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The dangers of a winning formula

February 24, 2012

Is it perverse that a close win in a good game makes me dwell on defeat? I can’t seem to get my mind off those four ODIs sandwiched between the test and T20 series. Those four straight losses. That hurt didn’t it?

Is it ungrateful to quibble over a few soon-to-be-forgotten ODIs (a dying format some would say) in the broader scheme of things? We already wiped out the best test side in the world against a mountain of odds and circumstances stacked against us, so wouldn't it be a little overcritical to draw attention to the subsequent failings? Surely our boys deserve some respite given the monumental achievements over the last month or so (if not the last 12).

At the risk of being cynical though, victory can breed complacency and the particular quirk with Pakistan is that our defeats seem to perpetuate this complacency. After a while defeat, or at least its causes, become a habit you learn to live with and when victory finally does arrive it drowns the pain you’ve been suppressing. The same old faults keep getting papered over by our familiar strengths so that there is no aggregate improvement from one series to the next. Three tests won here, four ODIs lost there, but hey we ended on a high, so what does it matter? Our bowling will still be good enough to pull us through, right? Probably win us the odd sensational away win against Australia or South Africa. Get us to the semi-finals of the World Cup. But what then? What happened to the rest of those series? What happened at Mohali?

This isn’t about being ungrateful. It's about having a legitimate expectation. It's about accrued development and not blowing away momentum. It's about identifying mistakes and weaknesses which were apparent even in the recently concluded tests series but were concealed by Ajmal and Rehman’s excellence. And most of all because, yeah, it hurts every time it happens.

When you have a team which is as good as Pakistan in a particular department, a reliance on your strengths can become counterproductive. Stocking the team with slow bowlers was the management’s game plan and it fell flat. What would have been even worse was if we had actually drawn the ODI series and this was interpreted as a vindication of that one-dimensional strategy. Such a strategy is partly to blame for the survival of Shoaib Malik.

Currently, there is no value added by Malik to the limited overs squad. Hafeez is a better bowler and it’s arguable that Hammad Azam could have scored at least the same runs Malik has scored, given the number of opportunities Malik has been the recipient of. But yesterday’s victory, attributable completely to the bowlers, will add some superficial gloss to Malik’s innings and serve to call attention away from the fact that he is completely pointless as a middle-order batsman.

This is the danger with settling on a winning formula and waiting for it to pay dividends. Its indiscriminate application in every setting dulls you to its inherent weaknesses which are never addressed due to the overall vindication success brings. For example, Misbah’s recreation of the test team in ODI colours was just plain stupid. At one point you feared he might beseech the umpires to break the game into four innings for a more rigorous application of his doctrine.

Azhar Ali is a very good batsman but there is no place for him in the 11 if you are going to play a potentially stodgy middle order featuring Misbah, Younis and Malik. We don’t need more than one anchor. Azhar is certainly part of our long term ODI plans but his inclusion in the team necessitates an aggressive batsman balancing him out. Imran Farhat doesn’t fit the bill since his aggression is tenuous and, at times, he doesn’t even qualify as a batsman.

What hurts the most about those four losses is how they could perhaps have been avoided by utilizing the same personnel at our disposal but in different roles and capacities. I firmly believe that, minus a couple of unwanted passengers, this is a very good squad. A world beating one in fact.

Yesterday’s T20 side for example struck a good balance between defence and attack, seam and spin. In fact, shifting this line-up to the ODI sphere, Azhar Ali could walk right in at the expense of Malik’s spot (in which case Younis would have to miss out which is a pity given that he is a better ODI batsman than Misbah). It has already been argued here that Umar Akmal should not come any later than one down. Potentially our best batsman, Umar has been wasting away in the lower middle order for years now and it's about time he was forced to either sink or swim. The luxury of this side is that in case you want an extra finisher as a backup for Afridi you could bring Awais Zia lower in the order and perhaps let Asad Shafiq open the innings, who arguably played our classiest knock in all four ODIs from that position.

The point though is to move away from repetition of a predetermined strategy or mindset for every game. Mind you, adherence to the strategic status quo will certainly bring about a level of success. The question is, are Misbah and co. content with maintaining that level of success. Are we content with merely winning the odd overseas test? Perhaps even drawing a series or two. Are we content with another satisfactory showing at a major ODI tournament? I'm glad to say I'm not because I legitimately expect better from this crop of players. Yet I don't see us breaking the self-imposed glass ceiling of success unless we are willing to admit to ourselves that just being good isn't good enough.

 

Farooq Nomani is a Pakistan-based lawyer who would not represent the PCB due to a conflict of interest. He blogs at whatastupidity.blogspot.com

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.