Analysis: For underwhelming Pakistan, World Cup of regrets ends

Published November 12, 2023
Pakistan’s Haris Rauf (C) celebrates with teammates after taking the wicket of England’s Jonny Bairstow during the 2023 ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup one-day international (ODI) match between England and Pakistan at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata on November 11, 2023. — AFP
Pakistan’s Haris Rauf (C) celebrates with teammates after taking the wicket of England’s Jonny Bairstow during the 2023 ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup one-day international (ODI) match between England and Pakistan at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata on November 11, 2023. — AFP

THERE was no miracle of Kolkata. No cornered tigers fairytale. Instead, Pakistan, who had played themselves into a corner in the 2023 World Cup, were effectively eliminated at the toss. Babar Azam called incorrectly, and the rest was thundering anti-climax.

Pakistan had nothing to play for and the conditions fav­o­u­red the team batting first. Eng­land were re-emerging from their slu­mp, with Ben Stokes to the fore, and fielded a better spin attack than Pak­is­tan — something that was once unimaginable. Eng­land were competent, nothing more. Pakistan were under-mot­i­vated and underwhelming.

The hundred overs that followed will be quickly forgotten, other than they smoothed England’s qualification for the Champi­ons Trophy in 2025. Since Pakistan are scheduled to host, the tournament will be more compelling for England’s involvement.

Pakistan will regret their limp performance against Afghanistan, their no show against India, and the way they didn’t make the best of their squad. But Pakistan would have still got through had the final umpire’s call against South Africa gone in their favour. It didn’t — and Team Pakistan didn’t do enough to render these minor details irrelevant. This was one of Pakistan’s poorest World Cup campaigns.

The greatest regret is that Pakistan didn’t progress, to a second meeting with India, to mount a more serious challenge in India’s tournament that was engineered against them. From the difficulties Pakistan’s fans and journalists faced in obtaining visas and travelling, to the way the players were confined to their hotels and unacceptably abused at the Narendra Modi Stadium, Pakistan were treated like second class citizens at an ICC event.

India’s long game has been the political marginalisation of Pakistan cricket, and a successful tournament for Pakistan would not have aligned with Modi’s agenda, stage-managed to smooth his re-election. India’s control of the world game was laid bare in this tournament. If only Pakistan had been capable of delivering a worthy rebuke on the cricket pitch.

It isn’t worth reading too much into Pakistan’s defeat to England in a dead rubber, except that several of Pakistan’s tournament failings were exposed again, the failings that were glossed over by Pakistan’s recent flattering success before the World Cup and their obsession with T20 cricket.

The list of grievances has been well discussed. It begins with a loss of Shaheen Shah Afridi’s potency at the start of an opposition’s innings, and the absence of a reliable opening partner; Haris Rauf leaking runs; a lack of control and threat in the middle overs, without the option of international quality spin bowling.

It continues with a general inability of the batsmen to dominate, shown most clearly when Fakhar Zaman did dominate; the batsmen, and Babar in particular, failing to build on good starts; and the lower middle order being ill-equipped to rescue or finish off an innings.

The tournament was a humbling one for Babar. It was a time to cement his status as one of the world’s leading batsmen, and to silence doubts about his ability to deliver when it matters. Babar leaves India with those doubts echoing loudly in his head. Virat Kohli has shown again how to rise to the moment.

Pakistan were once one of the great sides of one-day international cricket, but it would only be delusional to believe that anymore. Despite a brief spell as the world’s highest ranked team, Pakistan are distinctly in the chasing pack when each nation brings its A-game.

The facts speak for themselves: one World Cup semi-final appearance in the last six tournaments for a nation that once viewed World Cup semi-finals as a birth right. Even the sporadic brilliance that Pakistan cricket is known for has become more sporadic and less brilliant.

Pakistan cricket isn’t short of talent, but it continues to fail in successful player development, fair selection, and optimal match strategy. These are the result of constant changes in governance, administration, and team management.

The short-termism in how the game is run translates into short-termism in how the game is executed on the pitch. The politicians and administrators of Pakistan are as much, if not more, responsible for this run of failures as the cricketers.

Modern fifty overs cricket, to put it simply, is best played as an extended T20 by the batters and a condensed Test match by the bowlers. Pakistan do the exact opposite. Most of the batters are playing a more urgent version of Test cricket, and the bowlers are stuck in T20 mode. The fielders struggle in all formats.

On the team itself, Pakistan have much to reconsider: a batting order capable of playing an extended T20; more new ball options; a revival of world class spin bowling; and deep thought on the coaching, captaincy, and squad development for each format.

Babar, the leader, looks worn and out of ideas. His mainstays didn’t deliver. Mohammad Rizwan has lost his edge by being overplayed. Haris is a bowler without a clear sense of where to bowl except at the death. Imam-ul Haq, Iftikhar Ahmed, Hassan Ali, and even Shadab Khan may have passed their sell-by dates in this format. Mohammad Nawaz isn’t convincing at international level.

From this eleven, Afridi and Fakhar are players to build the team around. Abdullah Shafique and Mohammad Wasim are talents to nurture. And the amount of cricket that Babar, Afridi, and Rizwan play must be carefully managed.

An overhaul must start now to prepare for the 2027 World Cup in South Africa, with the 2025 Champions Trophy as an important staging post. It would be a mistake to still rely on this shallow pool of players for fear of a bad showing in the home tournament.

Something needs to change. Pakistan’s fans and, yes, the cricketers deserve better. Pakistan cricket is at its best when a varied world class bowling attack is backed by daring batting. New Zealand is a country of 5 million people. England 60 million. Neither of those countries prioritises cricket in the way Pakistan’s 200 million population does, yet the robustness of their cricket structure compensates.

India has shown what matching the strength of the national cricket structure with the strength of the national passion can achieve. It is a World Cup that India’s cricketers deserve to win, but Modi and his political cronies deserve to lose. Pakistan, in the end, probably deserved what they got: a tournament of regrets.

Published in Dawn, November 12th, 2023

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