OUTSIDE EDGE: WHITE BALL PRINCES, RED BALL DUNCES

Published March 26, 2023
Multan Sultan’s pacer Ihsanullah celebrates with teammates after another wicket during the PSL 8
Multan Sultan’s pacer Ihsanullah celebrates with teammates after another wicket during the PSL 8

With another massively successful Pakistan Super League (PSL) in the books, the contrast between our white ball and red ball fortunes could not be starker.

In the white corner, we have back-to-back semi-final and final appearances in the last two T20 World Cups, another final appearance in the last Asia Cup, a tri-series win in New Zealand, a ridiculously high win rate in bilaterals, and the ultimate jewel in our crown, the PSL.

The PSL: a world-class league that unearths talent every year, makes much needed money and pays much needed taxes, advertises Pakistan, and is arguably the only thing in the country that is smoothly and successfully done at scale. Put it this way: if the rest of the country ran like the PSL, we wouldn’t need to beg the IMF for handouts.

Meanwhile, in the red corner, we have, uh, literally the worst season in Pakistan’s history as a Test nation.

Not winning a single Test out of eight matches against three teams that hadn’t visited Pakistan since the turn of the century was… really not great. Throwing away the opportunity to reach the World Test Championship (WTC) final, kindly bequeathed by the scheduling gods — who gave us entirely winnable away series in this cycle (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, West Indies) and ensured that each of our tough series (Australia, England) fell at home — was an utter disaster.

Rare is the country that is a dominant powerhouse in one type of cricket and a total unmitigated joke in another

Some countries are good at cricket (Australia, England, India) and some countries are not so good (Zimbabwe, Netherlands), and some countries are in the middle (Sri Lanka, New Zealand). But rare is the country that is a dominant powerhouse in one type of cricket and a total unmitigated joke in another. But that’s us. White ball princes, red ball dunces.

How and why did we get here?

Let’s start big, at the structural level. Since the financial and governance takeover of world cricket by the Big 3, countries not named Australia, India, or England have found their Test schedules shrunk beyond recognition. Today, almost every series not involving one of the Big 3 is a two-Test series. Recently, big names from West Indies to South Africa to Sri Lanka have complained about the paucity of Tests on their schedule.

In terms of cricket finances, Pakistan is not as badly off as those other sides, but not as well off as the Big 3. We could, in theory, schedule slightly more Tests than we currently have on the books, while still favouring more lucrative white ball games and remaining starved of marquee four- and five-Test series.

But the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has chosen in recent times to not prioritise Test cricket; this year, we go from playing New Zealand in January, take a half year off, play two Tests in Sri Lanka in the summer, take another half year off, and then walk into the cauldron that is Australia, having gone 0-0-14 in our last 14 Tests there.

Does anyone think such a start-and-stop schedule is conducive to success? Without playing consistently, there is no way to catch a rhythm, iron out technical kinks, or fully lay into a rich vein of form.

Over and above global trends, the shambolic organisation of our first class structure is also a major factor. In any given year, the PCB may change the system from departmental teams to regions, or vice versa. It may expand or contract the number of teams with little warning. A new chief may come in and fundamentally change the character of pitches (cough, Rambo, cough).

And for those players on the cusp but not quite the finished product, there is no “bridge” as such; no red ball analogue to the PSL or other franchise leagues, such as A-team tours, which facilitate the development of a 18-22 year-old from “this guy looks good” to “this guy is winning us games.”

The difference in our respective talent pools in white and red ball cricket is genuinely astonishing. With the former, we are spoiled for choice, with almost two really good players competing for each spot. Good luck picking two out of Babar, Rizwan, Fakhar, Haris, Saim and Shafiq to open if everyone is fit and firing.

Similarly, our fast bowling stocks in the short form are deep: Shaheen, Haris, Naseem, Wasim, Hasnain and Dahani, along with young pups like Ihsanullah — the breakout star of PSL8 — mean we will always have three 145+ bowlers to make an attack. Depending on conditions, we may have to pick only one of Shadab, Nawaz and Imad, each of whom is top class.

The contrast with our red ball prospects is telling, and especially keen when talking about bowlers. Yasir Shah’s decline, and the inability to find someone to do even half the job he did, has left a big hole. Any team interested in winning Tests consistently needs a very good spinner, and preferably two or three to rotate, depending on conditions and opposition, but we have none at the moment. Let’s see how Abrar gets on, but for now he is too young to build an attack around.

As for pace bowling, the overplayed cliché is that Pakistan is a factory for fast bowlers. When it comes to white ball cricket, this is actually true. But in the highest form of the game? Not exactly.

The last fast bowler this supposed factory produced that took even 200 Test wickets was Waqar Younis, who made his debut 35 years ago. As the Tests against England and New Zealand showed, we are reliant on Shaheen’s fitness and form to an almost comical degree; without him, our pace attack is essentially indistinguishable from Bangladesh’s.

Finally, there’s the idiosyncratic factors: selection, captaincy and pitches. Even by our standards, this past WTC cycle saw some of the most brain-dead head-scratchers I’ve seen in a while.

Dropping Hasan Ali from the Test team on the basis of his white ball form, when he had made both the ICC and Cricinfo Test teams of the year in 2021, was criminal. Faheem Ashraf, arguably our Test side’s most important cricketer for 18 months, was mysteriously dropped from the XI, and then the squad.

Fawad Alam looked clueless against the high pace of Starc and Cummins but remained a genius against spin, so of course we dropped him when we went to Sri Lanka. We drafted Zahid Mahmood at the expense of Abrar, courtesy the genius logic that Zahid had been a member of the squad for longer and therefore Abrar couldn’t jump a spot in line.

As for captaincy, one must proceed with caution: Babar attracts so much idiotic criticism that I am very hesitant to pour fuel on the fire by giving him flak for anything. But it must be said that he’s a below-average Test captain: he doesn’t read the game well, his instincts in the field are poor, and his tactics unimaginative. While his white ball captaincy has improved considerably in the last two years, we don’t play enough Test cricket for someone to (very slowly) learn tactics on the job.

And then there’s the pitches. Take a bow, Rambo, take a bow. You managed to take the fun out of Australia visiting after 25 years. You somehow made Bazball look boring. You, singularly, were responsible for approximately 800,000 lame “Pakistani road” jokes and put-downs on Twitter and Reddit. You reduced an attack that out-bowled Rabada, Nortje and Ngidi in the same conditions, 12-18 months ago, to an insipid and toothless nothingness.

Congrats, and a million thank yous. Really hope the door didn’t hit you on the way out, buddy.

The writer is an assistant professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in the US. He tweets @ahsanib

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 26th, 2023

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