Why play it safe?

Feb 19 2013

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Misbah has to shun his ‘safety first’ approach if Pakistan are to challenge top teams. -Photo by AFP

The age-old concept of ‘occupying the crease’ is drilled into the minds of young cricketers from the moment they first pick up a bat. In Test matches, in particular, this approach brings great rewards. However, the purpose of staying at the crease is to score runs and the rules of cricket are clear; the team that makes the most runs wins.

It seems though that Pakistan’s team management is at odds with those rules as was evident from the results of the first two Test matches against South Africa. It was the continuation of the same trend that the management introduced in UAE over the last two years; the trend of trying to blunt down the opposition by staying at the wicket and scoring runs as an afterthought.

Pakistan was lucky that the wizardry of the spin twins Saeed Ajmal and Abdul Rehman camouflaged this weakness against England last year; however, in South African conditions scoring at three runs per over was a bare minimum yet it seemed no one was paying attention!

The world-class bowling attack of the hosts was never taken on by Pakistan in either Johannesburg or Cape Town, and whilst the tourists were blown away in the opening innings at the Bullring, their lukewarm approach cost them the opportunity of squaring the series at Newlands.

The first innings total of 338 was compiled at a run rate of 2.9 runs per over, while the second innings score of 169 was mustered at a yawning rate of 2.3 runs to the over.

The Pakistani batsmen allowed the likes of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander to keep a tight leash on them by remaining stroke-less, even a Morkel-less attack on day four saw Misbah-ul-Haq’s men collect a mere 57 runs in the opening session of the day and there was a loss of five wickets in the process which sealed the game.

Just imagine the outcome if Misbah and Azhar Ali batted a tad more sensibly and scored 40-50 runs more by mere rotation of strike and the odd boundary during their stay at the wicket which lasted nearly 36 overs for a paltry 69 runs.

They were buckled down for no apparent reason before Misbah gifted his wicket to Robin Peterson with the most ill-timed sweep shot ever.

The rest of the batting line-up failed to offer any resistance, a sight we are all used to now, and the second new ball the greatest threat to the Pakistani batsmen rested peacefully, unused in the ball box.

On the contrary, the hosts chased down the tricky 182-run target in a mere 43.1 overs, scoring at 4.2 runs per over despite the threat of Ajmal who was wheeling away at one end.

They realized very quickly that they had to be positive and aggressive in their approach otherwise Ajmal would have made the chase an insurmountable one.

Graeme Smith, his men and the outstanding coach Gary Kirsten devised a strategy mid-way in the match; Ajmal was to be handled with care while the rest were to be taken for runs. In the second innings, Umar Gul, Mohammad Hafeez and the listless Tanvir Ahmed all conceded more than five runs to the over, and the momentum was never given away despite the loss of six wickets.

While Misbah has done good things for Pakistan cricket since taking over in late 2010, the tour of South Africa was his ultimate challenge. It is extremely disappointing to note that his defensive mindset cost the tourists a real opportunity of winning the Cape Town Test.

The ‘safety first’ method had been his trademark and for some reason he believed that a tame approach would take his team through against the rampaging Proteas.

What irks more is the presence of Dav Whatmore as Pakistan’s coach. Whatmore was renowned for his out-of-the-box tactics especially in the 1996 World Cup when the pinch-hitting strategy of Sanath Jayasuria and Romesh Kaluwithrana won the Sri Lankans their sole World Cup title to date.

Now he seems clueless, the innovative coach of the past has taken a back seat and it is evident that he is ‘hoping’ rather than planning for results to go Pakistan’s way.

The series is gone and the prospects of a whitewash loom. Misbah and his team would have to come out of their shells and go all guns blazing if they are to restore their pride in Centurion’s third and final Test.

The performance of Younis Khan, Asad Shafiq and the brilliance of Ajmal has proven that Misbah has match winners in his team – all he needs to do now is coerce them, make them fight together and make them believe that they can restore some semblance of parity.

A win in the third Test is a possibility with the right attitude but to realize that, the dour and defensive mindset has to be surpassed.