February issue 2009

By | Sports | Published 11 years ago

When Pakistan invited Sri Lanka for a series soon after being ditched by India in the wake of November’s terror attacks in Mumbai, the primary target of the country’s cricket administrators was to revive international cricket here. Another objective was to give its action-starved cricketers a platform to kickstart 2009 with some competitive games on home soil.

But the PCB could never have imagined that the three-match ODI series against Mahela Jayawardene’s men would spring a by-product that was equally important. The brief series played in Karachi and Lahore from January 20-24 ended with alarm bells loud enough to wake up the dead. Responding to the alarm, PCB decided to dump Pakistan captain Shoaib Malik and replaced him with seasoned middle-order batsman, Younis Khan.

Board Chairman Ijaz Butt said that he wasn’t perturbed by the series defeat but was unhappy with the way the national team lost. Butt certainly had a point. That Pakistan lost the series 1-2 wasn’t a big surprise. But the way they succumbed in the last two games, after triumphing in the series opener in Karachi in a highly convincing manner, has raised a number of critical questions.

Sri Lanka bounced back with a vengeance after being outclassed by eight wickets in the opening ODI. They crushed Pakistan by 129 runs to level the series and made it clear that the Karachi victory was no fluke by bulldozing the hosts by a staggering 234 runs — Pakistan’s heaviest defeat in ODI history.

Malik tried to make everyone believe that it was just a couple of bad days and that his team would come out of the mess stronger. It would take a smooth liar or a complete idiot to come to such a conclusion.

The fact is that Pakistan proved to be no match for Sri Lanka — hardly the best ODI team in the world. The series’ result has made it crystal clear that almost two years after launching a ‘rebuilding’ campaign in the wake of a disastrous World Cup outing in 2007, Pakistan seem to have only sunk deeper in the quicksand of inconsistency, players’ rivalries and under-achievement under a captain who is hardly an inspirational figure.

It seems like déjà vu, all over again.

Pakistan went through a similar phase after their humiliatingly early exit from the 2003 World Cup in South Africa under an ageing Waqar Younis. The then cricket bosses of the country ordered a rebuilding phase and four years later Pakistan ended up losing to minnows Ireland in the World Cup, under the sorry captaincy of Inzamam-ul-Haq.

Former PCB chairman Nasim Ashraf, a Musharraf aide hand-picked by the ex-president to run cricket, thought he had played a master stroke by appointing a young Malik to spearhead the rebuilding campaign for the 2011 World Cup.
Two years later, it looks like his decision only placed Pakistan on the wrong side of the road to progress.

Youth was supposed to be the strong point for Malik, who had little else to prove that he was worth the captaincy. But it turned out to be one of the reasons for his less than impressive captaincy record.

An above-average cricketer with below-par Test credentials, Malik is neither a born leader nor an inspiring figure. He doesn’t even enjoy a clean reputation. In 2005, the PCB banned him for one Test after he was found guilty of throwing a domestic Twenty20 match while leading the Sialkot Stallions.

But Malik is only one of the disappointments Pakistan suffered during the Sri Lanka series. For one reason or the other, most of the team’s senior players under-performed, leading Pakistan to an embarrassing defeat in the series.

Comeback fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar promised a lot but flopped miserably in the first two games in Karachi before being dropped for the series’ finale. Younis Khan, the team’s premier batsman in the absence of ICL rebel Mohammad Yousuf, was unable to click in the big run chases that Pakistan faced in the last two games.

Misbah-ul-Haq ruined his chances of succeeding Malik as Pakistan captain by failing to even reach double figures in any of the games. Shahid Afridi is closer to the axe than ever before by continuing his awful form with the bat. Kamran Akmal continued to drop catches and calls to dump him for a steadier wicket-keeper have gained momentum.

It was hardly surprising that Ijaz Butt quickly ordered an inquiry into the Lahore debacle. And within a few days, he decided it was time Pakistan had a new captain in Younis Khan.

Another probe has been launched by the Senate’s sports committee with one of its members sensing “foul-play” in the back-to-back losses against Sri Lanka.

“You don’t expect a national team to get bowled out for just 75 on a wicket where 309 runs were made by another team in the previous innings,” Senator Enver Baig told Newsline. “Such results make you think that something is terribly wrong with our team. There is no unity and the captain has been unable to gel the boys together,” he stressed.

The outspoken Baig, who says he has been crusading for positive changes in Pakistan cricket for the past four years, also fears that there is a possibility that match-fixing might have been involved. “I personally smell some foul-play. I mean match-fixing is something that hasn’t been eradicated completely [from Pakistan cricket], which is very unfortunate,” he said. “The manner in which our team lost the final match has certainly raised suspicions. Pakistan was worse than an ordinary club team. Such a performance is completely unacceptable.”

Pakistan cricket has suffered enormously in the past because of match-fixing allegations and if such a scandal resurfaces, it would be a killer blow to what is the nation’s biggest pastime.

Whether match-fixing is responsible is a debatable question but one thing is for sure — the Pakistan team was heading nowhere under the leadership of Shoaib Malik.

Shoaib Malik may have several wins to show, like the ones achieved against underdogs Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Hong Kong, but the bitter truth is that under him Pakistan have almost always crumbled when it mattered most. They lost back-to-back Test and ODI series on home soil against South Africa in 2007 soon after Malik became captain and then suffered similar blows on the tour of India. Another big disappointment was last summer’s Asia Cup also on home soil, in which Pakistan failed to reach the final.

To say that Pakistan cricket is going through a critical phase would be an understatement. An optimist might say that the only way from here is up. It could be, but for that, the country’s cricket administrators will have to take some bold steps. They’ve already taken one by bringing in Younis at the helm of the national team. It remains to be seen whether Younis will succeed where Malik failed. One hopes he does, for the sake of Pakistan cricket.

The writer is ranked among the battle-hardened journalists covering sports. As sports editor for The News, he covers sporting action extensively in Pakistan and abroad.