Making sense of Pakistan’s self-destruction at T20 World Cup

Published June 10, 2024
Pakistani cricket fans react as they watch the cricket match between India v Pakistan in the ICC T20 World Cup 2024 in New York — Reuters
Pakistani cricket fans react as they watch the cricket match between India v Pakistan in the ICC T20 World Cup 2024 in New York — Reuters

The situation was that Pakistan needed 40 off 36 with seven wickets in hand. The runs required should never have been more than the number of balls remaining but that’s where the match stood. Mohammad Rizwan had been scratchy but the fact that he was still there gave assurance to Pakistan’s dressing room. That’s when Rohit Sharma threw the ball to Jasprit Bumrah, who jogged in, got into his stride, whipped the ball into Rizwan’s stumps and ran off in celebration.

Rizwan dropped on his back knee, realising that the ball was a bit fuller to execute his trademark pick-up shot. He trudged back to the pavilion. When he had entered the field earlier, Pakistan had to chase 120 — exactly run-a-ball. When he left, the require run rate had shot up to seven and a half with the ball old and soft and Bumrah at the peak of his powers.

Pakistan needed luck to go into their favour. Much had been said and written about the dodgy drop-in pitches of the New York stadium in the lead-up to this contest. Pakistan, before their arrival to play India, had never been at the venue. But, they knew, and the billions of cricket followers around the world knew, that they had the resources to make use of those conditions.

With an early morning start and rain expected, Pakistan needed some good fortune and they got it, when the coin, at the toss, fell how Babar Azam wanted it to. Aptly, under dark grey skies, he elected to bowl. After all, he had four fearsome fast bowlers to wreak havoc on a surface that offered exaggerated bounce, pace, and movement.

That this square had historically produced uneven bounce was another advantage for Pakistan, whose pacers could bowl fast from high release points.

The Pakistan fast bowlers came out strong and tore apart India’s top order. Following a gutsy innings from Risbah Pant and a solid support act from Axar Patel, Pakistan also ran through India’s middle and lower orders. In fact, India were bowled out with an entire over to spare. The four pacers shared nine wickets between them. Job done, right? There is no way they can lose from here?

Well …

By the time Indian innings had finished, the New York stadium and its pitch had basked under the sun for almost an hour — good enough to dry out the moisture and tilt the balance in the favour of batters.

Pakistan had a perfect start. Rizwan drove Arshdeep Singh through the covers and ran three. Babar played one through the covers for three more. Both batters had timed the ball to perfection — exactly what they and Pakistan needed.

What should have followed was Pakistan’s utter domination of the Indian bowlers. After all, it was the world’s best T20I opening pair that had got that start.

However, the Indian pacers dragged their lengths back from the next over and it resulted in a few plays and misses and some edges. That’s when panic crept in.

After starting with nine off the first six balls, RizBar accumulated only 12 off the next 18. Babar fell to Bumrah, trying to dab one to the third man despite a slip in place, and Pakistan’s powerplay ended at 35 for one.

Powerplays present a unique opportunity for the batting sides to gather heaps of runs as that is when the conditions are most favourable for run scoring.

Australia defeated England on Saturday after scoring the first 200-plus score of the tournament. That they were able to do so on a tacky Kennington Oval pitch in Barbados that stayed low and spun from the first over was because of a belligerent opening stand between David Warner — who, by the way, was bowled out on the one that kept low — and Travis Head. Out of the 201 that they ended up posting, 72 had been scored in the powerplay.

On Sunday, despite batting in adverse conditions and losing both the openers, India, finished the powerplay 15 runs better than Pakistan, probably having contemplated the tricks the older ball would do on this surface. And, the older ball did do it tricks when India collapsed from 89 for three to 119 all out.

But Pakistan, over the years, have had a template that they stubbornly follow: start cautious in powerplay, build in the middle overs, and leave the slugfest for the death overs. There were promises to let go of it when they suffered a humiliating loss to Ireland on their way to the US. They had even separated RizBar in search of flair at the top.

When the pair came together for the first time this year, just one match out of the T20 World Cup, against England at The Oval, Pakistan put themselves on course towards a recline towards the template.

Such is the insistence on preferring conservative, risk-averse batting that despite the knowledge and evidence of how crucial run accumulation in the powerplay was, Pakistan were comfortable to leave the runs for the last phase when the conditions for batting would have become quite adverse.

Earlier, Pant had laid a perfect template with an audacious 42 off 31. Despite false shots, the left-handed batter continued to attack to gather as many runs when the ball was hard.

With 40 needed off 35 now and an experienced, albeit underperforming, middle order, comprising Imad Wasim, Shadab Khan, and Iftikhar Ahmed, intact, one would have expected Pakistan to pull it off. After all, a contemporary T20 batter is innovative and courageous. He has a scoring shot for each possible ball.

But Pakistan seemed to have time travelled into the late 20th century as the middle order relinquished ramps, scoops, and other modern day shots. It was not until Naseem Shah’s scoop off Arshdeep Singh on the fourth ball of the last over that Pakistan improvised.

Imad, brought into this side for his T20 prowess for only this World Cup, seemed fixated on square cuts. He would bring his bat late against Patel and Indian pacers — perhaps, because he was still recovering from the side strain.

Meanwhile, Iftikhar Ahmed failed to capitalise on Bumrah’s hit-me full tosses. And Shadab, in a tribute to Pakistan’s long-standing short ball woes, was undone by a Hardik Pandya bouncer. The three combining for mere 24 off 39.

It has been a chaotic year for Pakistan cricket. The changes in the board had translated into changes in the team and leadership. There had been experiments and excessive player rotations with the ‘single point agenda of bringing the trophy home’ as the incumbent chairman would say.

But those experiments and rotations have resulted in lack of role clarity and vision for the players. Teams around the world make use of the bilateral series/fixtures closer to the World Cup to dry run the already laid plans and pre-empt the challenges they might face.

Take Ireland, who Pakistan are scheduled to face in their last group match. When Pakistan were playing them last month, they rested captain Paul Stirling to provide Lorcan Tucker, their designated stand-in captain, an opportunity to put his leadership skills to test, in case he is required to fill in Stirling’s shoes in the World Cup.

Pakistan, on the other hand, despite stating their ambitions of targeting high scores, when batting first, opted to chase in that match. They would do the same again in England.

Visualisation is one of the stronger preparation methods. It provides clarity of thought of how to react in what situations that a player or team may encounter during a match. When India prepared for the inaugural edition of the T20 World Cup, their bowling coach Venkatesh Prasad did away with the friendly football warm-up games before training sessions after reading the tournament’s playing conditions. When Bowl Out used to be the tie-breaker, he introduced batters versus bowlers Bowl Out competitions as warm-up drills.

When the moment arrived at the biggest stage, India hit thrice. Pakistan did not hit even once.

Pakistan’s coaching staff has been put together haphazardly over the last few months. Their head coach Gary Kirsten only joined the team two weeks out of the T20 World Cup. The fielding coach and mental conditioning coaches joined the team in England, and Azhar Mahmood, the all-format assistant coach, began his work in April.

These coaches could not have tinkered much in the lead up to this tournament. There simply was not enough time to cover all the bases and it showed when Pakistan came out to chase 19 in the Super Over against USA.

It would be expected of a team, playing a T20 World Cup, to have their Super Over batters and bowler designated. But, Pakistan were all over the place when they had to play one against USA. They put Iftikhar Ahmed, a right-hander, on strike against a left-arm fast bowler, despite left-handed Fakhar Zaman, who, by the way, is also one of the best hitters in the team, at the non-striker’s end. Fakhar would not face a single ball and Pakistan would lose the Super Over by seven runs.

Pakistan had never been to Nassau County International Cricket Stadium before. Their first-ever visit to the stadium was when they arrived to play India. Their first exposure to the drop-in pitches was less than 24 hours before the match when they practised at the nearby training facility.

In tournaments as big as a World Cup, competitive advantage can play a huge role in the outcomes. Boards open coffers for their teams so they can acclimatise to gain that competitive advantage. But, the Pakistan Cricket Board did none of that.

As is the practice, during the planning stages of the World Cup, the ICC and home board(s) share tentative itineraries with the participating sides well in advance for deliberations. The itineraries are thoroughly debated by the boards of the participating teams.

The schedule for this T20 World Cup was announced on January 5 and when these deliberations had to take place, the then administration — a rather ad-hoc management committee — was busy in either firefighting self-inflicted PR disasters or finding ways to circumvent the board’s constitution to have an unqualified person elected as the chairperson. Well aware that that committee would have ran its course by the time this tournament would begin, perhaps, it never came on the agenda.

Thus, Pakistan prepared for a tournament, expected to be played on tricky, low-scoring surfaces, on flat, high scoring pitches in Ireland and England. For the biggest and most challenging contest of the year, they practiced on the drop-in wickets only once in the nearby facility with the actual stadium out of bounds.

It has turned out to be a horrendous T20 World Cup for Pakistan. They still have an outside chance of making it to the Super Eights. They need to win all their matches and USA to lose all theirs while maintaining a favourable net run rate. They have a knack of springing surprises and many in the Pakistan cricket fraternity will hope that one such is around the corner.

But until inherent on and off the field issues are resolved, this trend of hoping against hope, of whose conversion rate is not that high, will continue to hold.

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