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Pakistan’s One-Day Blues

As Pakistan’s limited-over teams struggle to crack it in England, one must realise that the problem isn’t only about the lack of power hitters or bowling attacks. Or indeed Azhar Ali.

In modern one-day cricket, you can only afford to lose, on average, a maximum of 2 wickets for the first 20 overs and a total of 4 for the first 40 while scoring at at least 5 an over. Pakistan, in the second game, lost three in the first three or four overs. This is a problem that the present team management and indeed past ones clearly seem to understand, albeit subconsciously in some cases. However, they face a Catch 22 situation between playing unreliable batsmen who can score quickly (for example, Sharjeel Khan or Umar Akmal) and reliable ones who cannot (for example, Ahmad Shahzad and till last year, Misbah ul Haq). As a disclaimer, I have mentioned Ahmad Shahzad as a reliable batsman simply because he manages to spend a lot of time at the crease, invariably for little returns. In between there are players who have the potential to play fluently orthodox cricket and deliver but cannot overcome their own mental blocks (for example, Azhar Ali who can potentially be Pakistan’s closest response to Hashim Amla).

The failure of newer players can be highlighted by the repeated returns of (the now retired) Younis Khan and Muhammad Sami. They made those comebacks not because of their whims (as it would seem in Younis Khan’s case) or past glories but essentially because the newer ones (the likes of Umar Akmal and Co.) have proven themselves to be simply not good enough and Pakistani selectors had no option but to keep going back to the past-their-shelf-life veterans just like the Pakistani Air Force was still flying their F-86 Sabres when USAF pilots landed in Karachi for some mock dogfights with their F-15s in 1978.

Mickey Arthur’s assessment that Pakistani ODI cricket is languishing in the 1990s is spot on, except for one finer point: Pakistanis could still win a lot more if they had a bowling attack of the calibre of their 1990s one when they would defend sub-par scores for fun.

The thrust on T20 seems to hurt Pakistan even more. At times, some of the One-Day selections are based on T20 success and the selected players tend to find the game as hard as a tough test match.

Contrary to some of the assumptions, this is not a new state. Pakistani cricket team, for a while after the 1992 World Cup, invariably, struggled to win major one-day tourneys consistently while doing somewhat better in tests. This was rather damningly noted in the December 1992 issue of The Cricketer (Pakistan) in which it was insisted that the World Champions had a far from ideal one-day line-up. As a 14-year-old, I found it hard to digest but subsequent struggles in Australia confirmed the fears expressed in the article were not unjustified. The problem then was somewhat more chronic: Pakistanis, in 1992, were a World Cup winning team and had the most outstandingly varied bowling line-up. The openers, Ramiz Raja and Aamer Sohail, were getting a consistent run and were reasonably settled but the one-down position was under a cloud as Salim Malik’s continued struggles made way for Inzamam ul Haq or even Asif Mujtaba depending on the mood of the match selection committee. Javed Miandad, a fixture at number 4, was in decline and no longer an asset either in Australia or in one-dayers. Pakistanis would play six specialist batsmen which meant that the fifth bowler, usually made up of a combination of Aamer Sohail and Asif Mujtaba, was always a liability on flat wickets and indeed in any crunch situation. There was no assured backup for Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis as the veteran Salim Jaffer had been jettisoned. With Aqib Javed not good enough to be the sole strike bowler, Wasim and Waqar had to play every match. These are only some of the factors that ensured that a few early hiccups was all that was needed to ensure a bad, ill-tempered failure of a tour.

Surprisingly, even on that tour Pakistan had managed to win the only test – a low-scoring thriller at Hamilton that featured Javed Miandad’s last great test innings and Inzamam ul Haq’s first to provide Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis with enough cushion to deliver a signature performance.

Only three years earlier, in 1990, Pakistanis were a far more formidable one-day side. In fact, in the lead-up to the 1992 World Cup, Pakistan had won 11 out of 13 one-day series and tournaments over past three years and had been absolutely formidable on flat wickets where they could mount challenging scores while retaining the unique ability to bowl teams out rather than contain them. It is surprising to realize that for most of this phase, Imran Khan was no longer the bowler he once was and Javed Miandad was mostly off-colour. And yet, the team had enough steel in it to win most of what came its way.

It is here that we need to return to the earlier concern that Pakistanis are caught between a combination of various dilemmas when playing one-day cricket.

For starters, nobody would disagree that there is an issue with power-hitters. For years, Pakistan’s lower order led by the all-rounders Abdul Razzaq and Shahid Afridi would usually ensure some abnormally productive last few overs through some quick 20s and 30s. Their decline was not simultaneous but when it did happen, it was rapid with no replacements being sought out. That it wasn’t simultaneous was all the more catastrophic because Razzaq fell out of favour much earlier than Afridi and there should have been alarm bells ringing to address the issue. Instead, after a series of public outburst from Razzaq and a few rejoinders from the cricket board, the whole case became history and as a result, when Afridi’s career ended, Pakistanis were suddenly in need of not one but two replacements.

Pakistan’s other problem remained a subconscious desire to make ends meet through hook or crook rather than engaging the Pakistan-specific approach of having specialists. Muhammad Hafeez is a case in point: What cannot be questioned about Hafeez is that he is not a match-winning bowler and can only win fair-weather low key matches with the bat. Put him on a dewy evening against a struggling pace attack at Sharjah and he will score a hundred. In tougher matches though, his best response is an excuse on the lines of ‘all big players have dips in form’ that he had when questioned about his struggles against Dale Steyn three years ago. With his bowling out of the equation, there was little justification to persist with him at the age of 36. Instead, in another display of showing loyalty with their players that Pakistanis have branded themselves for in recent years, worked its way through and Hafeez has survived. It was the same when Saeed Ajmal was recalled immediately after his action was cleared and was consequently hammered out of international cricket by Bangladesh.  By playing bits and pieces cricketers like Hafeez, who have inflated averages by repeatedly playing mediocre opposition on flat wickets, Pakistanis preferred a short-term stop-gap arrangement than looking for a permanent solution.

It could be argued that one has the ‘advantage’ of the hindsight heuristic but who can now justify Hafeez’s selection ahead of Sami Aslam and/or Babar Azam in tests and now one-dayers? But again, this is not only about Hafeez.

Pakistan will likely qualify for the World Cup. There may be some nervy struggles but in all likelihood the team will make it. Among these Pakistan cricketers, those with an eye on history, would have noticed by now the way huge totals are being put up with ease in England. The wickets far flatter and it will be a far cry from the 1999 World Cup that had a plethora of world-class fast-bowlers on soft, seaming wickets in swinging conditions testing the best of batsmen. More importantly, it should also be remembered by that time, Hafeez would be 39 and Shoaib Malik 37. Even Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq shall be approaching mid-30s. Have Pakistan put some thought into it? Mickey Arthur, a completely new entrant, certainly has.

Consider another case: In an ideal world, by 2019, Umar Akmal should be a world-class player with ten years of international experience.  Instead we find him slogging hopelessly in third-rate T20 leagues trying to make some bucks while moaning about having been ‘denied a proper chance’. The same applies to the other young batsmen, Haris Sohail, Sohaib Maqsood, Ahmad Shahzad and Nasir Jamshed. Had they worked hard enough, these players would have been been available as ready-to-step-in replacements for the declining veterans, Misbah, Younis, Hafeez and even Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq (should he play one-dayers). Circumstantial evidence suggests that this is a case of negative attitude of the players as well as the management.

Pakistan’s bowling has similar dilemmas.

It is still possible that Muhammad Sami, at 35, might make yet another comeback. What is more likely is that Muhammad Irfan, a year younger than Sami, is his (Sami’s) comeback replacement. He would be around 37 when the next World Cup is played but remains in the frame.

Pakistani selectors undermined Yasir Shah in the 2015 World Cup by playing him on a flat Adelaide wicket against Indian batsmen who had been in Australia for months and had actually played both their practice games at the same ground and then dropped for more crucial games based on that same show. This time round the same mistake is being repeated in England against a team that is capable of scoring 400 runs in an innings, can chase 300 in 40 overs and recently chased 230 in a T20 game in South Africa. Leg-spinners need patience and careful handling and that is precisely what Yasir Shah has been denied in one-dayers.

Muhammad Amir has been steady. He has not been helped by dropped catches but has consistently been the bowler England have respected the most. The backup though is not promising. For example, Wahab Riaz would be 35 by the time the World Cup is played and he is no Shoaib Akhtar. The same applies to Umar Gul as well. This is where the non-selection of bowlers like Sadaf Hussain is baffling, especially when the likes of Usman Shinwari and Imran Khan the-even-younger can make it to the team on the basis of a hat-trick of three boundary catches (almost sixes).

The wicketkeeper’s role is under a cloud as well as it is obvious that Sarfraz Ahmad will struggle too. Salim Yousuf’s heroics slowly turned Pakistani mindset to believe that a wicket-keeper’s ability to score runs more than compensated for any failings with the bat. Sarfraz’s gutsy batting continues to mask some major failings; it is easy to get carried away by what was indeed a very good hundred in the second one-dayer. However, had the main batsmen clicked, Sarfraz would not have been required to score these runs. His wicket-keeping errors though continue to haunt at least Muhammad Amir if not the rest of the team. Sarfraz’s role must be defined: He is being looked at as a potential future captain and the job description must be made clear to him. Every team has produced successful wicketkeeper-batsmen but none of them were as consistent in dropping catches as Sarfraz or his predecessor Kamran Akmal have been. In such cases, many of Sarfraz’s hundreds and fifties would come in lost causes. The upshot would be, that they would serve to show him as a hero to an emotional Pakistani public (and experts) in a lost cause and camouflage the real problems with both the Pakistani batting line-up as well as his own primary job, wicket-keeping.

For the record, the most eye-catching performance in Pakistan’s 2015 World Cup campaign was Wahab Riaz’s spell against Australia. On a more pertinent note, Shane Watson still survived him and then hammered him to all parts of the ground. However, like Sarfraz’s hundred that spell was good enough to camouflage what was otherwise a horrible campaign and included some embarrassingly tame surrenders.

Should they want a change, Pakistan must plan for the 2019 World Cup systematically. The team should be primed to first qualify for the tournament and then enter it with no suitability blues.

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