PAKISTAN are known for their uniquely flamboyant brand of white-ball cricket. They have top-shelf products like Babar Azam, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Fakhar Zaman and Mohammad Rizwan. Yet their fluidity in top-level limited-overs international cricket is getting more and more obvious.

The way Mark Chapman changed gears and made Pakistan completely helpless during the second half of the New Zealand innings in the decisive fifth T20 International at Rawalpindi the other day must have come as an eye-opener for the team’s think-tank.

Conceding a loss at home after posting a healthy 193-5 indeed came as a shock and that too to a second-string New Zealand. Without taking anything away from Chapman’s masterclass, one strongly feels the green-shirts in all probability should have bagged the game after restricting the opponents to 73-4 in around 10 overs.

Defeat in a key match evokes a lot of retrospection by the losing side. But will it actually manifest on the ground?

Interestingly, Rawalpindi was not the first loss in a crucial white-ball match suffered by Pakistan in recent times.

Pakistan, after remaining unbeaten in the 2021 T20 World Cup group stage, lost the semi-final to Australia in Dubai. Babar and his men then suffered a 23-run loss at the hands of a rejuvenated Sri Lankan side in the 2022 T20 Asia Cup final, also staged in Dubai, in September. A month later, there was another heartbreak for the green-shirts who experienced a 67-run rout by England in the series-deciding seventh T20 in Lahore. The Moeen Ali-captained England, despite missing playmakers like Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler, proved too much for Pakistan to handle in their own backyard.

Then came the all-important 2022 T20 World Cup decider, staged at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, in November. Pakistan, who had just sneaked into the semi-finals after a dismal show in the group stage, thrashed New Zealand by seven wickets in Sydney, but wilted under intense pressure against their well-oiled English rivals.

As regards ODIs, one can recall that a largely inexperienced yet solid Glenn Phillips, batting at number seven for New Zealand, tore apart Pakistan bowling with a 42-ball 63 not out in the series-deciding third match in Karachi last January. And though Babar-led Pakistan last year recorded home ODI series wins over Australia and West Indies and swept the Netherlands 3-0 in Rotterdam, losing the series 2-1 to a top-class side like New Zealand after winning the opener was indeed puzzling.

A striking common factor in all the aforementioned white-ball matches is that except for the 2022 T20 World Cup final in Melbourne, all the other games were staged either in Pakistan or Dubai, a UAE venue where the conditions predominantly suit green-shirts.

This makes Pakistan’s white-ball quandary even more complex.

Rizwan and Babar are second and third, respectively, on the ICC T20 batsmen’s rankings while Shaheen is fifth in the bowlers list. Other players like Fakhar, Haris Rauf, Shadab Khan, Naseem Shah, Imad Wasim and Imam-ul-Haq (third in ODI batsmen’s rankings) are highly talented and can upset the opponents on any given day.

But what is the net advantage if these players fail to produce match-winning shows in key white-ball international games?

Giving impressive performance in routine competitions is fine, no doubt, but a team to become world-beaters are naturally expected to lift their game in big contests. Something Pakistan must ponder.

Players’ technical flaws, lack of mental toughness, wrong playing XI or weak leadership… whatever maybe the reasons for Pakistan’s below-par shows in high-profile outings, their think-tank must sort things out sooner than later so that the problems are identified, analysed, worked upon and resolved for long-term benefit of the team.

The country’s dip in big games has mostly been witnessed in T20 Inter­na­tionals. If not addressed in time, one fears this brittleness may permeate into ODIs.

Considering this year’s 50-over World Cup is going to be held in India where the conditions will be close to what prevail in Pakistan which will stage the Asia Cup in September, the player support staff led by recently-appointed team director Mickey Arthur in conjunction with his coaching team and the captain are duly expected to make a critical and comprehensive analysis so that the team is battle ready for cut-throat situations at the continental and global events and beyond.

A timely and genuine fix in this connection will not only put Pakistan cricket back on track but will also enable our teams to earn victories on major occasions.

Published in Dawn, April 28th, 2023

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