January Issue 2015
A few years ago, I had written an article complaining about how all coverage of Pakistan cricket, particularly abroad, reduces the narrative to clichés like ‘mercurial’ and ‘unpredictable’ without bothering to provide any deeper analysis. However, it has to be conceded that Pakistan cricket provides so much repetitive drama that it becomes easy to miss out on the details. In the last 12 months, the team has had sensational wins, dramatic losses, gutless collapses, captaincy battles, boardroom calamities and international controversies. It is the same litany of events that seem to take place every single year.
Yet the importance of looking beyond the obvious becomes necessary when you realise how it otherwise robs the country of its due credit. To take one example, when David Warner started smashing India in the first Test of their recent tour, excitable Australian commentators wondered aloud about who had the record for the fastest 100 in Tests. It was shocking to hear their discussion, since the record had been equalled by Misbah-ul-Haq in the previous Test Australia had played barely weeks ago. In a world where the Big Three struggle to acknowledge any cricket that takes place outside their own backyards, it becomes increasingly important to capture a truer picture of ‘lesser’ teams like Pakistan.
2014 was a roller-coaster ride for Pakistani fans, although that was a consequence of a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde situation in the two main formats. The Pakistan Test team had a fabulous 2014, which included a devastation of Australia that most fans could not even have imagined. The Pakistan ODI side, however, ended the year battling with England for the title of the worst team amongst the top eight sides. In true Pakistani fashion, the highs and lows followed one another in such a way so as to ensure that despair and elation were always around the corner.
The year began with Sri Lanka’s tour of the UAE, which was also the last assignment for Dav Whatmore as coach. Whatmore’s era had seen Pakistan improve slightly in ODIs and lose a lot of their aura in Tests. This series also saw a good 3-2 victory in the ODIs, but the real treat came in the Tests. After losing the first match, Pakistan had a sniff of saving the series after opposing captain Angelo Matthews blighted a remarkable run of form by opting to bat for time in the deciding Test. Needing to chase 301 in around 60 overs on the final day, Pakistan batted the way they never seemed to in ODIs to pick up a remarkable win and preserve their unbeaten status at their adopted home.
Pakistan then flew to Bangladesh to play the Asia Cup, which saw Shahid Afridi write yet another memorable chapter in his remarkable career. Lala had been out of sorts for a while, but then in the match against India, he first steadied a faltering chase and then smacked consecutive 6s in the final over to deliver the win and resurrect his career yet again. The tournament also seemed to suggest the rise of a new dawn – Fawad Alam was finally given his due for years of dominating the domestic scene and didn’t disappoint. Both he and Sohaib Maqsood, along with other youngsters Ahmed Shehzad and Umar Akmal, felt like a breath of fresh air in the batting lineup. Pakistan actually looked to rotate the strike and be proactive, and despite losing in the final seemed to have found a good combination in the run-up to the World Cup.
The team stayed in Bangladesh for the World T20, where all the upward trajectory of the previous month came crashing down. First the team slumped to its ninth defeat to India in the ICC tournaments. A thrilling win against Australia and another against the hosts were not enough as West Indies thrashed the team to knock them out in the group stages – Pakistan’s worst ever finish in tournament history. The major consequence was the beginning of the captaincy debate, with Mohammad Hafeez stepping down to be replaced by Afridi.
The team then remained out of action until August, when a hastily scheduled series against Sri Lanka finally provided some action. Indeed, had it not been for Sri Lanka, Pakistan would have barely played any cricket all year. The team was visibly rusty on its return, and lost the first Test. A sickening collapse on the final day at Colombo in the second Test meant a 2-0 blanking, while the ODI series was also lost 1-2, despite a fantastic chase of 275 led by Fawad and Sohaib in the first match.
But the worst outcome of the tour was Saeed Ajmal being called for ‘chucking.’ Ajmal’s foray in county cricket in the summer had already raised some poorly argued accusations, and his ban was possibly the biggest blow to the team since the 2010 spot-fixing crisis. What made matters worse was that he was part of a larger ICC crackdown on ‘chucking,’ which seemed to affect the smaller teams in cricket, and which involved new laboratories with controversy brewing with the previous ones. Yet, despite the conspiracies, there seemed to be a consensus that the fact that Ajmal had been carrying his side in all three formats and had bowled more than any cricketer on the planet had worsened his action. The player began an intense rehab programme to try and return for the World Cup, but many doubt if he will be anywhere near the bowler he was.
Ajmal’s ban meant that the long-awaited series against Australia threatened to be another mauling. To make matters worse, Misbah’s captaincy had come under intense scrutiny after the Sri Lankan sojourn, and Afridi’s many supporters across just about every walk of life in Pakistan were clamouring for him to be made skipper, aided by mischievous statements from Afridi to the media. A wretched loss in the T20 against the Aussies under Afridi stifled those claims, but they returned as Pakistan lost the first two ODIs. Misbah then officially stood down for the final ODI, although the rumours were that he was forced to do so. After having had a remarkable 2013 in ODIs, Misbah’s batting seemed to have fallen apart this year, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. Afridi’s side however lost the third ODI in a ridiculous manner, failing to chase three runs in the final over and Misbah had a stay of execution.
And then, a Test series began which eased several decades of pain and humiliation. Australia hadn’t played Pakistan in Asia since their great Waugh-era side, and had routinely thrashed Pakistan at home since the 1990s. But the UAE was Pakistan’s fortress, even if they faced up with an attack that comprised their 7th-10th choices. Injuries and bans had decimated the side, yet they remained remarkably confident. Two weeks later, Pakistan had broken so many records in their greenwashing of the Aussies that it’s impossible to know where to begin.
Facing an Australian side that stubbornly refused to adapt to the conditions, Pakistan played a series for the ages. Younis Khan, who had threatened to retire after being dropped from the ODIs, played like a man possessed, racking up three centuries in a row. The sight of the Dubai stadium hastily filling up with working-class expat fans to celebrate his double century was one for the ages, and the man who has been the rock of this nomadic Pakistani side deserved such a scene. Azhar Ali smacked two centuries, while Sarfaraz Ahmed hit a stunning one in the first match that turned the whole series. Pakistan’s bowlers were sublime, with Zulfiqar Babar stepping up for Ajmal; Shane Warne becoming Yasir Shah’s biggest fan; Imran Khan finding superb reverse and Rahat Ali turning around a Test. But the biggest surprise came from Misbah, who not only regained form after 40 but equalled Sir Vivian Richards’ record for the fastest 100 in Tests. For all the unrelenting pressure against the man known as Tuk-Tuk, this was a most symbolic and barely believable response. He ended the year with the most Test wins by any Pakistani captain in history, and ensured that he had secured his legacy forever.
Pakistan then played the Kiwis, who straight away showed a desire to adapt to the conditions unlike their Australian counterparts, who had not stopped finding excuses and complaining until they landed home. Pakistan took the first Test, but the Kiwis fought back to draw the second. The third Test had started with Pakistan looking ominous, but then was delayed due to the shocking death of Australian cricketer, Phillip Hughes. When play resumed a day later, a visibly off-key Pakistan lost seven wickets in a session and almost conceded 700 runs to lose convincingly. It was an unfitting finale for a team which had till then competed ferociously and the loss almost certainly would not have happened had things proceeded normally.
The teams then went to the coloured clothing format, where New Zealand fought back again to draw the T20s 1-1. The selectors then shot the team in the foot with some outrageously poor selections for the ODI squad, dropping Fawad Alam who had been averaging 69 over the year. They also left out Umar Akmal and Sohaib Maqsood, to bring back Younis and Asad Shafiq. Despite the bizarre selections, Pakistan took a 2-1 lead after Afridi (with his sights still set on the captaincy) joined youngster Haris Sohail to steal one match with sensible batting, and then rode on an Ahmed Shehzad 100 to clobber New Zealand in another. On the eve of the 4th match, the horrifying Peshawar school attack took place, and despite reservations from players and protests from fans, the PCB went ahead with the game. The team narrowly lost that match and the next one, to lose the series 2-3.
It gave a sour taste to the end of the year, with the selectors’ decisions for the World Cup squad looking even more depressing. Despite being one of the worst batting sides in the world, Pakistan kept refusing to trust in its most talented young players. Instead, proceeding with inherent insecurity, Asad Shafiq and Younis Khan were persisted with, while proven failures Shoaib Malik and Kamran Akmal formed part of the World Cup probables.
In terms of the players, Ahmed Shehzad had a coming-of-age season. He was the top-scorer in ODIs and T20s, and also averaged 48 in Tests. Younis Khan also underlined his sheer class, and has stamped his place among the all-time greatest batsmen in Pakistan’s history. Afridi’s ODI average for the year was almost the same as Misbah’s, which spoke a lot about the contrasting efforts and fortunes of both men. Sarfaraz was a vital discovery, since he relieved Umar Akmal of the wicket-keeping duties and alongside provided impetus to the batting. As for Fawad Alam, I can only hope that he is not shuttled for the World Cup, as any other team in the world would probably look to build their post-tournament side around a player like him. Indeed, if we could forget the fact that Pakistani selections are almost always rage-inducingly stupid, this was a great year for young talent. Umar Akmal did well despite being shunted down the order, Haris Sohail was magnificent on debut while Sohaib Maqsood remained a solid choice.
But the bigger concern came from the bowlers. The fact that Yasir Shah and Zulfiqar Babar topped the Test charts showcased that Pakistan remains one of the world’s great bowling nations. But in either format, no frontline bowler played more than half the games. Injuries of all the pacers, particularly Junaid, remained a concern. An even bigger issue was the chucking bans – Ajmal’s career hangs by a thread, while Hafeez’s loss upsets the balance he brought to the side.
Behind the scenes, the debilitating drama of the PCB chairman dance came to an end, as a reluctant Shaharyar Khan was made boss. Najam Sethi meanwhile slipped further behind the scenes to retain a de facto sense of control. The return of Waqar Younis as coach and Moin Khan as selector invigorated the Test side, with batting coach Grant Flower and bowling coach Mushtaq Ahmed also receiving praise. The team did not have a single score below 100 in ODIs or Tests in 2014, and Waqar worked magic with the bowling squads. But the ODI team continued its struggles, and there is a sense that Pakistan is nowhere near finding its best XI going into the 2015 World Cup.
A bigger problem was the PCB’s efforts to return international cricket to Pakistan, a policy that continues to persist despite the country’s situation. A low-key tour by the Kenyan team almost turned into disaster when the Peshawar attack took place, highlighting the folly of the decision. What was worse was that little effort was made on the domestic scene, where selections for both the World T20 side and the ODI World Cup probables took place before the domestic tournaments in the respective formats were completed or held. A successful staging of one of the several T20 tournaments in Rawalpindi also begged for the PCB to rethink their strategy of hosting these crowd-pullers in the more apathetic cities of Karachi and Lahore. But that policy also continued, and an empty National Stadium played host to the final T20 tournament this year. One positive note was the efforts of the Lahore Lions in the Champion’s League T20, after they became the first Pakistani side to qualify for the tournament-proper, defeating an IPL side on the way. They didn’t get too far though, and the continued exclusion of Pakistani players from the IPL is beginning to show in the gulf in quality vis-a-vis other teams.
Looking ahead, the 2015 World Cup will mark the end of an era for Pakistan cricket, as it is highly likely that Misbah will join Afridi in leaving ODIs after it. But it would mean a chance to move past the difficult and resilient era since the 2009 terrorist attacks, and build upon Misbah’s success to take the team forward. The fear remains though that such an opportunity might be squandered. As for the tournament itself, it appears that the format will allow enough leeway for Pakistan to make it to the quarter-finals. Anything beyond that would be a bonus, although this is the sort of team that will always, for better or worse, be unpredictable.
These articles were originally published in Newsline’s Annual 2015 issue.
Ahmer Naqvi is a freelance writer and director of content at Patari, Pakistan’s largest music portal.