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Re-scripting the chase

February 16, 2012

Pakistan’s performance against England in the first two one-day internationals (ODIs) in Abu Dhabi has given an opportunity for the “chase demon,” which has caused much pain to the fans and players over the years, to show its detestable face once again. As much joy as a three-nil whitewash of the world’s premier Test side might have brought, it shouldn’t be reason enough to brush aside the shortcomings that the team continues to grapple with in the shorter version of the game.

England are, by no means, a major force in the one-day format – their five-nil thrashing at the hands of India last year, being a good reminder of it. For Pakistan, a side under an admirable new leader, who are trying to become worthy contenders in every version of the game, the defeats and the manner of the defeats, are a bit disturbing but portray an all-too-familiar trend.

With all due respect, apart from the irrepressible Alastair Cook with the bat and Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann (to some extent) with the ball, the English ODI outfit is far from exemplary. Their performance and spirited fight-back in Abu Dhabi after the Test series is commendable, but with the form of both teams and general momentum being carried over from the Test series one cannot blame Misbah-ul-Haq and his men to have been quietly confident of a whitewash prior to the ODI series.

What went wrong then? Is it a mere case of a lax mindset? Overconfidence? Underestimating the opposition? Or is there more to it? A sensible follower would lean towards the latter. Surely, those of us who have followed this team’s ODI fortunes over the last decade or more have become used to such capitulations while chasing modest totals, for that is what scores around 250 are in the modern game. And even though some of us might have resigned ourselves to accept such occurrences as nothing out of the ordinary, none of us (the romantic optimists that most Pakistani fans are) have ever lost hope when a chase of around 250 is on.

(Mohammad )Hafeez will provide a fluent start yaar, and might even score a century. After all, he is a "reformed cricketer" now. Cue: Hafeez plays an across-the-line hoik lobbing it to mid-wicket. Koi nahi Younis (Khan)is there, he will anchor the innings and see us through most definitely. Cue: Younis plays a flick around a straight ball and gets caught on the crease right in front of middle stump for under 10. The stodgers come in, and ensure if nothing else, that the run-rate somehow goes over a run-a-ball and play out most of the middle overs (this is when those in Pakistan start flicking through different channels to see what else is on TV, and those watching abroad at insane hours in the night set an alarm and catch a much-needed nap). You tune back in and it’s invariably four down (on a really bad day probably even six-down) with Misbah at one end and the dashing Umar at the other. Umar Akmal is trying to play his natural game, as best he can with Misbah’s conservative instructions bearing down on him. The required run-rate which had reached an alarming level of eight an over a few overs back seems under control at six-and-a-half thanks to Umar’s exuberance. That flame of hope inside your chest is given a burst of oxygen, as you wonder and rue for the umpteenth time why this kid is coming in as low as number six. Pakistan needs under a hundred by now but a couple of poor overs follow as Misbah hogs most of the strike and fails to rotate often enough. Cue: The required rate reaches eight again, Umar loses his patience and gets caught out to a rash yet perfectly timed shot for a flamboyant 30.

What ever, now the fun begins. (Shahid) Afridi, Faramir-ish with his helmet on, walks out and you get the usual burst of androgenic hormones. Our power-hitter is here now, he will show them. Good he is taking his time and rotating the strike…is what you start tweeting out to the world, while inside that little Pakistani in you is squirming. What is this nonsense from the Pathan!I hate this new Afridi style…come on hit those sixes man, you can finish this in five overs. Unfortunately, Afridi has had enough of it as well. The crowd and chants have proved too much for him as he smacks one over cow corner. Aaaah…that’s better….Crunch!...this one is straight, up and over for a maximum, into the pack of hungry hounds dancing in the stands shouting out for more. Cue: Afridi for some unfathomable reason gets on one knee and swings cross-batted to the leg side, top edge, and that mediocre opposition player who has been getting on your nerves throughout the game gleefully takes the catch. We all know what comes next… Miss-bah (close but no cigar), the solitary Gul raptaa over mid-wicket, Ajmal’s cute little dabs in vain… the script it seems, is so familiar and painful (Mohali) that you wonder why you even bothered to allow yourself to think otherwise.

But this is not the Pakistan of the 90’s and 2000’s. This outfit seems more methodical in its approach, and there is a calm tactfulness about its leader that rightly gives the fan hope that sense shall prevail. It certainly, and most importantly, has in Tests and bowling in general; and there is no reason it shouldn’t while chasing in the fifty-over game. The ODI format has evolved immensely and is a vastly different game from what it was a decade-and-a-half ago. Sadly, the same cannot be said of Pakistan’s tactics while chasing, as they continue to pursue the cobwebbed approach of preserving wickets, aimlessly drifting during the middle of the innings and fantasising to finish big. It is time Pakistan parted ways with this approach from the days of Javed Miandad and Inzamam-ul-Haq, which has mostly brought nothing but failure and a sense of living Ground-Hog Day while chasing anything over 250, and come to terms with the reality of the modern-day ODI game.

They have only to look towards India (who suffered from a similar, probably worse mental block while chasing until the days of Sourav Ganguly) to figure out that fluency through out the innings is key to consistently chasing successfully. Not mistaking this fluency for over-the-top flashy exuberance, as most critics of such change do, but embracing it in a manner that suits the players’ game.

Getting rid of the likes of Shoaib Malik, freeing your most talented batsman (Umar Akmal) of the burdens of keeping, giving him room to breathe by sending him up the order and letting him play his natural game would be a good starting point. Not treating the other promising youth (Asad Shafiq) as the token sacrificial lamb and defining a set role for him in the side as well as adding a batting all-rounder (Hammad) to make the transition from the lower-middle order to the tail smoother, will prove helpful as well.

The major obstacle since the departure of Imran Khan in favour of change and applying innovative approaches has been the lack of strategic leadership. With Misbah in charge that prickly thorn it seems has finally been washed away, and it would almost be unfair to the fans and the team, if revisions are not at least given a shot. Pakistan are pencilled in to play India in the Asia Cup on March 18, let us hope we have learnt our lessons from Mohali, and don’t die wondering if the toss of the coin doesn’t fall our way.

Shoaib Naveed
A cricket nut since Aqib Javed’s bucket hairstyle and Wasim bhai’s poetic action took his fancy, the writer, fit only for a slogger is pretending to be a top-order bat. He blogs here.