Early hiccups cost Pakistan dearly despite late flourish

Updated July 06, 2019

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LONDON: Shaheen Afridi embraces a teammate and gives a thumbs-up as he celebrates the dismissal of Bangladesh’s Mahmudullah.—AP
LONDON: Shaheen Afridi embraces a teammate and gives a thumbs-up as he celebrates the dismissal of Bangladesh’s Mahmudullah.—AP

LIGHTNING doesn’t strike twice, and neither do cornered tigers.

Dreamy parallels with the 1992 World Cup victory were rendered meaningless by a tournament format that cruelly sent Pakistan home on the basis of net run rate. The reality, however, is that the flaws in Pakistan’s preparations, personnel, and game plan were too great to overcome in the space of a few weeks of sunshine and rain in England.

That this Pakistan side, one of the least experienced and most ordinary to represent the country at a World Cup, became genuine contenders says something about the mediocre levels of the established cricket nations outside the top three.

Inclusion of out-of-form players and last-minute finalisation of squad affected morale

Beginning the tournament in a shambles, Pakistan’s transformation was so great that their failure to reach the semifinals became possibly the biggest World Cup letdown since their defeat in the 1999 final.

Victory over Afghanistan raised expectations to fever pitch, only for those hopes to be deflated by England’s resurgence on flat tracks. India played their part. A lack of urgency against England seemed motivated more by regional politics than cricket.

New Zealand conspired too. More focused on beating Pakistan to fourth place than winning their match against England.

After those dead games, net run rate as a means of separating teams on the same points must be reviewed by ICC.

Pakistan’s preparation for this World Cup was long, but left them hopelessly unprepared. The squad was finalised at the last minute with late recalls for Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz. The starting eleven included Shoaib Malik and Hassan Ali, both horribly out of form. Asif Ali, another starter, had clearly not recovered from a personal tragedy. Worse still, the interference of chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq unsettled the squad dynamic.

It was as if sustained global glare was required to right Pakistan’s wonky thinking. Inzamam left. Shoaib, Hasan, and Asif were replaced by Haris Sohail, Imad Wasim and Shaheen Afridi. Batting first returned as the preferred option. Suddenly, Pakistan were better balanced and a team worthy of representing the star on their green shirts.

Inspiring wins over South Africa, New Zealand, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh were rattled off in front of packed houses of passionate fans. It was uplifting cricket to behold and to be a part of.

But the damage had been done in an ill-judged and ineptly executed attempt to take on West Indies’ short bowling at Trent Bridge. Pakistan were out of the reckoning on net run rate from that point onwards.

The next regret was Australia. Pakistan were well placed with starts for the top order, but none of them went on and the chase fell away. India was a horror show. Pakistan chose to bat second with half an eye on the weather, but then batted as if the weather was perfect. Black rain clouds ruled the day and made the chase impossible.

Rain was decisive in other games too. Pakistan probably lost a point to rain against Sri Lanka. New Zealand effectively gained one against India.

The team’s embarrassing start was ridiculed on social media and in shopping malls. The behaviour of fans was unacceptable but Pakistan seemed lost. Comparisons with 1992 became the last refuge of supporters clinging to hope where it didn’t exist.

Transformation

But Pakistan transformed. Babar Azam carried the batting. His century against New Zealand was one of the great Pakistan World Cup innings. Haris showed his readiness for a regular start in the middle order, particularly with a game changing acceleration versus South Africa. Imam-ul-Haq established his value as an orthodox anchor, scoring a run a ball hundred in the final game.

Pakistan’s ambitions, as ever, were primarily built on their pace bowling. Amir was world class. Wahab was economical but still capable of a late burst of reverse swing. The star of the show, however, was Shaheen Afridi.

Pakistan’s latest teen sensation began nervously against Australia, but once he focused on attacking the stumps he became Pakistan’s most dangerous fast bowler. The win over Bangladesh will be most remembered for Afridi’s six wickets, a World Cup best by a Pakistani.

Just as the successes of this campaign are clear to see, so are the failures. Fakhar Zaman failed to play a major innings. The middle order was woeful until Haris was recalled and Imad Wasim added some late flourish.

For the sake of the team’s development, this must be the end for both Shoaib and Mohammad Hafeez.

Another conundrum is what to do about Sarfraz Ahmed? It is too great a burden to keep wicket, bat, and lead the team in all three formats. Something needs to give and the selectors must look for alternatives, probably in the limited over formats

England’s fifth World Cup revived 50-overs cricket as an enjoyable spectacle, and confirmed the durability of the format. The pleasure in this World Cup was the importance of the ancient disciplines of orthodox batting and consistent bowling. The best players sprinkled the innovations and variations of T20 cricket upon a bedrock of traditional skills.

When the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) reviews this World Cup campaign it must ask itself how Pakistan’s selection, strategy, and tactics came to be so flawed after a much publicised and prolonged period of preparation? Why was it that the problems that were there for the world to see were only rectified under intense external pressure and scrutiny?

What was it about the dynamic between selectors, coaches, and players that created a fatal start to this World Cup? And why is that a country of Pakistan’s size, undoubted natural talent, and cricket pedigree, is struggling to field 11 good men in its first team?

After a bittersweet campaign in 2019, the road to 2023 begins now.

Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2019