Let’s begin with an admittedly lame joke. The defeat in the first Test against Sri Lanka in the UAE was a ‘fitting’ result. It was so because Pakistan had taken a supremely ‘fit’ squad, every member of which had acquired enough fitness level to impress — or at least satisfy — the supreme commander of the national cricket team, the honourable John Michael Mickey Arthur. So it was only fitting that a fit squad lost because physical fitness was all that the squad had.
More than a year into his tenure, all we have heard Mickey talking about is physical fitness. While there can be hardly any argument against the essential nature of the attribute, one has the right to see something more happening in the realm of cricketing skills, game plan, mental toughness and such other things that make a cricketer worth his while.
If fitness alone was the key factor in cricket, no one could have stopped Long Qingquan of China or Vladimir Khinchegashvili of Georgia or Usain Bolt of Jamaica from being the most successful current cricketers for they can surely lift more weight than any cricketer, floor any cricketer on the mat in a jiffy or outrun anyone by an embarrassing margin over the shortest of distances.
No one can deny the necessity of physical fitness, but that alone is not going to set things right for the national Test squad. The onus clearly is on Mickey
The manner in which Arthur rebuked Umar Akmal a few weeks ago was fair enough only because the player deserved it on the basis of too much hot air in his head and next to nothing in terms of performance. That he had somehow passed the test conducted by chief selector Inzamamul Haq is another story and has more to do with what one might call favouritism rather than fitness.
Since they both start with the letter ‘F’, perhaps Inzamam, with his legendary linguistic skills, mixed then up. But that is for some other time. What Mickey did was indeed the right thing to do in that particular case.
What happened just ahead of the World XI was, however, interesting, if not laughable. A bunch of Pakistani cricketers taking part in the Caribbean Premier League (CPL) and the English county circuit, with prior approval from the Pakistan Cricket Board, were asked to immediately terminate all contracts and asked to report for a pre-series fitness-testing planned by the national team management. Looking objectively — without the phobia or, still worse, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) over fitness — the counties and the T20 franchises worry more about such things because they have a much more hectic schedule to follow than a national side, and then there is a commercial angle to it as well; they don’t want to pay someone who is not fit enough to take the field at the drop of a hat.
In essence, the players were fit, but Mickey wanted to have a look himself. It was like waking up a fast asleep patient in a hospital to make him take a sleeping pill because it is there in the prescription. That he is already sleeping without the pill holds no water for the paramedic with a rigid approach.
The funny thing is that after the three-day fitness tests the players were allowed to go back and join their foreign teams. That is how inflexible Mickey is when it comes to fitness. It is rigidity bordering on stupidity.
And if all this fitness does something on the ground over five days of Test cricket, it will definitely earn him some brownie points for, as we all know, nothing succeeds like success. But it has done nothing. That the match was lost of the fifth day actually makes out a case for fifth-day tiredness. Actually, it was mental tiredness. Pakistan has a history of bungling up fourth-innings chases howsoever miniscule the target. That malaise remains pretty much there.
The Australians, before Steven Waugh took over captaincy, had a habit of losing in dead rubbers. They would win, say three of the first four Tests in a series, but with the series in the bag they would have other things on the mind and often ended up losing a Test which had no consequence on the series result. Waugh took it up on himself to correct the equation and made the team work just as hard in all Tests regardless of anything else. Pretty soon, they set a new record for most consecutive Test wins by any team in history. It was a psychological thing and was handled psychologically with someone taking the lead.
Pakistan made much of the boot camp before embarking on the last tour of England. There were push-ups, salutes and fall-ins when they won the first Test, but then they lost the very next one and there were tired looks and drooping shoulders on the field aplenty. Was it physical fitness? Television footage immediately captured quite a few images of Englishmen standing up from their seats, having a hearty laugh and offering a mock salute at the fall of a Pakistani wicket.
The point is simple: there are things beyond physical fitness that Mickey should be taking care of. If that doesn’t happen quickly enough, he will leave as his legacy a Pakistani Test team fit enough to lose.
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 8th, 2017