Thanks to Markhor for his analysis of the reasons behind Pakistan's disappointing campaign during ICC World Cup 2019 where they failed to reach the semi-final stage.
By Markhor (6th July, 2019)
Pakistan played true to stereotype in the 2019 World Cup. Buzzwords such as “unpredictable”, “mercurial” and “blowing hot and cold” are viewed as lazy Orientalist caricatures of Pakistan cricket by fans longing for a more consistent side, but the World Cup saw a team capable of glorious highs and incomprehensible lows with little middle ground. However, the irony is Pakistan’s World Cup position occupies that very middle ground. Not consistent enough to break into the top four, but a cut above the rest.
Since January 2010, Pakistan has been amongst the top 9 ODI sides. Pakistan’s ODI ranking heading into the 2019 World Cup ? 6th. It’s World Cup position? 5th. This is and has been a distinctly mid-table ODI side. Yet some television pundits and fans are making out as if Pakistan have been robbed by the cricketing gods !
Already there’s much grumbling about Net Run Rate (NRR) determining qualification from the group stages. But the fact remains that the only conspiracy is the way Pakistan conspired to shoot themselves in the foot through a series of muddled selection decisions, tactical errors and poor execution – most notably in the shambolic opening match collapse against the short ball barrage from West Indies that proved fatal for NRR, and a horrendous new ball display versus Australia on a damp Taunton wicket. In batting, bowling and fielding – Pakistan seldom brought all three facets of their game together.
Pakistan’s top order was much heralded going into this tournament. The “FBI” trio of Fakhar Zaman, Babar Azam and Imam-ul-Haq presented the strongest top order since the days of Saeed Anwar, Aamir Sohail and Ijaz Ahmed. However, the hero of the 2017 Champions Trophy, Fakhar Zaman failed to live up to expectations with a number of soft dismissals against spin. Imam, except for an excellent hundred in the final match versus Bangladesh, failed to cash in on good starts.
That meant an over-reliance on Babar Azam, who again reminded the world of his prodigious talent. With a compact technique, an array of shots against pace and spin, and arguably the best backfoot game since Mohammed Yousuf, the youngster took on the mantle of leader of Pakistan’s batting unit. This was exemplified in the Edgbaston runchase versus New Zealand. In front of a raucous crowd and on a tricky used surface, Babar stayed till the end to keep Pakistan’s campaign alive.
However, it was not Babar, but the two seniors Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik who were described as “the backbone of the team” by captain Sarfaraz Ahmed before the tournament. Yet both delivered a spinelessperformance especially in the grudge match versus India when their experience was needed the most. Hafeez delivered only one substantial knock against England at Trent Bridge, thanks to some charity from Jason Roy’s hands, and was repeatedly dismissed throughout the tournament whilst attempting to hit part-timers out of the attack. Malik, despite possessing an average of 13 in England, was selected in the final 15 and predictably failed. With scores of 8, 0 and 0 along with 18 months of mediocre form – one asks WHY Pakistani culture fetishes seniority to an unhealthy extent?
The bowling failed to perform as a collective unit, relying on the seasoned left-arm duo of Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz, with the youngster Shaheen Shah Afridi only finding the right length for English conditions late in the tournament. Amir was not even in the original squad but intelligent changes of pace and accuracy ensured his place amongst the tournament’s leading wicket-takers. Riaz, who spoke of “dreaming” about Chief Selector Inzamam-ul-Haq calling him for the World Cup after exclusion from the preliminary squad, was outstanding at the death with his fast reverse swinging yorkers.
The biggest disappointment was Hasan Ali. Another star of the 2017 Champions Trophy. Hasan’s line and length was all over the place and dismal figures of 2/256 at an economy of nearly 8 runs per over suggests the youngster may join a long line of Pakistani cricketers who started their careers with a bang before fading away.
Shadab Khan and Imad Wasim did little to allay the concerns of those who feel Pakistan need more penetration in the middle overs - although it has to be said that most spinners have struggled on English pitches in the tournament. Nevertheless, the pace trio of Amir, Riaz and Afridi emerged as a positive and would’ve taken more wickets had it not been for appalling catching.
Sadly, whatever gains were made from the Steve Rixon era are fast being eroded. Whilst Mickey Arthur’s team is fitter and faster than the one he inherited – far too many simple catches were shelled. Asif Ali’s drops in the Australia game proved especially costly.
Much will be said about Sarfaraz Ahmed’s captaincy future. Indeed much was said after “the yawn seen round the world” moment during the India game. Whilst one appreciates his passion and fighting spirit, Sarfaraz continued to make tactical errors. Time and again, a Pakistani bowler would find an outside edge of a new batsman only to rue the lack of a slip fielder. Sarfaraz’s bowling changes were also peculiar, often looking to bowl out the 50 overs than bowl out the opposition by saving his best bowlers for late despite taking early wickets. New Zealand and Afghanistan ended up with 40-50 more runs than deserved. One could learn from Australia’s Aaron Finch and how Mitchell Starc is brought on to kill off a game whenever a threatening partnership develops instead of trying to get his weaker bowlers’ overs out of the way first. Worse for Sarfaraz, his batting form for the last 18 months in all formats has nosedived with the World Cup producing only one fifty. One wonders whether the Sarfaraz of 2014-16 will re-emerge if the burdens of captaincy are lifted>
Ultimately the 1992 clichés went stale - jazba and junoon alone is no substitute for proper planning. Pakistan simply lacked the consistencyneeded to succeed in this round robin format with three glaring holes that must be filled to avoid another group stage exit in 2023. The first is a gun spinner, critical to succeed in Indian conditions. The lack of a quality right-arm pacer is another, as well as a reliable middle-order batsman.
Nevertheless, Pakistan proved by winning its last four matches on the trot, and beating the home favourites England, that there’s a promising and talented young core. One hopes that the new PCB administration led by Ehsan Mani and Wasim Khan avoid the acrimony and recriminations that followed Pakistan’s previous four World Cup campaigns.
Making wholesale changes to personnel and management yet again will not produce a magic formula for success. Replacing the coaches or selectors are superficial short-term changes. Rather they must take a long-term view and ask themselves this - is it a coincidence the top four teams of this World Cup are those with the strongest domestic structures?
If Pakistan are to ever kick the inconsistency tag, and rise from its current mid-table mediocrity, they must look at its grassroots system where young talent emerges. The gap between domestic and internationals is larger than ever hence numerous investments in players failing to pay off for Pakistan in this tournament. As former coach Waqar Younis said after overseeing a group stage exit from the 2016 T20 World Cup – fix the system or we cry again in four years’ time.