Cheering the new Azhar, missing the old Ajmal

Published April 18, 2015
Bangladesh cricketer Mushfiqur Rahim (C) reacts after the dismissal of Pakistan cricketer Mohammad Hafeez (R).—AFP
Bangladesh cricketer Mushfiqur Rahim (C) reacts after the dismissal of Pakistan cricketer Mohammad Hafeez (R).—AFP

In A Song of Ice and Fire series of books, the iron throne is far more menacing than the version blunted by budgetary constraints in the Game of Thrones TV show. Standing at 40 feet, the seat can only be reached by a flight of stairs, and because it is forged by a thousand swords, it is so dangerously sharp and unforgiving that the one who rules can never rest on it comfortably.

I can only imagine that if there is a job in cricket that deserves such a throne, it is for the skipper of the Pakistan cricket team, who currently happens to be Azhar Ali; and who – after Pakistan lost a side game to a Cricket Board XI – had to experience a thorough outclassing of a young team he was captaining for the first time.

Also read: Pakistan's loss hardly a shock

Although Bangladesh played superbly, to be the first Pakistani skipper to lose to them in 16 years is certainly not a proud moment for him.

Azhar Ali shows he has what it takes

There was plenty of criticism directed at Azhar Ali, the cricket board, and former ODI captain Misbah-ul-Haq and coach Waqar Younis (who both recommended him) by fans the moment Azhar Ali was announced as Misbah's successor.

Like others, I found it incredible that a player who had struggled to meet the strike rate standards of modern limited overs cricket and had not played ODIs in years; was put in charge of players like Sarfraz Ahmed, who not only boasted better records as leaders and players, but were also senior to Azhar in terms of experience.

Many critics felt that Azhar Ali was a mini-Misbah, carrying the very weaknesses that had prevented Misbah from reaching the same heights in ODI cricket as he had in Test matches.

Azhar Ali plays a shot.—AFP
Azhar Ali plays a shot.—AFP

Azhar reacted to these concerns more positively than many would have expected. In an interview, the new skipper responded to these concerns pragmatically and in a mature, cool-headed manner. He agreed that his strike rate was low, and promised that it would improve.

It was refreshing to note that a Pakistani skipper was willing to improve his playing style for the greater good of the team.

As the cliché goes, actions speak louder than words, and in his first international game as in charge, Azhar’s bat spoke quite vocally.

In that regard, two things were most impressive: Firstly, that he took the responsibility of facing the first ball. That showed he meant business, and as it turned out, his 72 off 73 balls was not bad for business at all.

Secondly, Azhar showed against Bangladesh that he was capable of rotating the strike. We know that as an ODI batsman, a water tight defense and an excellent technique go only so far if one is not able to score freely. And in a team where most batsmen only operate on first or fifth gear, it is vital that the captain can at the very least keep the score ticking.

Azhar did that and played some marvelous off-drives on the back foot. More importantly, he wants to improve without going overboard.

As it happens, the inadequacy of Pakistan’s domestic cricket system means our players have to get most of their training and fitness when playing at the international level. The way yesterday's Azhar contrasted with 2010's Azhar (who could do little more than block bowlers), is a prime example of that.

Losing promising players to bad domestic and dressing room environments

It is natural to expect cricketers to learn from international cricket, but it seems that Pakistani players aren’t polished by the first class structure nearly as well as those from India, South Africa, and Australia. They must essentially count on their talent and on-job training to reach international standards.

This is far from a perfect formula, and even the more talented cricketers such as Umar Akmal are often unable to learn on the job.

Mohammad Rizwan played a fantastic innings, scoring a 58-ball 67, and was likened by more than a few fans to Umar Akmal. If we rack our brains a little, Umar Akmal was also dynamite when he first began playing cricket. Somewhere somehow, this dynamite player burned out, and lost belief in his own abilities.

Of course, most of the blame for Umar Akmal's fall lies with Umar himself, but the question remains:

Why are so many Pakistani batsmen, who seem like the complete package on debut, not reaching the stars like they should?

There is a long list of Pakistani players who had every shot in the book, were able to rotate the strike, could smash boundaries at will, but never lived up to their potential. They even had great starts to their careers so there was no pressure. Instead, there's was a slow death.

What happened here? From the venomous comments of ex-cricketers on TV, the corruption of seniors such as Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif, Shoaib Akhtar’s autobiography; it seems that the dressing room atmosphere in Pakistan hasn't always been a healthy place.

Akhtar felt that senior fast bowlers initially kept him out of the team because he made them feel insecure. He also revealed that many cricketers relied on anti-anxiety medication such as Xanax to cope with their struggles.

A second cousin of mine who taught English to a lot of young Pakistani cricketers told me about some revelations made by a young Pakistan opener some five years ago. This young batsman felt the atmosphere was poisonous; cricketers would resort to backhanded comments and passive aggressive behaviour when speaking to him because his success threatened them. He also spoke of groups that had formed within the team.

How are young players supposed to learn their craft in such a thorny atmosphere? It is crucial that Rizwan is handled well, else he may as well be added to the ever growing list of fallen stars.

The dressing room atmosphere reportedly improved by leaps and bounds since Misbah became skipper. The negative elements either retired, were sentenced to prison, or were deliberately sidelined from the team.

From Azhar Ali’s interview, it is heartening to note that the new skipper has the right attitude in terms of managing his team. While he is asking his charges to perform in the roles asked of them, he makes it clear that he wants every cricketer to play freely as per their style. It is an added responsibility on Azhar to provide his younger teammates a nurturing atmosphere.

Is Fawad Alam our most discriminated against player?

Finally, the public’s darling, Fawad Alam is back in the team after months of outrage over his absence. He scored a brilliant 58-ball 67 with nine boundaries in the side game, where he came in at no.5, but the feeling that he is being marginalised for some unknown reason did not go away when he came in at no.6 against Bangladesh.

Why is Fawad not batting higher up in the order? Why do they find it so painful to acknowledge his run-accumulation skills?

After unfairly removing him from the side, he was brought in with a broken spirit and asked to bat at a position which always demands either rescuing from a crisis or an all-out attack – neither of these demanding scenarios suit his style.

It seems as if Fawad Alam is always picked to play in the more difficult positions of the batting order. They are not in the mood of allowing him enough room to cement his place.

Against Bangladesh, Azhar Ali used the services of Saad Nasim, Haris Sohail, and even himself, yet didn’t provide Fawad Alam a bowling opportunity.

Fawad Alam.—AFP
Fawad Alam.—AFP

And by the way, why is this batsman not in the Test match team? After three Test matches, he has an average of 41.66. What merits the selection of Haris Sohail over Fawad Alam in Test cricket?

It doesn’t matter if Misbah-ul-Haq prefers Haris over Fawad. If that is the case, Misbah should be removed as skipper because no single person should be allowed to dictate team selection where deserving players gather rust.

Time for Saeed Ajmal to find a doosra career?

It was sad to watch Saeed Ajmal against Bangladesh. Initially, it was obvious that the Bangladeshis were playing him on reputation alone. With his new action, Ajmal was bowling without his signature zip and control. What’s more, he lacked his threatening variation. As a result he was bowling painfully slow and friendly floaty deliveries that were begging to be hit.

After the batsmen settled in, his final five overs were struck for a shocking 63, and his ultimate return of 74 from 10 overs was the worse in his career.

At the age of 37, it may be too difficult a task for this once glorious bowler to be as effective with a remodeled action, though after such a stellar career, he certainly deserves a chance.

With the next World Cup in mind, the future needs to be mapped now. This new-look Pakistan team may have lost its first game, but it has gotten off on the right foot. If Azhar Ali is effective in implementing his wise words into action, then Pakistan could see a change of fortune in its ODI cricket.

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