Originally for Dawn.com (below is the complete un-edited version)
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. Aaaah…that’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.