The last international cricket season at home was hyped as a ‘bumper season’ because of the number of top teams coming to play in Pakistan. Alas, it turned out to be the season’s version of an annus horribilis.
On the outset, Pakistan missed a precious chance of beating Australia at home. Australia were touring after a gap of 24 years, but the Test series was lost 0-1, purely due to Pakistan’s timid approach. The only good part was a 2-1 series win in the One-Day Internationals (ODIs), while the one-off Twenty20 was lost too.
Pakistan was then whitewashed 0-3 for the first-ever time at home by a vibrant England, followed by two useless draws against a beatable New Zealand team and a 1-2 ODI series loss, again a series that could have been and should have been won.
The season gone by has highlighted some major structural problems in Pakistan cricket, some of them new, some old, some eternal, some ephemeral, some inflicted and some self-imposed.
Last year’s international tours showed that there is something quite rotten in the state of Pakistan cricket. But the real issue is actually systemic problems, which have stymied its progress
MOTHER OF ALL PROBLEMS
Millions in Pakistan take a keen interest in cricket, a sport that provides one of the major entertainments in the country. The head of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) is a well-recognised person. However, it is an unavoidable and sordid fact that, whichever party comes to power, the government appoints its own man, irrespective of his credentials. This practice is eternal.
Even in times when the PCB was the Board of Control for Cricket in Pakistan (BCCP), the appointment was not apolitical. We were duped to believe that a BCCP Council — comprising regional associations’ heads — used to elect the head, but even then the patron — the country’s chief executive — actually had the last say.
This politicking, mainly to get one’s own man at PCB’s helm — although the previous prime minister, Imran Khan, also dethroned two captains, Sarfaraz Ahmed and Azhar Ali, and reshuffled the domestic system — has been damaging the progress of cricket in Pakistan.
The current PCB Chairman Najam Sethi’s predecessor Ehsan Mani did try to put an end to this practice by changing the PCB’s constitution in August 2019 — a fourth change in the PCB’s fundamental principles in 12 years — but the chink remained intact. Any sitting prime minister can initiate an inquiry against the cricket chief on financial grounds.
This is in clear violation of article 2.4 of the International Cricket Council’s (ICC’s) constitution. So, when the former PM Khan was dethroned in April 2022, it was expected that the new rulers would soon instal their own man at the Gaddafi Stadium headquarters of the PCB.
The first signs were the emergence of a picture of a former premier and the former PCB head, both having similar initials of NS, in the same boat — one trying to regain the country’s power, the other of the PCB. The former prime minister Nawaz Sharif promised to float the boat for Najam Sethi.
It was not as if the then incumbent PCB chairman Ramiz Raja was rocking the boat, but change was imminent. Sethi had experience and his biggest achievement was starting the Pakistan Super League (PSL) and gradually bringing international cricket back to Pakistan.
But despite the unqualified support, Sethi appears helpless.
Most of the countries have a board of directors who select the best man as the head of their cricketing operations. England, Australia and New Zealand have that system.
Can we ever have such a system? That remains a quixotic dream in Pakistan. We are not told what wrong Ramiz Raja had done to be removed; neither will we likely be told why Sethi would be removed if the next elections bring the Pakistan Peoples Party or the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf into power.
Invariably, the involvement of the PCB patron is the mother of all problems in Pakistan cricket! It hinders consistency in the process.
THE PATH TO THE SENIOR TEAM
The adjustment path to stabilising a player has been minimal in Pakistan. Under-19 players are lost on the way to the first-class system. If you compare players from Pakistan and India, most of the Indian under-age players go on to make names for themselves. Most of the Pakistani players are derailed.
The second phase is the ‘A’ team. That, too, is badly handled in Pakistan.
The main contribution in Indian players’ rising to the next rung came from the legendary Rahul Dravid, who guided all their youngsters. Pakistan has failed to find a mentor.
India also benefited from the annual ‘A’ tri-series involving Australia and South Africa. As a result, India won two Test series in Australia in 2018 and 2020-21. Pakistan’s ‘A’ team tours are few and far between and, whenever they happen, the teams go to Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Kenya, which benefits the hosts more than us.
Pakistan’s last ‘A’ team tour to Australia was in 2008, while Australia ‘A’ last came calling in 2007. Players of the likes of Umar Akmal, Sarfaraz Ahmed, Azhar Ali, Umar Amin and Mohammad Talha progressed to higher levels from those series.
‘A’ team tours to countries such as Australia and South Africa are paramount. These are two countries where Pakistan have never won a Test series. Pakistan is slated to tour Australia later this year and the result can be pre-judged. Pakistan have lost all previous 14 Tests in Australia, in addition to 12 of the last 13 ODIs.
THE BANE OF PITCHES
The 22-yards piece of land in the middle of the ground plays the most important part in how a match will shape up.
Every country prepares pitches according to its strength. Australia has bouncy and seaming pitches but it also has the Sydney pitch, where spinners get help. South African pitches are like Australia’s. England has seaming pitches.
Seam also rules in New Zealand, where the strong winds also make life hell for the batters. The batters dance to the tune of the spinners in India because it’s their strength. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh also adopt the same spin doctrine to upset teams.
Pakistan had been producing pitches according to its strength in the recent past. A strong South Africa were beaten on a sporting pitch in Karachi and Rawalpindi in 2021 and so were Bangladesh and Sri Lanka earlier.
But come Australia, and we suddenly started to fear our own shadow. To blunt the Australian pace attack — accepted by the then PCB chairman Ramiz Raja in the media — we produced a ‘patha’, a flat batting track in local parlance, at the Rawalpindi Stadium. Then 1,187 runs were scored over five days for just 14 wickets and it ended in the venue getting one demerit point and a below average rating.
The same insipid approach was adopted against England. The pitches have become our Kryptonite.
PHILOSOPHY OF APPROACH
With the advent of T20 cricket, the other two formats have also jazzed up. Out of the top 51 highest scores in ODIs, only one — Sri Lanka’s 398-5 against Kenya in 1996 — came up before the fiery short 20-20 version of cricket came up in 2003. The brevity of the format allowed batters and teams to change their style and philosophy.
England led the way in changing their style of batting. As a conservative batting side, England had failed to qualify for the quarter-finals of the 2015 World Cup. Since the 2015 World Cup, however, England have scored 300 plus totals (batting first) on 35 occasions and only two of their 350 plus totals have come before 2015.
They hold the record of the top three-highest ODI totals … going from 444-3 to 481-6 to 498-4. The result: England won the 2019 World Cup (50 overs) and Twenty20 World Cup in 2022.
Sadly, Pakistan has been very slow to adopt such an aggressive style.
So far, Pakistan has been thriving merely on the skills of its players. Imagine, what could happen if we actually put our systems in order.
The writer is a senior cricket analyst.
He tweets @hashmi_shahid
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 19th, 2023