Babar Azam finds himself facing many questions about his captaincy | Reuters
Babar Azam finds himself facing many questions about his captaincy | Reuters

Winter gloom continues to strike Pakistan all-format captain Babar Azam and his eleven in what has been a forlorn home cricket season, following the Black Caps historic victory in Karachi last week.

The city, not particularly known for its cold weather, managed to turn blue the hopes of the Men in Green aiming to end the season’s final game with a win.

Pakistan lost 2-1 to New Zealand at the National Bank Cricket Arena last Friday, letting yet another visiting side register a historic victory in a span of two months. This was the first time that the Kiwis defeated Team Green on their home soil in a white-ball series.

Despite starting the contest with a successive eight One-Day Internationals (ODI)-run, the hosts failed to clinch the three-match series, courtesy Glenn Phillips’ match-winning knock in the final game.

The right-hander scored an unbeaten 63 off 42 balls to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat after New Zealand were battling at 205 for six, requiring 76 from 71 with just four wickets in hand.

Was it just winter gloom that hit the Babar Azam XI? Or will the Men in Green be shivering during the summer too?

Fakhar Zaman’s century and Mohammad Rizwan’s terrific 77 off 74 went in vain after the visiting side launched its counterattack with fifties from captain Kane Williamson and batsman Devon Conway, who added 75 runs for the second wicket.

Conway, who was the fourth highest scorer in the series, with 153 runs at an average of 51, was honoured as the Player of the Series.

Contrary to fans’ expectations, the long-awaited homecoming of hosting SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) countries was quite harsh on captain Babar, who faced three successive series losses — first against Australia and England in red-ball, and now against New Zealand in limited-overs.

While Babar, the batsman, had a successful run, averaging almost 50 in the ODI series and over 56 in Tests against New Zealand, Babar, the captain, could not save himself from the horrors of the press, who continued to put him on the spot, questioning his captaincy, which led to the undesirable match results.

The 28-year-old seems to be facing the ghosts of crippling authority both on and off the field. Threats loom over Babar’s leadership role and autonomy in decision-making in the wake of the Pakistan Cricket Board’s (PCB) new regime, rumoured to be considering opting for a different captain in each format of the game in the coming future.

The former PCB Chairman Ramiz Raja was ousted from his position before the New Zealand tour began and was replaced by Najam Sethi, the chair of the Board’s newly formed management committee.

The 14-member committee, which is taking interim charge of affairs for 120 days, restored the 2014 Constitution and appointed former star all-rounder Shahid Afridi as the chief selector, while replacing the former cricketer Mohammad Wasim.

Of the many surprising decisions that Afridi took, one that caught everyone’s attention the most was naming Shan Masood the vice-captain of the side in the absence of the injured Shadab Khan.

Several media reports suggested that Masood is the Board’s favourite to replace Babar as the ODI captain. Funnily enough, the left-hander failed to even make it to the playing XI in the first two games. He had also last played an ODI four years ago in 2019.

In all fairness, with Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq and Babar performing consistently, there was clearly no place for Masood at the top. It literally took an injury to Imam for Shan to get a chance in the team in the final ODI. However, his golden duck steered an anti-climactic retort to the off-field tension built up between him and the current skipper.

Babar may tend to under-utilise the resources at hand, but his individual performance as a captain is something even his strongest critics can’t question. While the right-handed batsman averages 59.4 at a strike-rate of 87.1 in ODIs, his numbers rise to an average of 76.5 at a strike-rate of 93.9 as a captain.

However, the split captaincy news, alongside another series loss, had disturbed Babar to an extent that the captain did not even show up to the post-match press conference at the end of the series, presumably to avoid his often-controversial exchanges with a certain journalist group.

While the skipper might be bearing the brunt of the disappointing home season, the unavailability of many first-choice players had also limited his options. Shaheen Shah Afridi was dearly missed when Phillips was busy smashing the pacers for fours and sixes in the series decider.

Shadab Khan, Pakistan’s prime all-rounder and Babar’s deputy, was ruled out of the squad after he had picked up a finger injury in the Big Bash League (BBL). His absence led to Usama Mir receiving a call-up and his maiden ODI cap. While the debutant got two wickets in his first game, Mir could only manage one each in the next two.

The team combination took a major hit when Imam, one of Babar’s closest allies, and fast bowler Naseem Shah also got injured before the final ODI. While the former didn’t score anything big in the first two matches, Shah remained the highest wicket-taker in the series with eight wickets, despite missing the third game.

The backroom politics of the new management, from leaking inside news to journalists, to forcing a certain individual to be played, shows that Babar is under a lot of pressure and his autonomy has already started to fade.

Sethi’s comments regarding hiring foreign coaches also seemed to have dispirited the current coaching staff, whose contracts with the men’s cricket team are about to end soon. Bowling coach Shaun Tait, who was appointed last year in February for a one-year period and head coach Saqlain Mushtaq, whose contract was also renewed for one year in the same month, will complete their services on February 9.

The PCB wanted to bring back Mickey Arthur as head coach, but the deal could not go through as the South African is currently under contract with English county Derbyshire. The Board was also in talks with Andy Flower and Tom Moody, but both have also reportedly turned down the offer, leaving PCB’s quest for a new coach wide open.

From hiring new coaches to considering appointing multiple captains, the PCB would be experimenting with big changes in the same year the 50-over World Cup in scheduled, which could potentially damage Pakistan’s preparation for the big event.

The Men in Green have a jam-packed ODI schedule this year, with series against New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, and also the Asia Cup, all set to take place before the world championship.

These numerous fixtures give Pakistan ample room to test different team combinations and expand their players’ pool for the marquee event.

The writer is a sports journalist and a Fulbright scholar.
She tweets @Brashnaa

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 22nd, 2023

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