Pakistan Cricket- From Flamboyance to Despair
Once a maverick and entertaining team, the current Pakistan limited-overs outfit looks redundant and out of sync. A national hero during his playing days, head coach Waqar Younis is now under immense media scrutiny regarding the continuous failures of the limited-overs international team. The biggest allegation that the former pace sensation is being charged with is that he has taken the traditional Pakistani flair out of the equation by shifting his focus elsewhere.
Reflecting that trend, the recent tour to New Zealand started promisingly but ended in utter chaos. Pakistan began with a narrow victory in the 1st T20I in Auckland. However, they were demolished by huge margins in the next 2 matches as the Blackcaps clinched the series 2-1. In the 1st ODI, the Pakistan seamers reduced the power-packed New Zealand top order to 99/6. What followed was one of the most inept displays of bowling against the lower-order, and the match slipped out of their grasp. Instead of targeting the stumps, Wahab Riaz and Anwar Ali were sucked into bowling at the rib cage. The end result was Mitchell Santner, Matt Henry and Mitchell McClenaghan jointly dragging the score to 280. Needless to say, the hosts sealed the match in style.
During the final ODI, the visitors once again found themselves in a commanding position at 150 from 22 overs with 8 wickets in hand. But they shot themselves in the foot as they imploded to 290, which was a sub-par score under those conditions. Admittedly with a bit of luck, the Kiwis sneaked home to take the series 2-0.
Even though there was a controversial umpiring decision by Billy Bowden in the business end of that encounter, the blame lay elsewhere. A combination of brittle finishing and wasting the new ball hampered Pakistan's chances in the shorter formats of the game. This was not an aberration, but a prolonged inability to close out matches, which only increased the pressure on them.
The perils of not embracing the modern game
The changes in the present-day style of cricket have also affected Pakistan in a big way. Burgeoning bats, lightning quick outfields, shorter boundaries and flatter pitches have ensured that modern batsmen have to consistently keep the scoreboard ticking by adopting a dynamic approach. Beginning with a blaze, accumulating runs in the middle-overs and going for broke in the finishing stages is the batting mantra behind every successful limited-overs outfit.
Compare this with the tried and tested formula that Pakistan fervently followed in the past. Penetrative swing with the new-ball, flummoxing the opposition batsmen in the middle-order through extravagant spin, and polishing off the tail-enders with vicious reverse swing had been the basis upon which Pakistan formulated their strategy in limited-overs cricket. Despite not being renowned for batting ability, the South Asian nation had produced several efficient batsmen who put up adequate scores on the board for their bowlers to defend. Nowadays, the Pakistani batsmen have only 2 gears- go big or go home.
The modern-day limited-overs game has become batting-oriented and teams which fail to adhere to this strategy are languishing at the bottom of the table. Whilst it could be true that the Men in Green are creating an antithesis to their famed predecessors, Waqar Younis can hardly be blamed for the lack of results on the field. The rut that Pakistan have found themselves in extends beyond the last few years. Even during the reign of the Dav Whatmore and Mohsin Khan, the malaise had begun to set in.
UAE: Not quite a fortress in limited-overs cricket
Apart from sporadic successes in the ODI format, such as the 2-1 win in South Africa and the 2012 Asia Cup victory, their win-loss record against the top teams is not a pretty picture. Ever since Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Hafeez were banned from bowling due to their suspect actions, Pakistan have struggled to pick up wickets in the middle-overs and have been forced to resort to medium-pacers. Umar Gul's lack of attention to his fitness also aggravated their woes as Pakistan lost an impact bowler in the death-overs.
The inconsistency of the bowlers has placed enormous pressure on an already fragile batting lineup who have started to play for their spots, rather than helping the team's cause. The likes of Ahmed Shehzad, Mohammad Hafeez and Asad Shafiq cannot rotate the strike regularly and hence the lower order has to resort to ungainly shots to restore parity. As a consequence, the lower order crumbles with the slightest hint of pressure.
Even though UAE has turned out to be a fortress for the Test team, the limited-overs team has toiled hard to adapt to the benign pitches and slower outfields in the desert. While the bowlers have been unable to strike frequently, the batting lineup has found the going difficult as well. Thus, they have slipped down to number 8 in the ICC ODI rankings and number 7 in the ICC T20I rankings.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel?
A strong Pakistan is a significant boost for the cricket world. When on song, there are few teams who can pull crowds to the game as the 'Green Shirts' do. There is still enough talent left in the country to resurrect the national team. Mohammad Amir's return could spark a change in the bowling performances, which of late have started to dwindle alarmingly. He will need some time to get back into the groove as cricket has changed a lot in these 5 years. Alongside Riaz, Sohail Khan, Junaid Khan, they could form a potent pace attack.
Meanwhile in the batting department, Babar Azam is showing signs of promise. Enterprising and fluent, the right-hander has been extremely impressive. The 21-year old needs to be shown the right direction, so he does not follow in the steps of his teammates and lose his way. From the domestic circuit, Sami Aslam and Mukhtar Ahmed could inject optimism into the batting unit. Umar Akmal should be given the chance to open the innings in a bid to revive his deteriorating run. The likes of Mohammad Rizwan and Haris Sohail can certainly bolster the middle-order.
Aamer Yamin and Imad Wasim are capable of hitting a few lusty blows with the bat and chipping in with a few overs too. Zafar Gohar and Yasir Shah (provided he is cleared soon) could form an interesting spin duo. Sarfaraz Ahmed is not a bad choice as a captain and his experience in the Test arena should certainly add to his value.
Of course, it will all boil down to whether the Pakistan Cricket Board can take tough decisions in order to build a team for the future. The results may not come immediately, but the value of revamping the entire set-up could perhaps be seen during the next World Cup.