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On Trial in Eden

Kamran Wasti

It is strange how Pakistan’s two wins against two of the weakest teams in the tournaments are triggering a change in expectations. In reality, they will only serve to camouflage some of the obvious flaws that are bound to haunt them against South Africa at Auckland in conditions as strange Darth Vader bowling leg-spin with his severed mechanical hand.

The win against UAE at Napier should not count except for the two points that it brought with them; to put things into perspective, when Pakistan bowled on the same wicket a month ago, New Zealand hit 370 and then shot Pakistan out for 250 despite a 100+ opening stand for an easy one-sided win.

Since those four defeats on the New Zealand tour, Pakistan have won the meaningless 15-a-side warm-up games but have been given a sound thrashing in the two important World Cup games. In fact, had it not been for some substandard associate-level UAE bowling backed by equally poor fielding, Pakistan would have been struggling to get to 250 even in this game. The lack in bowling depth was exposed once Irfan went off and UAE easily played out its 50 overs.

The batting, quite unsurprusingly, continues to disappoint: Nasir Jamshed continues to fail but then again, he is the only specialist opener who could partner from Ahmad Shehzad. Technically, one should not have any problems with trying Nasir until Pakistan’s World Cup campaign is over given how much backing he had when he was out of the squad. Back home, Muhammad Hafeez would be jumping with joy for managing to avoid another catastrophic tour.

There are calls for Sarfraz to open without recognizing the fact that for a player in the Moin Khan mold, he is poorly equipped to change the tide of things at the top of the order. Instead of recognizing his value lower down the order, where he would not have won matches for Pakistan but could probably have played a cameo or two and hence reduced the pressure on Afridi and the likes, he is now being touted as the next great opening hope on wickets where he is going to be embarrassed. Frankly, if there ever was a time when one’s cricketing logic failed (and there are many in Pakistan’s post-1992 cricketing history), this is it.

Umar Akmal’s role is equally baffling – apparently, it looks as if he is there as some supposed force-multiplier whose value as batsman, according to his fans, is being undermined by always getting to bat in a crisis. What concerns me is his inability to bat through a crisis having been there so many times. When he has been through a particular situation so many times, the talented veteran of six years should have been able to forge a means to succeed. That he has not puts a question mark on his ability. It transpires, his batting contributions are usually meaningless – a brisk fifty, like the one at the scandalous Lord’s test of 2010 or the recent one against the West Indies during the 150-run defeat only come when the game is already decided while he drops a catch or two on a regular basis to ensure that we do not forget his brother easily. This is precisely why Sarfraz’s handling is astounding; he is a specialist wicketkeeper, albeit a poor one but is unlikely to drop more catches than Umar Akmal and may score the just about the same number of runs when batting except that his runs are more likely to matter than Umar Akmal’s.

A major problem here is Misbah – on paper, he is the last man standing, the lone warrior, the William Wallace in a bunch of incompetent deserters. In reality, he is doing exactly what a lot of villains did in the 1990s – walk in with the game already decided, come back with good figures on a sinking ship, mock those who see the obvious and run away squeaky clean.

Critics will be quick to point out Imran’s well-documented failed insistence on trying to make Javed Miandad bat at number three in the 1992 World Cup, something Miandad, predictably, considers a conspiracy against him. The reason was simple – Imran considered that position as the most critical one and wanted his most important batsman to be there because he did not trust Salim Malik. When Miandad refused, he did not force anyone else – he went at number 3 himself. In a culture of intrigue and lack of trust, Imran would still be a villain.

Misbah, on the contrary, by batting lower down the order, ensures an easy ride: Against the easier, middle-over bowlers, he manages to get himself in and score a handful, mostly after the damage has already been done and gets away with figures that flatter the modern incarnations of Pakistani veteran journalists who used to rate Zaheer Abbas so highly. A few bold failures would not affect his batting average that badly as he is already bound to retire after the World Cup. It might allow Sohaib Maqsood to come in after the 35th over with 3 or 4 wickets down and enable him to play a free-spirited innings, a la Inzimam of 1992. However, not much can be expected from a defensive captain who, like every other legend in Pakistan cricket (Imran Khan aside) has ensured that no replacements are prepared and he continues with his joyride.

Coming to Eden Park, most Pakistani cricketers would remember the Auckland of Inzimam ul Haq’s blitz, Aqib Javed’s slower ball and Moin Khan’s six. Some more might even remember Javed Miandad’s 271, an innings in which he hit five sixes (the most in his career) – so small was the ground. In fact, its small size was one of the reasons that enabled New Zealand to get to 262 in the first place in that semi-final and then allowed Inzimam to smash New Zealand despite the fact that he was hitting into the wind. The boundaries are shorter though. The 45 metre straight ones are effectively two cricket pitches – three if you hit down the ground but still not big enough. 15-20 yards or so from the 30 yards circle means that a potentially profitable area to hit the short ball is straight down the ground. Scooping it over slips is another good option. Will Pakistan be prepared to face such an onslaught?

Eden Park is one of the grounds where Richard Hadlee struggled – not just in test matches but also in one-day internationals. On the contrary, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were devastating on this ground in both forms. Despite the shape change and reduced boundaries, it should be very obvious that the clinical length bowling of Richard Hadlee is far less effective than the aggressive full lengths of Wasim and Waqar. This, coupled by the success of Trent Boult and Mitchell, should give Pakistan a clear idea where to bowl. For all those short boundaries, the two innings produced 300 for 19 wickets. The problem lies in execution – Irfan, if fit, will be tempted to bowl short, a ploy which should be more shock than stock. Wahab Riaz’s bowling is usually about hitting good length but spraying all over and is likely to forget conveniently that it is not just the straight boundaries that are abnormally short, the square ones too are not that big (65 meters). Sohail Khan has bowled well in patches – when the ball has swung for him and the batsmen have tried to be orthodox, Sohail looks good. But he was also taken for 40 in 3 overs by UAE tail-enders.

Shahid Afridi has looked toothless – he was fortunate to get a couple of wickets but as predicted in my review of the India-Pakistan game, Pakistan have dropped a catch by dropping Yasir Shah after playing him on the flat Adelaide Oval wicket against India. Afridi will have his work cut out when he bowls to the rampaging South Africans in the middle-overs on a placid wicket with such small boundaries.

It is becoming very clear that one of the more predictable routes to a Pakistan win would be to seriously make the new ball count and then maintain the pressure. Going by their outings against India and the West Indies, even if the Pakistanis manage to get the first one right, the second one seems impossible and while Misbah’s middle-over slumber did not have a spectacularly immediate impact, expect no concessions with men like David Miller and AB de Villiers dealing with the likes of a benign Shahid Afridi and the miniscule boundaries.

Strange as it may sound, on another day, Pakistan might actually have fancied bowling first and backed themselves to get those crucial early wickets so that the opponents play catching up. That won’t happen and for now, the team with its negative mindset is likely to be in fear of a team obsessed with racking up 400+ scores.

The UAE match highlighted what post-80s one-day cricket has been about: That regardless of the high scores becoming consistently higher with time, one cannot lose more than two wickets in the first twenty overs and no more than four in the first 40. If Pakistan manage that against South Africa, they would manage a decent run-rate too, although with their timid approach, it remains to be seen what decent means.

Furthermore, in order to upset the South African juggernaut, Pakistanis would need a bolder approach. Nasir Jamshed may be out of depth but replacing him with low-in-confidence, non-opener, in fact non-batsman, like Sarfraz is as ridiculous as it gets. If they have it in them, they should stop shielding Umar Akmal and give him a free hand at the top. That won’t happen though. Haris Sohail batting at number 3 is a fragile option waiting to backfire but for now, the Pakistanis are so deep into it that they should not tinker. Misbah though must come no lower than number four when he would be expected to face the prime bowlers and not the part-timers and let the younger, more energetic lot have their way against them.

The bowlers must take cue from history, both ancient and recent – the fuller, attacking approach of the Ws and not the line and length of Richard Hadlee. Wickets and not containment as Trent Boult and Mitchell Strarc conveyed in that thrill-a-minute tutorial of bowling at the Eden Park. I wish Irfan was lighter in his run-up, jumped higher, did not have a mixed action and that round-arm delivery and that he managed to make the ball kick from a fullish length but well, he cannot and he won’t. However, precisely delivered shock rib-ticklers is what he should aim for. This is the kind of lament one has for the rest of the bowlers… and batsmen – lots of problems but nothing can be done for now.

In short, the work is cut for this very poor Pakistani team – the very fact that experts here are hoping on a smaller margin of defeat shows that this team does not deserve to be there in the first place.

Pakistan will have to play really well to make me eat my words and if that happens, then their success would indeed be richly deserved.

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