Friday, February 20, 2015

Bench the Veteran!

So Pakistan has lost what many think is the be-all and end-all of their World Cup dream. Many would take a victory over India than a place in the Finals of the tournament, such is the sentimental value attached to the sport, and it’s most riveting rivalry.

While the loss could have been expected, given India’s dominance over Pakistan in World Cups, there is a feeling that this was probably an opportunity missed, keeping in mind India’s recent woes on their tour of Down Under. But this was definitely not the best Pakistani lineup to come up against India in a World Cup.  

One can hardly call any one the eleven who were selected to be an ODI great. Misbah-ul-Haq and Shahid Afridi might be considered by many as greats, but just as many would disagree!

But not having a handful of greats should not be an excuse for the defeat. In fact there should be no excuses. Granted that the team does not have at its disposal the legends of World Cups past; the team does have enough firepower to defy expectations, and morph into a good ODI unit.

All of Pakistan’s recent problems can be traced back to a couple of events from late last year:
  1. The banning of Mohammad Hafeez from bowling in international 
  2. The dropping of Younis Khan from the ODI unit for the Australia series, and his tirade afterwards (in Septmeber).

The banning of Hafeez from bowling in internationals was probably the biggest setback for Team Green. Not only is Professor a better opener than Younis, he also provided the team with a genuine fifth bowler option. Hafeez was no part-timer with the ball; he was an attacking bowler with an exceptionally good economy rate, who could open the bowling.

But that happened a few series ago. Pakistan never had a Plan B, a reserve allrounder as good as Hafeez. Pakistan tried making do with Haris Sohail, Ahmed Shahzad and Younis sharing ten overs between them but that experiment never bore any fruit, which forced a rethink of the team’s composition.

It was decided that five specialist bowlers would play. But who would make room for the fifth bowler to come in? Instead of dropping your worst performing batsman, Pakistan chose to get rid of the most specialized position that the sport has: the wicketkeeper, Sarfraz Ahmed.

Not only had Sarfraz done better than Younis recently with the bat (barring Younis’ century against New Zealand which did not result in a win), Sarfraz had also performed decently as an opener in the couple of games that he was handed an opportunity.

That, in turn meant that Umar Akmal would keep wickets for Pakistan. All the Akmal jokes aside, Umar has never been too keen on having the dual responsibility. Moreover, throughout the preceding series, Umar had not kept wickets, and was probably rusty when the time came to step up. You can’t blame a part-time wicketkeeper for a drop, just as you wouldn’t blame a part-time bowler for leaking 80 in 10!

Opening with Younis meant that he himself was playing in a position unfamiliar to him. To do so, in foreign conditions is absurd. To do so against India, in what might be the highest pressure game for the team, is outright crazy.

Not only was the opening partnership new and unsettled, our number 3 was a raw player, who had never played at first drop. Playing Haris Sohail at that position was not only a disservice to the batsman, but also one against the team’s balance and its middle order.

If blame is to be placed on someone, it has to be the management; the captain, coach, and selectors on tour. Their inability and/or reluctance to drop Younis Khan from the playing XI has robbed the team of balance. Selecting Younis does not mean just choosing him over another batsman; it has consequences that go beyond just one position out of the XI; an unsettled opening pair, a raw number 3, a weaker middle order, and a part-time keeper.

No one has ever doubted Younis’ commitment to the team, his patriotism, his fitness, or his work ethic. But more than anything, his form needs to be evaluated. Younis may well be our best Test batsman, and one of our top 5 ever, but his one day record has been ordinary overall, more so of late. It’s time that the management realizes that his use-by date has come and gone, and his inclusion will hurt the team more than helping it. For Pakistan’s fortunes to take a turn for the positive, the stalwart has to be benched. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

The plight of a Pakistani fan

Pakistan has just scripted a comprehensive victory over a resurgent Australian team. Arguably one of the best performances in recent memory by Pakistan, this win should rank alongside Pakistan’s clean sweep of the top-ranked England side. Pakistani fans around the world are delighted, with even higher expectations of the team for the rest of the series.

We have just witnessed a much underrated batsman become Pakistan’s most prolific century-maker. To outdo Javed Miandad and Inzimam-ul-Haq is no easy feat; yet the lack of flamboyance and substance-over-style mentality of Younis Khan may always leave him right below Pakistan’s league of legends.

We have also just seen Pakistan’s backup spin options rise up to the occasion in the absence of their premier twirler. The fact that they bowled left arm orthodox (Zulfiqar Babar) and right arm leg-spin (Yasir Shah) so beautifully in tandem is not lost on anyone.

Also just witnessed was a flurry of centuries. Ahmed Shahzad might have come a long way from the days of carefree strokeplay, but he has proved that his more sedate approach is working. Sarfraz Ahmed might be too raw on the international scene to be termed great, but he is certainly the next best thing. Any gloveman would’ve been better than a certain Akmal, but one who scores consistently against attacks as varied as Australia and Sri Lanka is certainly more than a blessing; he might just be a miracle!

That Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq and Misbah chipped in was the cherry on top for Pakistani fans. The two pacemen, Imran Khan and Rahat Ali, did what was expected of them. This was as good a team effort as possible, much better than the England whitewash, which was more of an Ajmal-Rehman show.

What does all this mean for a Pakistani fan? While rightly jubilant in their celebrations, they are also wary; never confident in their team, yet always behind them.

The average Pakistani fan of the ‘90s expected a win in every game; the average Pakistani fan now can only hope. A team with the two W’s, the two Y’s, Inzi, Shoaib and Saqi could beat the best in the world; you can’t expect that from a team whose captain divides opinion, whose best batsman has second thoughts about continuing to play, whose spinners have a total of two caps among them and whose opening combination is as steady as a camel ride during an earthquake.

The fan is wary of Pakistan’s tendency to self-combust. The same batsmen who piled on the runs in the recently concluded game against Australia can easily be knocked over for 110-odd by the same bowling lineup on the same surface in the following game.

The fan is also wary of Pakistan’s shoddy fielding. One dropped catch against a player of Warner’s caliber can turn a match on its head, and Pakistan’s fielding is extremely capable of letting a catch, and consequently a game, slip away.

The fan is also wary of the dirty politics that is synonymous with Pakistani cricket administration. The only position that has changed hands more often than our openers has been the chairmanship of the board. The whims of the Patron in Chief constantly clash with the supposed supremacy of the courts in the land of the pure, and who knows when the next clash of the egos will take place, and what or who that clash will bring in.

The fan is also wary of the captaincy merry-go-round that has become the norm in Pakistan cricket. We have involuntarily been trained to accept whoever shows up at the toss as our captain for that game, and no more.

The fan is also wary of the sudden retirements and consequent retractions that have been the result of changes in administration, captain, coaching staff, or the state of mind of the retiree in question.
And lastly, the fan is wary of corruption, namely the next fixing scandal, constantly doubting a player’s failure, a captain’s decision. Every time Pakistan loses from a position of parity if not dominance, whispers of match-fixing start doing the rounds. Every no-ball is looked at with skepticism, every dropped catch with suspicion of malice.

This is a brief period of celebration for the Pakistani cricket fan. Expectations are high, but we have learnt from the past. We might never be able to replicate the success of our past greats, but we will keep looking forward to the emergence of a new one. We will learn to make do with what we have and hope. The typical Pakistani fan will remain optimistic, but only cautiously so!