Pakistan’s ouster from the Asia Cup against Bangladesh on Wednesday night puts an end to their misery in the tournament and sets up an India/Bangladesh Final on Friday which according to some is likely to be a one-sided encounter. While many embarrassed Pakistani supporters in Dubai, including myself, don’t know what to do with their tickets to the grand finale on the 28th which they had bought well in advance anticipating Pakistan locking horns with India to prove their supremacy as the Asian champions, our cricket think tank has lots to sort out. The question is, have the men at the helm of Pakistan’s cricketing affairs been fazed enough by the recent course of events to realize that there are problems that need to be sorted out? The whole world knows where we faltered, so it would be very surprising if they didn’t.
Let us begin with Imam, who piles on the runs and has a prolific average against mediocre teams. Paper tiger in every sense. But when you speak of his performances against potent bowling attacks in crunch matches where the true grit of a batsman is tested, there’s not much to write home about. Nobody would have questioned his selection, if he had scored big in Pakistan’s two matches against India or carried his side to victory in the do-or-die match against Bangladesh. But when you see a batsman play just to cement his position in the team regardless of the outcome of the game, you do feel it is frustratingly unfair to the likes of Hafeez and Fawad Alam who have been selflessly involved in winning causes quite a few times and would have served as much better replacements with all their experience. Overreliance on Fakhar Zaman has also dented the way Pakistan went about their batting in the tournament. As difficult to digest as it may be, we could take a leaf out of India’s book where if one batsman fails to perform and gets out cheaply, the man coming in next is even more dangerous. Meanwhile, Pakistan hopes of scoring big since the Champions Trophy have always rested on Fakhar and the fact that he was off-color in the tournament, which any batsman could be, exposed the team. Credit must go to Shoaib Malik for bringing us this far in the tournament, since the team would probably have been sent packing much earlier by Afghanistan had it not been for his match-winning knock in that tight chase in Abu Dhabi.
It is not a good sign when the captain himself is one of the weakest links in the team. Sarfraz’s own form with the bat makes him more than replaceable and his decisions as a captain, less than impressive. When Bangladesh were reeling at 12 for 3 on Wednesday with Junaid & Shaheen firing on all cylinders, spinners were brought into the attack. And they certainly weren’t Saqlain, Murali or Warne. Instead they were a bunch of bowlers who Geoffrey Boycott’s good old “mum” could’ve milked all day long. First came Nawaz, who is neither a complete bowler nor a batsman (perfectly fits the Prime Minister’s definition of a “Railoo Katta”). After a brief and ineffective stint by pacer Hassan Ali in between, came Malik, who isn’t half the bowler he was when he started out his career. Next in line was Shadab, who lacked variety and in spite of an injury, ironically remained part of a team where players are known to be selected more on the basis of fitness than skill or experience. Basically all the hard work by Junaid & Shaheen was undone by the bowlers who followed and the momentum shifted in Bangladesh’s favor. But why blame the execution when the planning is wrong in the first place? Could Sarfraz not have persisted with two of his most likely bowlers to take wickets for a bit longer? Why weren’t slips in place when we had Bangladesh’s backs against the wall and could have gone for the kill? When we were batting, why was Shadab, who wasted a couple of dozen deliveries during a crucial passage of play and got out, sent ahead of Asif Ali? It’s understandable that sometimes the captain can overlook some basic errors he’s committing while focusing on other things, but can’t his senior colleagues or the team management in the dressing room share their two cents with him to rectify any issues they might spot? Or do they just turn a blind eye to the on-field blunders and are too busy safeguarding their own interests?
Hardly anything went Pakistan’s way during their outing in the Asia Cup and the sooner we get this performance out of our systems, the better. But corrective measures need to be taken in order to avoid a repeat of this debacle. First up, the selection process needs to be revisited thoroughly where it is not personal links or even performances but the circumstances in which those performances were delivered are taken into consideration. For example, drafting a player into the team just because he had a formidable batting average in a domestic season isn’t enough. Factors like consistency, the quality of the bowling attack against which he scored runs, the conditions in which the runs were scored, the number of reprieves the batsman got during his knocks need to be considered. If anything or anyone is impeding fair selection, the source of hindrance needs to be eliminated (unfortunately in Pakistan this is easier said than done, but not impossible). Given that the ICC World Cup is scheduled to take place next year, building a solid bench strength in all departments is also essential where no player is indispensable, including the captain. Immediate and effective replacements must be available for anyone who is injured or fails to perform. Lastly, Pakistan needs to look into ways of playing bigger nations more often and reducing the excessive amount of cricket played against minnows. Competing against the weakest teams in the world is not only making our cricketers complacent and incapable of handing pressure but also serving as an improper yardstick for judging player performance at the international level.
Fahad Parvez is a Dubai-based sports analyst