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The gap between Pakistan and South Africa, when it comes to fielding, is put into the starkest of contrasts when the practice sessions of the two sides are seen back-to-back. -Photo by AFP

In Michael Lewis’ book ‘Moneyball’, the author talks about the eye test: The idea that professional sport experts and scouts look for that which reaffirms their preconceived notions, rather than at more accurate indicators like actual stats. In Moneyball, baseball pundits refuse to prioritise in accordance with reality. The same can be said about cricket in Pakistan – Many fans believe that Kamran Akmal is a good top order batsman, Umar Akmal is the least successful of the three young batsmen Pakistan have got in ODIs, Shoaib Malik is an international class all-rounder and Imran Farhat deserves to play international cricket. Yet, one look at the stats proves all of them wrong.

It does not require a brain the equivalent of Bill James, especially in the age of statsguru to figure these things out. The need to remember only the successes of those that we have a bias towards, and the failures of those we have a bias against means that the ‘eye test’ is alive and well in Pakistani cricket too; with both the experts and the fans.

But there are a few things that the eyes just don’t lie about. One of them, and perhaps the most obvious, has been the gulf in class between the two sides when it comes to the third discipline. Pakistan’s gap from South Africa, when it comes to fielding, is put into the starkest of contrasts when the practice sessions of the two sides are seen back-to-back. I’ve been privileged enough on this tour to be present at the nets and the drills that the two sides have held; and the difference between the abilities of two sides could best be described as thus: Pakistan are at least 20 years behind where South Africa are right now.

The easiest answer to this would be to blame the coaches; but that would be grossly unfair on the Pakistani lot. Both coaching camps attempt to maximise the output from the raw material they’ve been given. During the South African sessions, Gary Kirsten has players standing 4 metres apart and bisects them with his shots, so at least one of them has to dive full length to try and get it; meanwhile, Russell Domingo is making sure that the throws from each of the fast bowlers (likely to be the boundary riders) is as flat as it possibly could be; minimizing the loop for each of them.

It’s the constant repetition of those processes which means that the full-length diving catch from a South African during a match is not a fluke, but a skill gained over years of being in optimum physical condition, and working their butts off in such practices. On the other hand, Julien Fountain – on March 13 – spent five minutes trying to explain to the Pakistanis why their technique of even picking a moving ball was wrong; most of them stopped a yard before to pick the ball up, and why by attacking the ball in one swift motion they would be better served, both to pick the ball up and throw it back. The majority of them were struggling to do that even after the first explanation; it needed another lecture from Fountain for it to get across. It wasn’t because of the gap in language, but because the natural – and wrong – method was still the one they subconsciously fell back on. But one also has to wonder that if you are learning this at the age of thirty, how likely is it that you would be able to replicate it during match conditions. Just a few days beforehand Fountain was busy with the most basic of drills, throwing skiers up for the players to catch. One fearless Pakistani opener dropped more than a third of the ones that went his way. It was depressing, but slightly funny that a man who’s been a professional for more than a decade struggles with something like this.

So the questions have to be asked of the system and a society that is in place. Many South African players – such as AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis – have played rugby at school level; their relationship with falls to the floor is vastly different than that of those Pakistanis who’ve grown up playing cricket on mud, tarmac and hard ground. Much as in tennis when you need to volley from a young age to be a natural at the net game, fielding in cricket requires years of work. And that is all before you consider a culture where cricket is a two-discipline game.

Many pundits and experts will blame the coaches in the days to come for the failing of a system and a culture; but that’s the easiest thing to do, after all we don’t want no foreigners running our boys. But nobody will blame the root causes for Pakistan being the exception to the rule in the 21st century. And that really is a crying shame.

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Comments (13) Closed

zohaib Mar 14, 2013 04:28pm
So very true. Sports is no more considered as a plus when it comes to Pakistani children, rather they are discouraged at early age. If you just take a look at top educational institutes, none of them has (baring negligible) sports grounds and facilities and coaches to provide a good physical education.
PakFan Mar 14, 2013 04:45pm
Asif Iqbal and Miandad came from the same culture and each was an excellent marksman in the field
umair Mar 14, 2013 05:06pm
and people love shahid afridi and inzamam....
Guest63 Mar 14, 2013 05:45pm
Pakistan Cricket right from the day 1 of the national team built up , had been all along a two discipline game i.e Bowling ( fast or spin ) and Bating ( top or mediocre ) NEVER has been the third discipline THE FIELDING , you can re-look at all the Top Class batsmen who wore the National cap , or the top Class Bowlers .... You will find very few (countable on both hands fingers perhaps once or a quarter ) Would have any liking or any meaningful contribution towards this discipline .. Its not 20 years gap , its a gap which is as big as non existing skill and no one cares a dime about it ... Another aspect was Physical Fitness , in a country where the social culture is , if you are skinny , means you have not enough to eat ! , who will dare to take that social stigma with him or her when donning a national color
Ahmad Zubairi Mar 14, 2013 07:11pm
Thank God for a sensible article. I have been sick and tired of reading our ex players criticising the coaches because they did not get to be the coach. Lets face the reality not only in fielding but also batting averages of 23-33 in ODI for most our players. The one with average of 38 Umer Akmal is sitting outside. Better fielders like ahmed shahzad, umer akmal are both outside. We are playing nearly a test and T20 team mixture in an ODI. They can just block or hit a six. We have a wicketkeeper who cant take a simple catch. Thoughtful separate teams are needed, no younis,misbah,in ODI. Kamran only good to play club cricket. Umer, ahmed shahzad, haris sohail for ODI. At the most we will just loose games which we already are.
Moon Mar 15, 2013 01:50am
Hasan you write well !!..fresh of breath air . Keep them coming.
Mark Mar 15, 2013 04:23am
The average age of Pakistani "SENIOR" players is 38 years( and that is Pakistani 38) the actual age may be off by 6 to 10 years. so you are practically talking about players of 45 to 48 years old. Good luck getting results from 48 years old players.
CricIsFake Mar 15, 2013 04:45am
Excellent article again, Cheema Sb. Apart from the inherent problem in our system which is not nurturing good fielders, the fielding aspect also has to do a lot with personal interest and our players with only couple of exceptions treat fielding as a burden. Still, I would say the overall standard has marginally improved over last few years due to influx of young and energetic players like Akmal, Asad and Ahmed Shahzad while Younis Khan represents one of the finest fielder Pakistan ever produced and his athleticism is commendable. Apart from Younis, Misbah, Hafeez, Afridi and Malik are not that bad either. Compare this fielding unit to that containing Inzi, Yousaf, ARazzaq,Wasim, Waqar etc and you will definitely feel a lot better. Poorest fielder in current lineup is Nasir Jamshed, even Saeed Ajmal is better than him. Good god, we dont have to suffer Sohail Tanveer in fielding anymore.
ABL Mar 15, 2013 07:09am
Brilliant article. The sports (cricket, hockey, squash) strategy has changed substantially over the last decade. Just as any other sector and technology, which is also changing so fast, that keeping pace is becoming difficult. Pakistan cricket is also suffering from delay in reaching out to modern methods of sports, specially in the fielding area. Physical fitness is key in any sports, our sportsmen and women lack appropriate facilities and guidance to acquire such new talent. This is true for other subcontinent teams also. But, Sri Lanka and now India show new players with enhanced talent in fielding. Pakistan team need to conduct a good professional review and analysis from this series in SA and highlight the lessons learned for future intervention.
haris Mar 15, 2013 08:20am
Great article, Thanks
haris Mar 15, 2013 08:24am
Afridi is best in fielding department and I am sure he is the best fielder ever played for Pakistan. You can argue and criticize his bowling and batting but not fielding. Same applied to Inzi, he was one of the best batsman in the World but there are a lots of question marks on his fielding abilities. therefore, stick to the main subject and don't drag off-topic things while commenting an article.
Asif Mar 15, 2013 11:04am
Asif Iqbal was the finest fielder for Pakistan by far. Of course you wouldn't have seen him chasing the cricket ball. Javed Miandad, Wasim Raja, Haroon Rashid and Mohsin Khan were also fine fielders.
milli Mar 16, 2013 12:03pm
Spot on. Having watched the Pakistani players ;diving' over the ball as it goes under them, takes some explaining. And their lack of basic tactics in the field is even worse. All these should be in place but with Pakistan nothing is in place