Pakistan cricket again heading into a quagmire ahead of WorldT20
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A 4-3 defeat of Pakistan in seven matches Twent20 series against England may look like a close one but the gap in expertise and approach in both the teams seems to be a bigger one. Considering the fact that it was the home series of Pakistan and many regular top players of England were missing from their side it may be considered as a comprehensive defeat for the green shirts who look totally clueless with the World Cup around the corner.
Pakistan went into the series almost at full strength in a bid to get a winning formula ahead of the mega event of the shortest version of the game and get an absolute answer for their fragile middle order. But nothing worked in favour of Pakistan as they were left with more questions than answers after the end of the series.
Most importantly, it was a total failure on part of tactless team management whose presence was never felt in the game. The same was true when Pakistan went into the Asia Cup and lost twice to the same opponent Sri Lanka in as many matches including the final. The only silver lining for Pakistan was their victory in the second match against arch-rivals India after losing the first match of the event to the same opponent.
In the past, the biggest problem Pakistan ever faced was a fragile opening pair in all the formats of the game and it was the middle order that has always rescued the team. Ironically, when Pakistan have overcome this problem in the Twent20 format as they got a formidable opening pair in the shape of captain Babar Azam and Muhammad Rizwan, the fragility has shifted towards the middle order. The series concluded with more questions than answers around the middle order slots, with little certainly around who should bat from no 3 to no 7.
Loves me, loves me not
Though they are absolute kings of the top order and led Pakistan to numerous victories in the T20 format, Babar and Rizwan remained in the line of fire. One day all the people will leave no stone unturned to prove that they are legends of the game and no one from past and present can match their superheroic aura and exploits in the shortest version of the game. Lo and behold! One failure and they are the main culprits behind Pakistan’s struggles. They are selfish and play for their own records and cannot score at a higher strike rate. Such is the life of superstars in Pakistan.
It is true that both the openers are not as flamboyant as Shahid Afridi was and do not play whirlwind innings that please the eyes of the fans and enthral them. However, what they do is exhibiting of the most beautiful and basic game of cricket with such precision and breathtaking accuracy that it’s too difficult to believe that such a style can be adopted in the T20 format. This style of game has not only helped both the batters to stay atop the world in T20 rankings but also help the team to remain on the winning course.
It is no doubt that the culture of power hitting lacks among the Pakistani batters. It is the same thing as it was in hockey, when a more physical style of the modern game has taken a toll on Pakistani players as they are not as fit as European, Australian or other teams of the world. However, they have lost their way in their attempt to play in a freestyle way like other teams, forgetting their strengths and beautiful game and have remained miles behind from their competitors.
The same is true for Pakistani batters as if they do not adopt the modern game based on their own strengths and instead continue to try to become more explosive in the footsteps of other teams, they will only face failure.
So for Pakistan, it is a must that Babar and Rizwan stay true to their natural gameplay and don’t pay any heed to the critics and they should not succumb to the expectations of the fans. Those two combined for 601 runs in the series, over 100 more than the rest combined. So, it would be detrimental for Pakistan if Babar and Rizwan deviate from their game plan and expose the already disastrous middle order of the team too early. Whether fans and critics love you or not depends on the end result and that is a win for the team.
Pakistan’s soft underbelly starts at no 3 and ends nowhere. The series concluded with more questions than answers around the middle order slots, with little certainty. As soon as either Babar or Rizwan go early, one can witness an unending struggle that further hampers the prospects of the team in a game.
An in-form Fakhar Zaman could have been the best option for Pakistan at no 3 spot but as he is struggling with his form and even could not make a cut for the World Cup squad, the spot has become quite vulnerable. Pakistan tried both Haider Ali and Shan Masood.
Haider Ali seems to have regressed as a player. He had an underwhelming five games, scoring just 36 runs at a strike rate of 94.73, and sat out the final match with a viral infection.
Shan Masood made 156 runs at an average of 31.20 and a strike rate of 131.09 with two half centuries, both in the losing cause.
Iftikhar Ahmed gave many good starts but could not capitalise and left too much to fate or his team. However, with the ball, he showed that he could be used safely as a sixth bowler. Khushdil Shah was nowhere near to his former self as a finisher, scoring 63 runs at a strike rate of 112.50, while Asif Ali started the series out of the side and ended it with a top score of 13 not out. Similarly, Muhammad Nawaz, who remained always a key to Quetta Gladiators batting in the PSL, continued to fail in translating his PSL form at the international level.
The most curious case here is the tactics adopted by the team management led by head coach Saqlain Mushtaq. Their gameplan for using the batters is quite conventional and sometimes baffling and they don’t look ready to take chances to bring the middle order to life.
Pakistan must adopt a more proactive approach while selecting their batting order instead of sticking to the one like an old-fashioned lady based on the strength and needs of the team in given circumstances. When you have a very good start from openers and have left with 10 wickets in hand with 10 or 12 overs remaining, it makes no sense to keep your power-hitters heavy lower middle order idle in the match. It would have been wiser that after getting a stable start that took Pakistan to 70 or 80 runs in odd eight or nine overs you should go with a power hitter at the one down position instead of sticking to the conventional batters like Masood or Haider. Asif Ali is the best choice for this slot as long as he stayed on the crease the possibility of reaching a high score is always there. If things got accelerated soon, then it would also release the pressure on the upcoming batsmen. If you lose your one opener early in the innings you may go with the old plan of sending a conventional batter at no 3 to steady the innings. But it is quite a non-sense if you stick to this approach even after half of the innings.
Similarly, Pakistan have a credible batter in the shape of Shadab Khan who not only can build the innings but also can accelerate it. He is an ideal candidate for the no 4 spot and has a proven track record at this slot while playing for Islamabad United in the PSL.
Subsequently, you can bring your hard hitters into the game according to the situation and can hold back one or two conventional batters instead of keeping the hard hitters in the dugout seeing the downfall of the team.
This little tweaking with the batting order in the middle is the only way forward for Pakistan with the current selection of the batters. It is bound to click and even if does not, you have nothing to lose because the conventional approach is also not working for the team already.
Fast, shaky and wayward
Pakistan no doubt are blessed with enormous talent when it comes to bowling. There is always enough talent that can quench their thirst for speed and the current crop of Pakistan bowlers is another example of this rich talent pool.
The same is true when it comes to the spin bowling department as currently it boosts a dependable spin bowling attack. So Pakistan need not worry when it comes to bowling options. It is a general feeling but whether it’s true? Especially, when your bowling line concedes 200 plus score thrice in the series.
The ground realities are a bit different especially when it comes to the fast bowling department. The speed is not a problem but precision is. And on top of that, the lack of confidence makes the matters worse at critical moments.
Among the current bowling line-up, only Haris Rauf is the one who can be said to become battle hardened and has achieved precision along with speed. Notorious for leaking more runs, Rauf has reformed himself into an economic bowler by mixing his speed variations and bringing precision to his bowling with wicket-taking ability in the last two series i.e. Asia Cup and England T20s. He still needs to work on his Yorkers to make them more lethal but overall his performance and confidence level suggest that he has become the most lethal weapon in Pakistan’s bowling arsenal.
However, the same is not true for other bowlers and the most they lack is the confidence and ability to hit back at the opponent after being assaulted. In the last World Cup, Hassan Ali dropped a catch but it was Shaheen Afridi who lost his cool and was hit for three consecutive sixes to lose the match. Nasim Shah, Muhammad Wasim and Muhammad Hasnain all have shown nerves. The same problem was seen in Usman Qadir who delivers brilliance in patches but loses confidence in the middle.
So what Pakistan need most is to work on their mental strength so that they can stick to their line and length rather than going wayward. With Nasim, Shadab and Shaheen struggling with fitness problems, the bench strength is also not looking too much optimistic. If this issue is not addressed quickly, Pakistan would likely to fell into multiple Sami-like syndromes of the early 2000s, who was an excellent speedster with wayward bowling and low confidence.
Return of the old ghosts
Pakistan were hopeless in the last game of the England series in the field as well as they dropped three simple catches and leaked unnecessary runs and boundaries. Fielding is an age-old problem of Pakistan. However, the current crop of players has brought a new spirit to the team and has given some brilliant performances on the field. Babar, who dropped two dollies in the final game, was exceptional on the field during the previous World Cup edition and took some breathtaking catches then.
The current team’s body language during the Asia Cup and in the England series seemed to emit more negativity instead of the usual bonding between the team and winning spirit. So one can speculate that maybe there is not everything right within the team.
Captain Babar, who is at the prime of his career, is facing unnecessary criticism and the Pakistan Cricket Board is also seemed to be unbothered in safeguarding their captain. The decline started when many accused Babar of nepotism and favouritism while selecting the squad and his preference for players was said to be based on personal friendships.
There are also many quarters who want their favourite players to captain the Pakistan team and such politics is nothing new in the team. Shaheen Afridi, Muhammad Rizwan and even Shan Masood are among those who are being advocated to replace Babar at the helm. There are also some ‘friendly groups’ in the team including ‘Roti Group’ and ‘Khan Group’ being the most popular. When they turn into political or pressure groups instead of being only a friendly one is just a matter of time considering the history of the Pakistan team. And they would also get some backing and lobbying from the former players, greats as well as so-called media pundits. PCB Chief Ramiz Raja is also not doing his job and instead time and again his criticism of the captain, team and individuals may bring a negative attempt on the dressing room’s environment.
So it seems that the time of a stable, well-coordinated unit that Team Pakistan was for quite some time is nearing an end and the water is starting to get murkier and turbulent. When the captaincy boat of Babar sinks maybe is just a matter of time.