NEW ZEALAND is a nation on the up. It is winning with coronavirus, as Pakistan’s cricketers learnt to their inconvenience, and it is sitting at the top of Test cricket.
None of this is an accident or a monstrous error. Luck is involved, of course, in evading the coronavirus and in finding the variants that will bring you success on the sports field - take Kyle Jamieson, for example, a perfectly evolved bowler for New Zealand’s lively seaming wickets.
But a dispersed island population of 5 million makes it relatively easier to tackle a global pandemic than it does to assemble a world beating cricket team. New Zealand has managed both with alacrity.
Where does this leave Pakistan, a country with a vast numerical advantage and a history of success against New Zealand? To put this in context, in the first 55 years of cricketing contests between Pakistan and New Zealand, New Zealand only won two Test series out of 20. In the last 10 years, New Zealand has won 3 out of 5 and the remaining two were drawn.
There was a time when Pakistan reliably beat New Zealand. There was rarely much doubt about it, except perhaps with Richard Hadlee in his prime on home wickets. Pakistan’s cricket was too strong, its players too talented, its depth too deep. Those days are lost in the mists of time — and the road back for Pakistan looks long, hard, and obscured by clouded thinking.
It is only four and half years since Pakistan, under the captaincy of Misbah-ul-Haq, drew a momentous Test series in England to become the world’s top ranked Test team. The question then was would Pakistan be able to sustain that success? How deep were the foundations?
Those questions are now answered emphatically. Pakistan’s slide from the top was rapid, first to seventh without much sense of a fight — only resigned acceptance. The foundations didn’t exist.
The ‘new’ Pakistan Cricket Board is attempting to build fresh foundations, but how long do you give a cricket board the benefit of the doubt? How long do you tolerate ongoing decline? Is it acceptable that Pakistan is also ranked sixth in 50-overs cricket and fourth in T20s?
Is it right that Pakistan still does not have a top order worthy of Test cricket? After 20 years of searching. Is it just fine that the bowling attack, for so long the reliable world class weapon in Pakistan’s armoury, is resigned to toothless wicketlessness? Is it hunky-dory that Pakistan drop catches as if they haven’t progressed from the 1970s.
Is all of this a happy place for Misbah-ul Haq, Wasim Khan, Ehsan Mani, and Imran Khan, the recent architects of our destiny? They can’t be happy; nobody is happy. What happened to the prospect of a cricketing Prime Minister reviving the country’s fortunes on the field?
Certainly, there are positives for which the PCB deserves credit. International cricket has returned to Pakistan. Hats off to the PCB’s diplomacy. The domestic game is injected with new fascination, whether you agree with the new system or not. Doing all this in the era of COVID-19 is no mean feat.
In Test cricket, Pakistan has a clutch of young players of genuine class. Babar Azam, Shaheen Shah Afridi, and Mohammad Rizwan are the leaders of the next generation. Faheem Ashraf may solve Pakistan’s long standing Test allrounder problem. Azhar Ali and Fawad Alam, in their own ways, suggest durability.
But that isn’t enough. A Test team isn’t made from a handful of reliable performers. And this is Pakistan’s failing since reaching number one in 2016; the Test team is in constant evolution, experimental, and undercooked.
We cannot unsee what we saw in New Zealand. We saw a top order barely fit for purpose, struggling with footwork, decision making, and confidence. You couldn’t fault Shan Masood, Abid Ali, or Haris Sohail for commitment, but they consistently looked unequal to the serious challenges that New Zealand’s pacemen posed. They are all early in their Test careers, learning their trade.
You couldn’t question the potential of a bowling attack of Shaheen Shah Afridi, Mohammad Abbas, Naseem Shah and Yasir Shah, but potential does not win you Test matches; performance does. And performances fell short. Naseem looks unready for Test cricket. Yasir hasn’t kicked on. Even Mohammad Abbas didn’t manage the success that was expected from him.
Pakistan spent too much of the Test series on the back foot, fighting a rearguard, grinding out runs or wickets. They were rarely the aggressor, and as a result seldom held the initiative. Some of this was the game situation but it was equally a mindset that allowed pressure to build.
The problems extend beyond the field of play. The ‘new’ PCB has fallen into some ancient elephant traps. First, it made the mistake of assuming that being a great player automatically makes you a great coach. Misbah may one day become a top coach but few star players successfully make that transition.
At the very least, Misbah is a ‘new’ coach learning his trade, and Test cricket is not a place to arrive unproven. The lustre of Misbah’s playing career even persuaded the PCB to foolishly double him up as chairman of selectors, an unnecessary experiment that failed. Sometimes people need to be saved from themselves.
The theme of finding one good man and overburdening him continues with making Babar Azam captain in all three formats. Playing in all three formats is very hard to sustain, let alone captaining all three. It’s a formula that doesn’t work. Neither does expecting your wicket-keeper to be one of your main batsmen in Test cricket as well as asking him to captain the team. All such players lose their edge; the team suffers.
New Zealand is a strong team; there is no disgrace in losing a Test series away. Pakistan is a team in evolution; that is understood. But the disappointment in the New Zealand tour was a level of performance that looked short of what should be Test class for Pakistan.
Too many players are learners in cricket’s longer form. The same applies to the coaching staff. The formula is wrong and the PCB needs a serious rethink about its long term strategies in all formats, but especially Test cricket where the decline is becoming a crisis.
My new book, EnglistanTwitter: @KamranAbbasi
Wikipedia: Kamran AbbasiFor cricket lovers
Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2021