Apart from cricket, music is my other great love and last night, I was editing a podcast I produce on Pakistani music. I had recorded it before the World Cup, and as it ended I could hear my past self as it exhorted listeners to check out the songs in the podcast when the tournament ends in tears.
Yet even my glib cynicism hadn’t been prepared me for how things stand today. Not only have Pakistan lost both their opening games, but they’ve lost one to a team that lost to an associate. More infuriatingly, they still haven’t come close to playing their best XI. This is after having already ruined the selection of the squad, and having lost three of not only the team’s but the world’s best bowlers to either bans or injuries. Defeat to Zimbabwe in their next game would be curtains for this team.
Given how the tournament has progressed, it is safe to say that Pakistan won’t be missed if they do crash out. Almost every match between the Top 8 sides has been a disappointment, but you’d still be hard pressed to find the half-shifts put in by Misbah’s men in both their games.
Against arch-rivals India, Pakistan unveiled their third string bowling lineup against some of the world’s most dangerous batsmen, and despite conceding 300 actually bowled really well. They were also quite alert in the field, though the tough chance which saw Kohli survive versus Afridi was the kind of opportunity they needed to grab. Because once the batting began, it soon became the exact script of almost every India-Pak WC encounter – Pakistan started confidently in their big chase before collapsing and limping home.
Things then really fell apart in arguably the lowest quality match of the tournament – Pakistan vs West Indies. The two teams, which are often spiritual brothers in arms, put on a woeful display where it was only Pakistan’s determination to lose that edged out the Windies. Five catches were dropped and countless runs leaked before Pakistan then put up the worst ever start in ODI history.
For those hipsters who love Pakistan cricket because of their masochistic fetishes, this is the best position for Pakistan to be in. Tigers or not, they are well and truly cornered.
However, unlike Imran’s side, this one has given itself far lesser chance of turning things around. For starters, Younis Khan has remained in the team despite a string of failures. After dropping him from the team because he had to attend a funeral, and then demoting his contract during said funeral, the PCB was humiliated so much by YK in the press and then on the pitch in the series versus Australia that they haven’t dropped him since. It has ruined the balance of what was already a very disjointed team, and has meant that one of Pakistan’s best performers in the past 12 months – Sarfaraz Ahmed – has been kept out of the team. It has also made their brightest talent – Umar Akmal – be forced to take on the gloves.
The injury of Hafeez though was perhaps the biggest blow, as his bowling had been crucial to both the team’s balance and tactics. Without him, the weight of the fifth bowler has been one the team has struggled to balance, and they also seem to have lost a lot of their belief. Both him and Ajmal were also Misbah’s confidantes, and the captain has become increasingly isolated without them.
If there can be any way back for the team, it would require a lot of things beyond their control. However, what they can do for now is to get the playing XI right. Nasir Jamshed needs to be dropped with immediate effect, and Sarfaraz brought in his place at the top. Younis Khan needs to be replaced by Yasir Shah, who can bring some guile and courage to the attack. The top order has been blessed by the fact that many teams in this World Cup are playing in the go-slow style they prefer. Indeed, the score at the 20th over is around 80-odd for two down, and every team that gets to 300 is scoring a third of these off the final ten overs. What this means is that the batsmen have to just stick around until they can begin to tee off.
Most importantly, the team would need to find some purpose. A string of controversies and strict management has made things gloomier still, but they can also be harnessed as a source of inspiration. Misbah can tap into the siege mentality that is already surrounding the team, and with four matches to go the team’s fate is theoretically still in their own hands.
Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ireland finish third, leaving Pakistan, West Indies and Zimbabwe to fight for the final spot. In many ways, the team is following a script very similar to the one in 1992. But as most Pakistanis remember, it needed a miracle to pull that one off. For this team, a miracle would be needed just for them to end up fourth. Here’s hoping for one.