Archive for February, 2012

Re-Scripting the Chase

Originally for Dawn.com (below is the complete un-edited version)

How many times will we see the same mistakes repeated over again

Pakistan’s performance against England in the last two ODIs in Abu Dhabi has given an opportunity for the “chase demon”, who has caused much pain and anguish to the fans and players over the years to show it’s detestable face once again. As much joy as a three-nil whitewash of the world’s premier test side might have brought to the deserving Pakistani cricket aficionados, it shouldn’t be reason enough to brush aside the shortcomings that the team continues to grapple with in the shorter version of the game.

For those who dare to look into them, the facts are quite simple and straightforward. England, is by no means a major force in the One-Day format, their five-nil thrashing at the hands of India a few months back serves as a good indicator of this. For Pakistan, a side under an admirable new leader, trying to become worthy contenders to the crown in every version of the game, the defeats, and more so the manner of the defeats, are a disturbing and yet all-too-familiar trend.

While giving all due respect to the English side, apart from the irrepressible Cook with the bat and Broad and Swann (to some extent) with the ball, the poms ODI outfit is far from exemplary. Certainly their performance and spirited fight back in Abu Dhabi after the test matches is commendable, but given the conditions, form of the teams and general momentum being carried over from the Test series one cannot blame Misbah-ul-Haq and his men to have been quietly confident of a whitewash prior to the ODI series,.

What went wrong then? Is it a mere case of a lax mindset? Overconfidence? Underestimating the opposition? Or is there more to it? A sensible follower would lean towards the latter, and there will be two flaws that stand out. The first one, a minor glitch when bowling which should be easy enough to rectify while the other, an age-old problem when chasing, would require an arduous but necessary change of stubborn minds.

In bowling, Pakistan seem to be going through unexplainable moments of relapses as they come to terms with the fact that it is not pace but spin that is now their most potent weapon. The long love affair with pace is showing it’s lingering side effects in the form of obstinate and continuous selections of two seamers, when the quartet of Ajmal, Afridi, Rehman and Hafeez with one seamer and a batting all-rounder (Hammad) is surely the best combination. Pakistan’s “spin-strangulation” policy, with all the spinners playing, has been the prominent reason behind their success; focusing on it, perfecting it and giving it the maximum chance to succeed is the best way forward. Instead of giving extra overs to undeserving speedsters in the power plays, Misbah should concentrate on utilizing his spinners in an attacking manner.

Even when all the spinners are playing, defensive fields with just four or five in the ring (and at the edge of the ring at that) will do little for them. Constant attacking fields, with catchers and blockers to bottle the constant rotation of strike, frustrating the batsmen and squeezing out wickets has worked like a treat for the Test attack (second innings of the Abu Dhabi Test serving as the best and closest ODI-type example). And this ploy must be exhibited through the entirety of the bowling innings instead of being employed only in patches or power plays. Pakistan have tended to resort to this fruitful plan only when the situation demands it i.e. bowling second, defending a par score but faltering occasionally in its application when bowling first. The fact is, Pakistan is extremely gifted in the spin department and given the attacking and versatile nature of their spin attack they should not fear treating the entire time they are out in the field like a bowling power play irrespective of the opposition. Precise and fearless utilization of the spinners by Misbah will find most international sides struggling to even reach scores of 200-220 let alone setting up more respectable targets of 250 plus (a luxury not worth providing to mediocre spin-playing outfits such as England’s).

With batting, the fans can only wish the problem was so simple. Surely those of us who have followed this team’s ODI fortunes over the last decade or more have become used to such capitulations while chasing modest totals, for that is what scores around 250 are in the modern game. And even though some of us might have resigned ourselves to accept such occurrences as nothing out of the ordinary, none of us (the romantic optimists that most Pakistani fans are) have ever lost hope when a chase of around 250 is on.

Hafeez will provide a fluent start yaar, and might even score a century. After all, he is a reformed Cricketer now. Cue: Hafeez plays an across-the-line hoik lobbing it to mid-wicket. Koi nahi Younis is there, he will anchor the innings and see us through most definitely. Cue: Younis plays a flick around a straight ball and gets caught on the crease right in front of middle stump for under ten. The stodgers come in, and ensure if nothing else, that the run-rate somehow goes over a run a ball and play out most of the middle overs (this is when those in Pakistan start flicking through different channels to see what else is on T.V, and those watching abroad at insane hours in the night set an alarm and catch a much-needed nap). You tune back in and it’s invariably four down (on a really bad day probably even six-down) with Misbah at one end and the dashing Umar at the other. Umar is trying to play his natural game, as best he can with Misbah’s conservative instructions bearing down on him. The required run-rate which had reached an alarming level of eight an over a few overs back seems under control at six-and-a-half thanks to Umar’s exuberance. That flame of hope inside your chest is given a burst of Oxygen, as you wonder and rue for the umpteenth time why this kid is coming in as low as number six. Pakistan needs under a hundred by now but a couple of poor overs follow as Misbah hogs most of the strike and fails to rotate often enough. Cue: The required rate reaches eight again, Umar loses his patience and gets caught out to a rash yet perfectly timed shot for a flamboyant 30.

What ever, now the fun begins. Afridi, Faramir-ish with his helmet on, walks out and you get the usual burst of androgenic hormones. Our power-hitter is here now, he will show them. Good he is taking his time and rotating the strike…is what you start tweeting out to the world, while inside that little Pakistani in you is squirming. What is this nonsense from the Pathan, Aaaghh! I hate this new Afridi style…come on hit those sixes man, you can finish this in five overs. Unfortunately, Afridi has had enough of it as well. The crowd and chants have proved too much for him as he smacks one over cow corner. Aaaahthat’s better….Crunch!…this one is straight, up and over for a maximum, into the pack of hungry hounds dancing in the stands shouting out for more. Cue: Afridi for some unfathomable reason gets on one knee and swings cross-batted to the leg side, top edge, and that mediocre opposition player who has been getting on your nerves throughout the game gleefully takes the catch. We all know what comes next… Miss-bah (close but no cigar), the solitary Gul raptaa over mid-wicket, Ajmal’s cute little dabs in vain… the script it seems, is so familiar and painful (Mohali) that you wonder why you even bothered to allow yourself to think otherwise.

But this is not the Pakistan of the 90’s and 2000’s. There is a method in this outfit, and a calm tactfulness about its leader that rightly gives the fan hope that sense shall prevail. It certainly, and most importantly, has in Tests and bowling in general, and there is no reason it shouldn’t while chasing in the fifty over game. The ODI format has evolved immensely and is a vastly different game from what it was a decade and a half ago. Sadly the same cannot be said of Pakistan’s tactics while chasing, as they continue to pursue the cobwebbed approach of preserving wickets, aimlessly drifting during the middle of the innings and fantasizing to finish big. It is time Pakistan parted ways with this approach from the days of Miandad/Inzi, that has mostly brought nothing but failure and a sense of living Ground-Hog Day while chasing anything over 250 and come to terms with the reality of modern day ODI Cricket.

They have only to look towards India (who suffered from a similar, probably worse mental block while chasing until the days of Ganguly) to figure out that fluency through out the innings is key to consistently chasing successfully. Not mistaking this fluency for over the top flashy exuberance, as most critics of such change do, but embracing it in a manner that suits the players’ game as well as brings a smoothness to chasing will be Misbah’s biggest challenge.

Getting rid of the likes of Malik, freeing your most talented batsman (Umar) of the burdens of keeping, giving him room to breathe by sending him up the order and letting him play his natural game would be a good starting point. Not treating the other promising youth (Asad) as the token sacrificial lamb and defining a set role for him in the side as well as adding a batting all-rounder (Hammad) to make the transition from the lower-middle order to the tail smoother will prove helpful as well.

The major obstacle since the departure of Imran in favor of change and applying innovative approaches has been the lack of strategic leadership. With Misbah in charge that prickly thorn it seems has finally been washed away, and it would almost be unfair to the fans and the team, if revisions are not at least given a shot. Pakistan are penciled in to play India in the Asia Cup on March the 18th, lets hope we have learnt our lessons from Mohali, and don’t die wondering if the toss of the coin doesn’t fall our way.

Pakistan’s Doosra

Abdur Rehman has become a key component of the Pakistani bowling line-up over the last fifteen months

Originally for Dawn.com

I must, humbly, admit that I was never a big fan of Abdur Rehman. Having grown up emulating the likes of Mushtaq Ahmed or been transfixed by the beauty of Saqlain Mushtaq’s doosras and Shane Warne’s flippers, Rehman just didn’t seem to make the cut. Maybe the sight of Sunil Joshi getting spanked over his head for massive sixes at the hands of Inzamam, or Aamir Sohail (with his indomitable chest-hair) making his way from between the stumps and the umpire to deliver the ball, contributed to the bias but it’s safe to say that left-arm spin never caught my fancy.

Watching Rehman from the stands in St Lucia in 2010, in the most painfully demoralising World Twenty20 semi-final didn’t change my perception either. And while he performed well against South Africa in the 2007 home series; routinely held up his end of the bargain in the T20s, he still appeared to be just another run-of-the-mill bowler who was riding the high tide of a few successful domestic stints, soon to disappear into oblivion.

That didn’t happen, of course, as the old chap kept chipping in with one or two wickets in every game and made a permanent position for himself in the limited-overs squad. Pakistan preferred to play the trio of Shahid Afridi, Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Hafeez in most games but the addition of Rehman meant that the side almost always fared better. As the team began employing the ‘choke’ policy (which started in Younis Khan’s reign as captain) to good effect, Rehman proved crucial to the plan with his regular economy rate of under four runs per over.

Rehman’s stock ball, however, remained the golee – a flattish, skiddy, straight delivery; fired in at the fourth stump line; hard to get away but equally hard to get a wicket with, unless the batsmen loses his patience. In fact, thegolee became so effective that there came a time when the conservative captain-coach partnership of Afridi and Waqar Younis started to prefer Rehman over Ajmal in the playing eleven. A tactical blunder in my opinion, the policy remained in place until the loss at the hands of New Zealand in the 2011 World Cup, and served as one of the major reasons behind my prejudice against Rehman. Here was the management preferring their biggest wicket-taking option over a run-blocker when, Ajmal should have included in the team on merit and logic.

While Rehman had become a key component of the ODI side, his Test credentials remained unproven until Pakistan’s series against the West Indies. No longer the bowler of old, confined by the limitations of his limited-overs game, Rehman’s bowling had gained a freshness and creativity missing even in the reasonably successfulTest tour of New Zealand.

Maybe it was the confidence he had gained from becoming a permanent fixture in the Test side or the seemingly ‘weak’ opposition, but the ball was not just being fired in as usual. There was tempting flight on display as well as appreciative bounce, but more importantly, there was grip and turn. No longer was Rehman just bowling to dry out the runs and sneak in a wicket, but one could see him plotting the batsman’s demise as he drew them out and pushed them back with changes in pace and flight worthy of a true spinner.

The Carribean calypso was not just a flash in the pan as the veteran proved his worth once again in the solitary Test win against Sri Lanka, after having been dropped in the first Test in favour of three seamers. It was a tricky call, probably based on the traditional Pakistani obsession with pace and seemed like a noticeable deviance from the unassuming organisation that had become the hallmark Misbah-ul-Haq’s captaincy.

It is this organisation and planning – relying on a strong spin attack to strengthen a squad, which, barring Saeed Ajmal and Umar Akmal lacks any outstanding talent – is key to Pakistan cricket’s success in the last year and a half.

The traditionally ‘unpredictable’ Pakistan are no more an amalgamation of a few rapscallions – sparkling one day and fizzling out the other – but are a well thought-out puzzle that draws together to present an exhibition well worth the admission fee. Every piece of this puzzle has its part to play, and none in terms of importance are greater or smaller.

Abdur Rehman, as the second spinner, is one such piece. Like everyone else, he has found an indisputable niche in this team and has performed his duties to perfection. Almost in every innings, when a partnership starts brewing up and Ajmal’s patience starts to waver, Misbah turns to his second spinner for answers and Rehman obliges, almost always. The Sialkot Stallion is not just the team’s designated partnership-breaker; he also has an uncanny ability of dismissing the opposition’s star batsman. From Kumar Sangakarra to Kevin Pitersen, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shakib Al-Hasan and Jonathan Trott – all have fallen victim the left-armer. Rehman’s ability to get the scalp of well-settled batsmen is an enviable trait and one which has proved invaluable to Misbah, who is also among the rare breed of captains harbouring three quality spinners in the side since as successful spin partnerships remain a rarity in modern-day cricket.

Spinners work differently than fast bowlers. While fast bowlers generally remain unaffected by the nature of their partner’s style of bowling, hunting in pairs like a couple of hounds gaining strength from each blow inflicted by the other, a spinner’s effectiveness relies on the partner’s bowling style. Two similar-styled fast bowlers (Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie) can prove effective despite their similarities, but spinners of the same breed rarely perform at their peak when bowling together.

For Ajmal’s virtuosity to have its maximum glorifying effect, a hard working Rehman on the other end is essential. The last hour of the second Pakistan-England Test aside, the most compelling period of the match was the post-tea session on day two when England were threatening to run away with the game. Ajmal had proved ineffective and Misbah had persisted with Hafeez on the other end, disregarding the services of the ever-dependable Rehman.

When the old-gun was finally given a chance, the match turned on its head. Runs that had started to flow pre-tea were blocked out, Trott was bowled off an unplayable turner, and Ajmal at the other end returned to his destructive best. A cat and mouse game ensued, building breakneck amounts of pressure that despite the vastly different style of bowling was reminiscent of the two Ws toying with the opposition batsmen. The unrelenting Ajmal-Rehman partnership, just like in the final session of the Test, proved too much for the English top order as Pakistan clawed their way back into the game.

Rehman, with his inconspicuous nature, will never be the star attraction. His bowling will rarely outshine the artistry being dished out at the other end by Ajmal. Then again, he was never designed for it. Realising this ‘shortcoming’ and not looking for more could prove to be his biggest asset. It is time the man in the shadows was given his due share, for it is in his experienced hands that Pakistan may have found a left-arm spinner they can finally cherish.