April issue 2015

By | Sports | Published 5 years ago

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote an article for Newsline where I made predictions for the 2015 Cricket World Cup. As I began writing the review of the tournament, it was amusing to go back to that piece to see if I could add the title of fortuneteller to my CV. Reading the piece now, the rather safe predictions I made two years ago largely turned out to be true — Pakistan’s matches against South Africa and India were indeed tough, and the clash against Zimbabwe at the Gabba was almost the banana skin I had warned about then. The team eventually made it to the quarterfinals, but failed to go beyond, which was exactly what I had foreseen a year ago.

Yet despite the predictable outcome, the journey Pakistan took was quite different, and much more engrossing than what I had in mind. The first and foremost reason for this was the squad Pakistan chose. Seven of my predicted 15 squad members didn’t make it to the tournament, and consequently the team’s strengths and weaknesses were quite different from what I had predicted.

A year ago, Pakistan seemed to have found a dynamic set of players to build its middle order around. But the openers’ combination was a bit iffy. While Ahmed Shehzad had secured his place as opener in all three formats, Nasir Jamshed had been unfairly dropped. In my piece, I had  suggested that Misbah should come lower down and allow Fawad Alam, Umar Akmal and Sohaib Maqsood to add impetus to the top.

However, by the time the tournament came around, Shehzad was coming off the boil after an injury in the Tests versus New Zealand, while Nasir had gained weight and dropped his average while recuperating in the domestic game. Umar Akmal and Maqsood had been dropped on the eve of the tournament before being brought back in, while Younis Khan’s test form and emotional blackmailing brought him back in to the side. Hafeez was injured and banned, while all the runs in the world weren’t enough for Fawad Alam, who was replaced by Haris Sohail.

The changes were drastic, but they were significant, and Pakistan’s batting had an absolutely horrible World Cup. Misbah standing as the lone saviour was inevitable, but it was shocking to see just how much the batting depended on him alone. Jamshed was the worst of the lot, playing terrible shots and being too overweight to field runs and too untrained to take catches. But Shehzad was equally disappointing, while Younis Khan almost destroyed his entire legacy. Akmal and Maqsood batted the entire tournament without any sense of responsibility, regularly losing their wickets after a decent start. The only plus point from a year ago was the emergence of Sarfaraz Ahmed, yet for some inexplicable reason he only played in the latter two of the seven group games, where he hit a quickfire 49 and then a scintillating 100.
1The changes in bowling were far more drastic. After losing the world’s best bowler and the best all rounder, Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Hafeez respectively, to chucking bans, the team also lost its pace spearhead, Junaid Khan, before the tournament began. Yet it was a testament to Pakistan’s magnificent bowling culture that Rahat Ali, Sohail Khan and Ehsan Adil managed to handle the losses, while Wahab Riaz finished with the tournament’s most memorable and celebrated bowling spell. The gentle giant, Mohammad Irfan, was as destructive as hoped, though his fitness issues meant he couldn’t play the last two matches.

The team began the tournament against arch-rivals India, and until perhaps the midway point of their second innings, it had the chance to finally record its first win in the World Cup derbies. Pakistan’s bowlers had held back the powerful Indian batting to 300, and its chase was proceeding steadily. But then two events which kept recurring throughout the tournament took place — a middle order batting collapse and a forlorn Misbah special. Even Misbah didn’t last long in the next game against the West Indies, where a string of dropped catches led to the bowlers having their only off-day of the tournament. The thrashing at the hands of the Windies meant that Pakistan found themselves in the same position as they did in 1992 — they now had to win every game to survive.

The batting collapsed, yet again, in the crucial match against the West Indies, where the start of one run for four wickets was the worst in all ODIs ever played. Misbah played his most torturous knock to date to help post a total in the early 200s, but once he got on the field, he became liberated. From the start of the Zimbawean chase all the way to the final runs scored by the Australians in the quarter-final defeat, Misbah’s captaincy on the field never relented in its all-out attack. Knowing that the batsmen were batting like it was still 1992, Misbah used his bowlers as if it was the same era as well. First Zimbabwe were hustled out at the Gabba, and later the UAE and (more surprisingly) Ireland were brushed aside with disdain. Even against Australia, where the entire batting line-up threw away starts, Misbah used his bowlers to ferocious effect.

The match of the tournament though was against South Africa, who were the strongest side on paper and were meeting a desperate Pakistan side. The long-awaited selection of Sarfaraz Ahmed — who resolved both the free-wicket issue caused by Jamshed as well as the dropped catches by the make-shift keeper Umar Akmal — provided an impetus to the batting and only a rain-delay punctured the team’s momentum and its final score. Having next-to-no runs to defend, Pakistan’s bowlers just bullied South Africa into submission. Rahat Ali stepped up in a way few had expected, Sohail nipped out AB de Villiers, while Wahab and, especially, Irfan were menace personified.

In fact, such was the thrall of Pakistan’s bowling that once the team returned, it was rumoured that captain Misbah genuinely believed that had the batting been able to regularly post 250, they could have won the World Cup. Yet the loss of Irfan had weakened what was Pakistan’s second to third-string attack, and it showed in the match against Australia. However, even here Wahab Riaz’s spell of terrifying pace and bounce won Pakistan accolades from across the world.

Ultimately, the team performed far better than expected but was also shown up for where it stood. The tournament marked a clear divide between the top four sides — India, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa — and the rest. Indeed, the bottom tier (Pakistan, Sri Lanka, West Indies and Zimbabwe) were closer in quality to the associate teams, who all had a terrific World Cup. Ireland was the best of the bunch, and it took an unusually clinical performance from Pakistan in a virtual knock-out to keep them out of the quarterfinals.

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For Pakistan, its best batsman was Misbah-ul-Haq yet again. More worryingly, despite the furore over his tuk-tukstyle, it seemed that the rest of the line-up was even more outdated. Umar Akmal and Sohaib Maqsood seemed incapable of building on their innings and handling pressure, Maqsood and Shehzad were terrible at rotating the strike, and all three, as well as Sohail struggled to find the gaps.

Although both Nasir Jamshed and Younis Khan turned in forgettable performances, the biggest disappointment was Shahid Afridi. Pakistan’s biggest star was surprisingly consistent with the bat, though in his case consistency meant quick 20s before holing out in the deep. Far worse was his bowling, which only got wickets against the UAE. Given how much Pakistan depended on its bowling attack, he was a significant weak link and the world didn’t see a single signature Afridi celebration as he bowed out. To make matters worse, he even dropped several catches after a much-publicised bust-up with the fielding coach.

However, Pakistan has also come away from the tournament with a chance to build upon the Misbah years. It is telling that the names popping up for the new captain include several (Azhar Ali, Fawad Alam, Shoaib Malik) who weren’t in the World Cup squad, which is indicative of how the existing team didn’t progress much. But with several seniors departing, this is the time for a new chapter in Pakistani cricket history.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s April 2015 issue.

Ahmer Naqvi is a freelance writer and director of content at Patari, Pakistan’s largest music portal.