CRICKET: THE RETURN OF THE PROTEAS

Published January 24, 2021
The South African cricket team touches down in Pakistan
The South African cricket team touches down in Pakistan

There is a certain degree of mistrust engulfing Pakistan cricket, and its lack of recent success has further added fuel to the fire. Try and draw a sketch of the individuals battling to stay afloat within the national team set-up — it won’t be pretty. And with South Africa here for their first tour of the country after a long wait of over 13 years, the final picture could be one of the ugliest that you have ever set your eyes on.

Both Misbah-ul-Haq and Waqar Younis were granted stay of execution by the barest of margins when the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB)’s Cricket Committee met for the first time under its new chairman Saleem Yousuf, that daring wicket-keeper/batsman of the Imran Khan playing era. It would obviously have been absurd if both the head coach and bowling coach had been shown the door barely three days before the South Africans were boarding the flight from Johannesburg to Karachi.

Affectionately known as ‘Tiger’, Saleem acknowledged the coronavirus pandemic had had a demoralising effect on the team’s performance during the recent tour to New Zealand. Pakistan were no match for the well-oiled home side marshalled by Kane Williamson, who rocketed to the summit of the ICC Test batsmen chart after plundering almost close to 400 runs in the two-match series.

The only semblance of fight felt like a cursory glance when Fawad Alam put an end to the debate surrounding his Test future. With his career on the line, the 35-year-old southpaw stroked one of the most defining centuries in international cricket since the turn of the new millennium. Thanks to the tenacity of Fawad, Pakistan were not disgraced by the 101-run defeat in the first Test at Mount Maunganui. But Christchurch’s thrashing by an innings and 176 runs shattered them completely.

Just after being retained for the two Tests and three Twenty20 Internationals against South Africa, Misbah had sounded remorseful as well as complaining. “I don’t mind if there is scrutiny. But obviously there shouldn’t be [any] communication gap. We need confidence and continuity with clarity … improvement takes time and you can’t be overly reactive with it. We have young players and haven’t got experience in the side, which is why it is taking time to get favourable results.”

Given his docile personality in general, Misbah has often been considered too soft for the demanding role of head coach, while his dual positions — he was also the chief selector simultaneously — was an experiment that always looked questionable and bound to yield disastrous results. Take a look at Misbah’s CV as head coach prior to the upcoming fixtures against the Proteas. He has managed only two wins — against fellow strugglers Sri Lanka and Bangladesh on home soil — and lost half of his 10 Tests in charge. He’s fared better in One-Day Internationals (ODIs), where he has guided Pakistan to four victories and one loss in five.

Despite the demoralisation of the Pakistan cricket team after the New Zealand tour, and the threats from the bio-secure bubble for South Africa, the upcoming home series between the two sides could produce some memorable cricket

Pakistan’s preparations for the rescheduled Twenty20 World Cup — now to be hosted by India in October/November this year — have also been a mixed bag under Misbah. In the shortest format, they have lost eight games and won only seven. Winning certainly makes a huge difference anywhere, since this habit sends out positive vibes in every imaginable direction, particularly in our country, whereas sentiments are often expressed with a pinch of volatility when national heroes don’t come up to the expectations of their diehard fans.

The tale of woe in the New Zealand Tests was bound to lead to a major surgery of the Pakistan team. New chief selector Mohammad Wasim carried out the operation as expected, although some — like former chairman of the national selection committee Inzamam-ul-Haq — did take issue with many of Wasim’s picks. Inzamam had perhaps been riled at the non-inclusion of his nephew Imam-ul-Haq who, like captain Babar Azam, had been sidelined with injury before the start of the series in New Zealand and had been forced to return home.

Of course it’s too early to predict how well the incoming chief selector will be vindicated by the wholesale chopping and changing of the Pakistan squad. But one factor that must be highlighted as well as appreciated is that there is a noticeable change in the general mindset — one can sense a newfound respect for domestic competitions and the establishment of a rewards system for the season’s top performers. This element was glaringly missing in the past and, because of it, some of the selections were often labelled with derogatory words such as ‘nepotism’, favouritism’ and what not.

It remains to be seen how many of the newcomers from Pakistan are ready to make their mark during their transition into international cricket. The onus is now on the likes of Saud Shakeel, Kamran Ghulam, Imran Butt, Abdullah Shafiq, Sajid Khan, Nauman Ali, Tabish Khan, Salman Ali Agha and Haris Rauf, to grab the chances coming their way and to justify the faith reposed in them. Moreover, none of these players should feel disappointed if they are declared unwanted when the squad is trimmed to 16. Getting into the initial 20 should be encouragement enough.

Still, the scenario these days offers challenges of a different nature and cricket itself often takes a back seat. Quinton de Kock, the 28-year-old South African captain, made it clear during his arrival media conference that life in the bio-secure bubble would be a bigger threat to his side than taking on Pakistan.

“This [Covid-19] pandemic has definitely affected everybody with some suffering both mentally and emotionally. But we are delighted to be the first side from South Africa to play in Pakistan after so many years. Unfortunately, the bio-secure bubble environment has taken precedence over everything else,” De Kock said.

“The conditions here are much different than we have back home in South Africa. But we are preparing as well as we can be for the Pakistan challenge. I still think Pakistan are a strong side in their own conditions. What happened in New Zealand means nothing because they [Pakistan] are not the first country to struggle there in recent times. We too suffered in New Zealand.

“We mustn’t overlook the fact that Babar [Azam] was injured in New Zealand and Pakistan had to play without their best player. He is a world-class performer. We also know the Pakistan team has a new-look about it. We won’t be considering them pushovers, particularly in home conditions.”

De Kock also indicated South Africa have been going on overdrive during their time in the nets. “We are prepared for a spin trial on the slow pitches here. The guys are getting used to playing on the turning tracks during the practice session we have had in the lead up to the first Test here in Karachi. Obviously, we have not seen Sajid Khan and Nauman Ali as yet. But whichever side Pakistan play with, we can’t think of being complacent, because we know how good Babar is.”

Low on confidence in the aftermath of the New Zealand tour, Pakistan surely have nothing to lose in the upcoming South Africa Tests, while history also suggests that the home side have to perform nothing short of a miracle. South Africa have been here thrice on Test tours and won two of these series in 1997 and 2007, under Hansie Cronje and Graeme Smith respectively.

Incidentally, another piece of cricketing history will be made when the celebrated Aleem Dar — who has supervised a world-record 132 Tests as an ICC Elite panel umpire — finally gets his first opportunity to officiate in a Test involving his own country.

At the end of it all, at least one aspect needs to be appreciated by all and sundry — the arrival of a major cricket side to Pakistan is a story in itself, at a time when countries are reluctantly undertaking tours for fear of spending time in quarantine.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 24th, 2021

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