CRICKET: ALL TOO FAMILIAR

Published November 19, 2023
Babar Azam failed to impress — both as a batsman and as a captain | AFP
Babar Azam failed to impress — both as a batsman and as a captain | AFP

Pakistan cricket defies the law of change. The dysfunctioning of the cricket board, the frequent changes in chairmanship, the sackings and inconsistent selection and the abysmal performance of the team — all remain the same.

This is the fifth time out of the recent six World Cups that Team Green has failed to reach the last four. So what is the fuss all about? Pakistan was fifth in 2019, fifth this time as well. So what has changed? And if you think something will change, then think again.  

Four years ago, Pakistan failed to reach the semi-finals on net run-rate, and were ousted by New Zealand. This time, too, the Pakistan team met the same fate. The last time, Pakistan needed a tough 308-run win against Bangladesh to qualify for the semis, this time the target was 288, but the opposition was England who were gaining momentum.

Both times, Pakistan failed. So Pakistan successfully maintained its fifth position. From 308 to 288, the progress was of a mere 20 runs. Mickey Arthur was a common factor in both campaigns, a lack of change was the other. Missing intent was the same.

So Pakistan has come up short at the World Cup. But what is so different this time?

Just like in the 2019 World Cup, the most obvious thing to the eye and mind was that the Pakistan team was lagging behind in terms of playing modern-day cricket. While the other teams were scoring in excess of 350, Pakistan managed just two totals of above 330 (345 chased against Sri Lanka and 305 against Australia) in nine matches. That showed Pakistan was not only behind the eight ball but also behind in approach and intent. 

Pakistan had three totals of 300 plus in the 2019 World Cup, which means the scoring has gone down in four years. The playing of a huge number of dot balls by Pakistan’s batters is an old ailment, which also did not change and stopped them from piling big totals. They lacked the vim to score big.

Pakistan’s batting has always been shaky. The fear of failure is ingrained and that prompts them to play half-shots, unlike the batters of other teams who loft a shot with conviction. “Pakistan were timid in batting,” was the honest admission from Mickey after the Indian defeat.

Pakistan relied heavily on Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan, who were below-par in the tournament. Babar managed 320 runs without a century and got out in the same manner, playing half-cocked shots. Abdullah Shafique was one positive, but he has to overcome the fear of failure.

When Fakhar Zaman returned to full fitness, he blasted 126 against New Zealand, with 11 sixes and proved that the management’s decision of not playing him against South Africa was a big mistake. After his innings, he vented his anger by saying, “My injury was not so severe that I could not have played earlier.”

Captaincy is needed 50 percent on the field and as much off it. The Fakhar episode and the lack of support from other players is a harbinger of change in captaincy. Babar seems to have lost favour with not only his teammates, but also with the team management.

Babar has been holding the fort for three years without improving his captaincy. He looks passive while bowlers err, he does not put pressure on the batters by setting aggressive fields, and he waits for the batter to make a mistake and give him a wicket. The worst part is, he opens up the field after a few boundaries. He simply hates to keep a slip fielder and, when there is no one in that corridor, a batter can play his shot, knowing an edge will go through the vacant slip.  

During his three-year tenure, Babar has been accused of selecting his friends.  During the tournament, Shadab Khan suffered a concussion but was never replaced, despite calls to include mystery spinner Abrar Ahmed, a travelling reserve. That rigidity proved the accusation true and the failure showed he had not progressed.

Pakistan’s strongest point was its bowling. It was touted as “red hot pace attack” during the Asia Cup, but a shoulder injury to Naseem Shah took the venom out of it. The “deadly trio” of Shaheen Shah Afridi, Haris Rauf and Naseem was broken and the attack looked like an ordinary one.

Due to the fact that Babar and the previous team management never tried to develop replacements, the workload of fast bowlers was not managed and Naseem not only played the Tests in Sri Lanka, all but one from the seven ODIs Pakistan played and then the Lanka Premier League — all three months before the World Cup.

Naseem’s likely replacements, Ihsanullah and Mohammad Hasnain, were both injured while Zaman Khan, who has a X-factor due to his slinging action, was only selected as a reserve. Shaheen (18) and Rauf (16) did get wickets, but failed to make early impacts in the matches.

Last but not the least, the Pakistan Cricket Board was at fault. But since we had three changes in the PCB chairmanship in the last seven months — Ramiz Raja, Najam Sethi and Zaka Ashraf — the blame should be shared.

Ramiz gave wholesale power to Babar, which in a way was not wrong, but that made the skipper do things at his whim. Sethi brought Mickey Arthur back, this time as team director, but in fear of being sacked for failure or Sethi being replaced, Mickey kept his Derbyshire county job. That hurt Pakistan’s preparations for the World Cup. 

Pakistan started the World Cup with two wins and that start allowed Zaka to attend the India-Pakistan match in Ahmedabad. But as soon as Pakistan’s losing streak started, he issued a press release trying to absolve himself from the debacle. The release, issued just an hour before the all-important South Africa game, stressed that Babar and chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq were given the powers to select the World Cup squad. The Zaka-led management committee is innocent, is what it tried to portray.

The release was unwarranted and untimely. It made matters worse. So what is new? These are not ephemeral problems. The system is faulty. Pakistan has failed to qualify for the semi-finals in five of the last six World Cups. That is a common result.

So what is the solution? Pakistan cricket needs a strong leader, one who should be given a three- to five-year tenure. There should be a proper system. Preparations for every global event must start from a year before, along with a watchful eye.

Performance managers such as Pat Howard (now Ben Oliver) in Australia or Mohammad Bobat (who recently finished his England tenure) should be there to hold the coaches, captain and selectors accountable. The performance manager must stop nepotism and the selection of friends and, after every event/series, sit with the rest to make things better.

International cricket needs Pakistan. But not a poor, meek and outdated Pakistan team. The rebuilding should be in letter and spirit and not in sackings and revenge. For the time being, enjoy the final of the World Cup today.

May the best team win!

The writer is a senior cricket analyst.
X: @hashmi_shahid

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 19th, 2023

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