young squad that has encouraged otherwise flamboyant batsmen to play in a much more reserved manner than they would prefer. Take Shehzad for example. Naturally a very aggressive batsman, in Pakistan colors he seems unsure of his range. He seems overawed by the circumstances facing him and prefers to simply survive the initial spell from any bowler, however inexperienced he may be. His dismissal proved just that point - his instincts pushed him to offer a shot, his caution advised him to sway his bat away and the confusion cost him his off stump. A batsman must never play anything but his natural game.
In the last 42 completed innings by Pakistan within the past two years, the overall strike rate has touched 100 merely two times. The batting has not fared well even with a lower benchmark, going over 80 only fourteen times. Compare this with India, whose success in the past two years has been phenomenal. India’s strike rate has crossed 100 nine times in their past 49 innings, with 34 innings being scored at a strike rate of above 80. The comparison goes to show the method both teams have adopted and the results are there for all to see.
Perhaps this current Pakistan lot is hoping to emulate their compatriots of yesteryear. The team of the 90s planned their batting in such a way that wickets were preserved for the initial 30-odd overs while the later batsmen propelled the team in the last 10-15 overs. However, if that is what the Pakistani think-tank has proposed, it is an outdated strategy. In the current day and age of teams frequently posting 270-plus totals as a result of two balls per innings and the luxury of powerplays, the Pakistani team should look to play aggressively throughout the innings, much like their Indian rivals.
A worrying statistic that proves the lethargy of the Pakistan middle-order is the run-rate of scoring by the first six batsmen. In the past two years, the top six have scored at a collective run-rate of higher than five, only ten times. In the same time period, England’s top six have scored at a rate higher than five, twenty times.
Pakistan’s predicament may have been brought about by a natural fear of the swinging ball. With home pitches being placid and offering very little swing to the fast bowlers, it can be disconcerting for a young batsman to face a bowler who can make the ball swing both ways- as was the case with the West Indian bowler Jason Holder yesterday. To that, the only solution one can propose is for the board to facilitate for the batsmen the opportunity to play county cricket. That is the only way they can learn to play a swing bowler and not look like lame ducks while doing so. These are measures that must be taken at the developmental level, however.
Pulling Pakistan out of this rut of low self-confidence is the job of the team management including the captain and senior players. A change in captaincy in favor of the more extravagant Afridi would be too disconcerting for a young side that has just settled down. What the management can do, however, is to alter the batting line-up. The aggressive Umar Akmal could be pushed to a number three batting position in place of an out-of-form Mohammad Hafeez. It is a position Akmal has frequently, and openly, requested. The management could also reassure the young batsmen of their spot in the team, at least for a certain amount of time. This would allow the likes of Shehzad to play their instinctive game, without fearing the axe that is constantly looming over their heads. A more reassuring, hands-on approach from Misbah could also be the key. A captain that is in touch with his young stars can only be of benefit to them.
Pakistan must, by now, learn that changes are to be made. Not to the team, but to their approach to the game. The team must grow out of this reclusive mode and play with the flair that has been the hallmark of successive Pakistani teams. After all, as the saying goes: fortune favors the brave. Just ask Afridi.