WITH two hands, and a hospitable embrace, Pakistan seized the opportunity of a first England tour in 17 years. From the expert organisation to overflowing stands, Pakistan put on its best show. The world was reminded of Pakistan’s status as a major venue on the international cricket circuit — and it felt good.
In our era of hyperbole or hyper criticism, this was an event that lived up to the hype. Indeed, the tour delivered everything that Pakistan cricket could have hoped for — except one essential: progression on the cricket field.
On the face of it, the series was close, but the margin of defeat flattered Pakistan. England were clearly the superior team in all departments. In some areas, Pakistan didn’t even compete. A week after the deciding game in Lahore, a pause for reflection hasn’t changed this analysis.
Experimentation and flexibility are chapters that don’t seem to exist in the Pakistan international cricket manual. Through their willingness to tinker with their approach, to embrace innovation — especially in batting — and adopt a cricketing philosophy that might not sit naturally with their psyche, England emerged stronger from the series and their players grew in stature.
And this wasn’t even England’s best team. Ben Duckett, a player Pakistan often found impossible to bowl to, isn’t even in their World T20 squad. Mark Wood, their most dangerous bowler, was barely used. Jos Buttler, their leader in spirit and most destructive batsman, used the series for rest and recuperation.
But England are a restless team, restless in seeking improvement. Meanwhile, Pakistan play as if they are content with their winning formula and the personnel to deliver it. It’s a strategy set in stone. These are tactics that cannot be deviated from. The contrast between the two teams couldn’t be more stark.
And therein lies Pakistan cricket’s grand challenge. It’s the reason Pakistan are generally a competitive team, and one to be feared when the game is played out around 7 to 8 runs per over. It’s why, as the cricket board chairman argues, their success rate is winning around 80% of games. But when the battle hovers around 10 runs per over that’s usually a stretch too far, a game that Pakistan have not come to play except on rare occasions.
T20 cricket has become all about pushing the limits. The pitches, the balls, and the rules have thrust the game further in the batsman’s favour. T20 cricket is no longer a practised routine of blitzing the power play, ticking over, and then blasting the last few overs. It is now a relentless, brutal, and selfless assault on a huge total.
This is the T20 cricket that England play but Pakistan seem unwilling to adopt. It is the reason why England are the better suited to winning a tournament, since a big total will put the opposition out of Pakistan’s reach.
None of this is a secret. Nor is it alien to Pakistan’s players. The same players who play an uninhibited brand of cricket in the PSL and other leagues become inhibited under the scrutiny of international cricket. Some of that, of course, is the pressure that scrutiny brings and the higher standard of opposition. But much of it is the prevailing and dated mindset that dominates the international team’s approach to T20 cricket.
That has to change. Pakistan cricket, a natural gene pool for aggressive risk-taking T20 cricketers, isn’t meant to play a hesitant and defensive game. The answer you will often hear is that these are the players we have and hence this is our strategy, our method of playing. But the way to think is to decide the strategy first, and then find or develop players to implement it.
The upshot of the England series is that Pakistan learnt almost nothing from the tour. Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan remain the outstanding two batsmen, and rightly so, but the team is too dependent on them. Lesser batsmen might score faster, and Pakistan didn’t even properly experiment with alternatives to their established opening partnership. Your greatest strength can also sometimes be your greatest weakness or your largest blind spot.
The perpetual question about Pakistan’s remaining batsmen remains unresolved. It isn’t just a middle order issue; it’s a problem of top and middle order. It doesn’t matter what run rate you end up with if you’ve terminally affected the team’s chances at the start of your innings.
Each wicket that Pakistan concede is a break to the momentum of the innings, when what’s required is an incessant pursuit of run rate. If that method is against Pakistan’s current tactics and philosophy, then T20 cricket has evolved beyond Pakistan’s strategy.
But the worries don’t end there. Pakistan is a country blessed with traditionally deep bowling resources. Pakistan’s cricket board has developed a cadre of fast bowing talent. Yet only Haris Rauf, aside from injured Shaheen Shah Afridi, is a bowler who understands himself and has mastered his art. The other pacemen don’t appear to be bowling to a plan, or if they are following a plan they can’t execute it consistently; four overs of controlled aggression is all we’re asking. Pakistan’s greatest asset is taking wickets.
That lack of threat extends to Pakistan’s spin bowling. Even in T20 cricket, Pakistan has produced spinners that can wrench the initiative and decide a game. They don’t possess such a bowler now, not even Shadab Khan. Pakistan, then, are a team in need of fresh blood in their middle order, new thinking in their batting approach, desperate for the return of the leader of their pace attack, and short of a world class spinner.
Yet, much of what they possess is good enough to make them competitive in low and moderate scoring games. When the contest becomes a high scoring one, however, Pakistan don’t have the strategy, the tactics, or the personnel to compete. The first two can be changed in a flash with a change in coaching staff — and possibly even a change in captain.
But the final one, the players and skills to deliver the strategy, will take time. And here is where the Pakistan Cricket Board may have left it too late, failed to experiment, and sleepwalked into the World T20 playing cricket from 17 years ago.
To win this year’s World T20, Pakistan will need to take some risks and embrace change; what’s worked in the past isn’t a guarantee of success in the future. International T20 cricket is now the survival of the riskiest. And that risk taking needs to be relentless.
Published in Dawn, October 6th, 2022