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Keeping Him At Six

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Umar Akmal- Forever the Pariah in this generation of Pakistani bastsmen

About two and a half years ago I wrote this piece on Umar Akmal, pleading the case, as many have done over the years, on his promotion up the order. That wish was never granted and after a period of being dropped from all formats Pakistan’s brightest current batting talent finds himself in the side as wicketkeeper! Because you know, it only made sense that one of the weakest batting sides in the world couldn’t seem to find a specialist slot for their best batsman. Any way the point of this post is not to bitch and moan (or at least keep it to a minimum), but to once again plead to the management. Only this time the exact opposite. “Let him now remain at six. It’s too late now”.

This request is not because I have finally seen the light and accept that he deserves to bat lower down, many of his “fans” have fallen prey to this, but keeping the 2015 WC in sight this seems the best way forward.

Umar Akmal was never a No.6 batsman. There is a special breed of ODI batsmen that fit that billing. You need to remain cool under all circumstances. You need to be confident in your abilities but not so much so as to be over the top (being over-the-top can come in handy sometimes for batsmen batting higher up). And most importantly you need to possess the ability to play a three-fold game. In degrees of importance these are, attack (Lala style hitting); measured aggressiveness (Miandad style single-doubles)”; and complete defense (comes most into play when you have to maneuver strike in close finishes batting with the tail). Dhoni is the only batsman who comes close to mastering all three. The only one he might fall short off is complete mastery of the tuk-tuk, but since that is the least important of the lot he is in my books the best No.6 ODI batsman of all time.

Now Umar Akmal possesses very few of these traits. Being calm and collected in tense situations is not his forte, his reflex is to seek refuge in the aggressive nature that is inherent to him, and he lets his emotions feed his stroke play. He definitely belongs to the conceited and cocky school of batsmanship; I don’t think this leaves any room for misinterpretation in this regard. And in the last most essential criteria he completely fails in the defense (tuk-tuk) category, which means he will rarely be able to bat strategically with the No.10s and 11s of the world, struggling to see games off till the very end.

Despite all these draw backs he has a staggering record at the position, only coming a close second to Dhoni. To Dhoni! Best ever to have played at the position. Better than the Bevans and Husseys off the world. So good that he gives top-order specialists like Kohli, Amla, AB and Sanga a good run for their money when contending for best current ODI batsman. In fact Umar Akmal even one-ups Dhoni in the 100s metric hit from the No.6 slot. That’s a monumental achievement for someone whose natural game and mindset isn’t even close to being ideal for the position. It’s gold for someone who has been beaten and molded into the position while being asked to also take on the immense responsibility of donning the wicket keeper’s gloves. This is a tribute purely to the magnitude of talent and range he possesses as a batsman and its ability to over shadow all those obstacles.

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The saddest part is that the team managements of past and present were all aware of this  fact. Everybody in the Pakistan setup knew how talented this kid was, realized that he was their best future prospect, were fully aware of how mediocre the other top to middle order options were at the time, and yet decided to use him like a rag doll.

The India Asia Cup game was a perfect example of this awareness and exploitative behavior. I don’t know whose call it precisely was to send Umar Akmal up the order, but it was highly ill-thought out and born out of cowardice. When the pressure was on the management, out of nowhere decided to send in Umar Akmal in the most intense situation imaginable, in the biggest ODI Pakistan had played in over a year. The promotion acknowledged that deep down the management realize he is a much better batsman than the rest. But the injustice is that he is allowed such “luxury” only in these sort of situations. The guy had just stroked two of his best knocks at No.6, he is well acclimatized to that position. Sohaib, the guy Umar replaced, is a pretty decent bat whose game is fully capable of handling spin, as he showed during the game as well. But they decided on Umar. Why? Because when insecurity creeps in and doubt takes over the only place to seek assurance is in fact. And the fact is Umar Akmal has always been our best option in ODIs and should have been batting in the top 4 since the start. The Pakistani management have invested absolutely nothing in him, and exploited him at every opportunity presented, just like they exploited him against India days ago.

His game currently is, sadly, that of a lower order batsman. Years of forced duty in the doldrums of the batting line-up means his approach to the game involves elements of slogging, rash strokes that don’t befit a batsman of his caliber, and brain freezes that we have now become so used to. These were chinks in his armor that were suppose to be ironed out by playing him up the order and giving him the responsibilities of a proper batsman, instilling in him the confidence that the rest of your team depends on you. But Pakistan never did that. Down here at six, there is no need for him to do that. He is not by conventional standards one of the mainstays of Pakistan’s batting  (the cruel irony being that in practice he very much is). He is already averaging 40, which is exceptional for a wicket-keeper batsman coming this low, and in his head keeping probably requires all his extra effort instead of his batting, because that’s the main thing that’s guaranteeing his spot in the XI right now.

Of course he was always better suited to the top order. Your best batsmen, as argued constantly, should be making the games for you instead of perpetually saving them. But Pakistan v India cauldrons are not the places to brew them. If they wanted to manufacture Akmal into a proper higher-order batsman the management would have the decency to do it against lower key sides, in bilateral series where the stakes are more manageable. And when such a chance is provided make sure it is a proper one. Not the typical two, three games where failure means your shoved back down the order.

A batsman’s position in the batting order is extremely sensitive to his performance and state of mind. Each position comes with its own responsibility and duties, and expecting one to perform right away after having become used to an entirely different set of match situations is cruel and unfair to that player. Ahmed Shehzad’s coming of age is living example of the wonders a consistent spot, confidence and persistence by the management can do for a batsman. If pushed up the order Umar Akmal will fail. Of course he will, he is bound to, but not because he is not suited to the job, but because it takes time and effort to make the necessary adjustments. But once the fixes are made in gameplay, and more importantly up there in the head; the dividends the investment pays back will be ten folds what he is offering Pakistan right now.

Unfortunately I see no such favors being doled out for Umar, he is forever the pariah in this generation of young Pakistani batsmen. Forever forced to remain on the fringes of the batting order, while countless others much less deserving than him, get the opportunities he never got.  Even if the management sent him up it lacks the patience and faith to stick with him for the required amount of time (I fully expect him to bat at six again in the next game). More importantly with the World Cup only a year away, it is now too late to fix what after a long time doesn’t seem as broke as it used to. Akmal is performing consistently at No 6. (Yes even a quick fire 30-40 is successful at the No.6 slot, and he seems to get those regularly enough. You can’t judge success according to top order player metrics when he isn’t being played as one). In Sohaib Pakistan has found a dependable batsman (moving him around will be unfair on him and scramble his mind too), and a consistent Shehzad and Misbah means Pakistan’s ODI batting is not as flimsy as it used to be a year back.

Even though Akmal deserves better and it’s discomforting to see him reduced to a wicket-keeper batsman, it is in the team’s best interest for now to just stick with him at six. It’s simply too late now, and sadly the World Cup is more important. Those dreams, of having him become Pakistan’s permanent one-down batsman one-day will sadly just have to remain precisely that.

P.S In an ideal world where the proper chances and utilization of players would have occurred this would have been our order at the ’15 WC- Ahmed Shehzad, Opener 2 (I still want this to be Nasir Jamshed, but taking this spot is failure on his part), Umar Akmal, Sohaib Maqsood, Hafeez, Misbah-ul-Haq (possesses most of the qualities an ideal no.6 should have), Afridi, Gul, Ajmal, Junaid, Irfan. (The tail is too long yes, but lacking a consistent genuine all-rounder whose bowling won’t be taken to the cleaners every time (looking at Bhatti/Anwar Ali) is Pakistan’s weakest link heading into this WC.

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It’s only Test Cricket when England, Australia or India play

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These aren’t the only Test caps you know…

Three Test series have been wiped clean of the FTP this year and it seems no body (the ICC especially) could care less. West Indies and SriLanka mutually called off their Test series in the Caribbean in April, allowing there players safe passage through the entirety of the IPL.

The Sri Lankan officials realizing nobody really gave a hoot, then went ahead and  also postponed (read: scrapped) their home test series against S.A. The West Indian Cricket authorities not to be left behind, saw and raised the SLC’s move by dumping the Pakistan home tests from their calendars. Both of these last two test series were rubbished due to the scheduling of a more alluring short ODI (7 matches) tri-series to be played between India, W.I and Sri Lanka. Apparently the riches to be earned through this mini-venture were enough for the Sri Lankan’s to give the world’s number one test side the boot, as well as lure the West Indies to shift away from their once long-time sporting rivals, Pakistan. The men in Green, due to the intense rivalry they enjoyed with the Windies through much of the 80s & early 90s, remain a local favorite touring side.

It isn’t as much the action of these two boards as the lack of discourse and sheer disregard of these cancellations amongst the Cricket community that is disturbing. Apart from the obligatory report summarizing the press releases from the respective boards, not much else has been written on the matter. The Cricket media and pundits who are usually out with their sharp knives and daggers if a similar scenario arises with the English or Australian Cricket teams (or worse, if India, god-forbid schedule another limited over series) have remained conspicuously silent. The “Test Cricket is Dying” brigade alarmingly seems to only  notice blows to the five-day format, in regions where there isn’t actually any threat to Test Cricket at all. As long as fat helpings of Ashes pudding are there to keep these Test Cricket “sympathizers” well fed, they couldn’t care less about what’s happening with the remaining countries.

Often their wrath is wrongly directed towards India or more specifically the BCCI, especially when the board schedules another meaningless T20 series, or squeezes a couple of ODIs in its home schedule. But to be fair the BCCI has always kept itself up to pace with a healthy dose of Test Cricket spread through its calendar year. The dwindling Test crowds in the country are less to do with the death of the Test game and more to do with modern day lifestyle changes, a preference for limited over Cricket (which is nothing new, and has been building ever since the 80s), and most importantly the perceived shift of Test Cricket in the Indian consumer’s mind from a spectator to a T.V sport. This coupled with the lack of marketing strategy or coherent thought process by the Asian boards (and the ICC as a whole) to stopper the shift and reverse this trend back in favor of spectators, means these countries have lost their in-stadium Test audience.

Test Cricket is not a three, sometimes four, if you count S.A (but they too are quickly turning victims), member sport. The lack of attention, the suspension of these three series, has gotten is alarming and unfortunately points to a clear divide which has now filtered down from administrative to media circles. The raising of such issues by the informed mainstream Cricket media is essential to getting the point-of-view of fans across to the ICC and other relevant administrative bodies.

It doesn’t matter that such criticism has never really amounted to much or changed the views of those governing the game. Just having that outlet, on a major platform, shedding light on all sides of the coin is important enough. Test Cricket fans in countries like the West Indies, Sri Lanka and Pakistan cannot afford the media dropping the ball on this matter. For it is in these countries  (and not the three that often occupy most of the space on this discourse) that Test Cricket is truly on its deathbed. The West Indies are about to go through their first home season with just two scheduled Tests (those too against Zimbabwe). They will not play a Test at home for over a year! This should be big news, but has barely caused a ripple in the Cricket fraternity.

South Africa are the recent holders of the Test Mace. As with all their non-Asian predecessors of the title before them, they are not truly deserving of the crown until they prove their mantle against spin in the Subcontinent. The tour to Sri Lanka would have served as a great litmus test for measuring their batsmen’s capability to cope with spin in helpful conditions, as well as a true challenge for the likes of Philander and Morkel to prove themselves on less friendlier surfaces. Thanks to the ICC we won’t get to savor this challenge any time soon. Pakistan has never won a test series in the W.I. With Misbah at the helm and the test side much more settled than when he captained them to the Caribbean shores two years ago, this might have been that historic tour. Thanks to the ICC again we will never find out.

I blame the ICC, and not the respective boards because these decisions, as excruciating as they might be for Test Cricket fans, are understandable when seen through the lens of these cash-strapped boards. Both SLC and WICB are perpetually in need of money, and one cannot really blame them for milking the cash cow that is T20 and Indian ODI Cricket. The ICC however (as rich as this will sound), apart from the usual revenue generating obligations, is also the custodian of the international game, and so bestowed with the responsibility of the safeguarding of Test Cricket. It is then up to them ultimately to make sure the FTP is abided by, and that proper disciplinary measures are taken if it is not.

The ICC allots a significant amont of money each year to all its member Test nations for the development and running of the game. Maybe it is time they made sure the FTP and all its Test requirements were being met before this money found its way in the exchequer of the respective boards. It is also not that far fetched that more money be designated to some of the countries suffering from greater symptoms of Test Cricket withdrawal than others.

The smaller boards (Pak, S.A, Sri, S.A, N.Z) themselves of course also need to come to the realization that they are already scraping at the bottom of the barrel in terms of FTP Test allocations. Instead of canceling each others tours, and taking a bite out of the others apple, they need to sit down and collectively come to agreements where they can increase Test as well as ODI commitments. The FTP of all these countries are nowhere near as packed as the other three, and allow plenty of room for maneuverability. Yes, the money won’t be as easy as with an Indian tour, but long-term commitments, repeat tours, and proper marketing can lead to the generation of new rivalries that can create new revenue streams.

The India-England and India-Australia rivalries, so prevalent in Cricket today due to their billable nature, are not like the Pakistan-India and Ashes where there is a historic context to them. These are modern-day manufactured rivalries that have taken their current forms through some expert T.V marketing. With the aid of narratives, stories and symbols along with an excess dose of these contests, the rivalries have been force fed and developed (mainly as revenue generating tools) before our eyes in the last decade and half. Instead of fighting over crumbs, the smaller boards should find opportunity in there current squalor and look to forge similar strong alliances.

The current situation, if  allowed to prevail, is eventually heading to a stage where it might become essential to have either India, England or Australia be one of the sides competing in a Test series. But given how much we care from the current levels of discussion on the matter, it’s highly likely we’ll not even notice when this “begins”.

The FTP Facade

What’s the point of the FTP window ?

Recent news that Pakistan’s Caribbean tour scheduled in the second half of this summer might be in jeopardy should be a cause for much distress amongst Pakistan fans and the Cricket community in general. The reason being given is that the two boards failed to find a suitable time frame for the series (which would comprise a minimum of two Tests, five ODIs and the solitary T20) due to other international commitments at the time.

The question that begs to be asked however, is how is there no time frame available when the ten-year FTP has a scheduled window for the tour in July of this year. It turns out the West Indies Cricket board took it upon themselves to schedule an ODI tri-series with India and Sri Lanka in July, overriding the FTP tour, and then went on to set up the Caribbean premier league to kick off later in the month. The Pakistan Cricket Board was then asked to squeeze in the tour in August, something they are hesitant to do, in the hope of hosting India for the tentative series planned during that time. While changes to tour structure, and additions during vacant windows are common practice, replacing already existent FTP tours completely with other country visits (without any political reasoning) are unheard of and a highly disrespectful act towards the PCB.

It raises quite a few issues. It is obvious why the West Indies have initiated such a move. The prospect of a lucrative ODI tri-series with India generates much needed revenue for a cash strapped board like the West Indies, but at the same time makes a similar body like the PCB suffer heavily in its stead. Often you will see such a tri-series sandwiched between the two touring sides in the season (Pakistan, Sri Lanka), while the remaining end of the triangle is fulfilled by the host nation (West Indies). Not only was Pakistan passed on such an offer, the idea of a four-nation tournament (with India) was also deemed unworthy. It is not hard to determine why the latter didn’t materialize as a prospect; the financial clout of India in world cricket is such that the smaller boards don’t want to risk a rejection by irking the mention of the cricketing giant’s less than friendly neighbor in a multi-team event.

The PCB of course is well within its rights not to budge on the hopes of an Indian tour during August/September. But given how the BCCI has dealt with the PCB over the last few years, it remains all but a fool’s hope. While the PCB’s current administration has bent over backwards for their Indian counterpart in the hope of a revival of Cricketing terms, the neighboring powerhouse can’t care less for its once-upon-a-time biggest sporting rival.

Zaka Ashraf has all but bent over backwards for India-Pakistan Cricket revival

Pakistan toured India for a short limited-over series in the winter, even though it was India’s turn to “tour” since the 2007-08 series between the two sides was also held in India. Indian domestic sides have continued to reap the benefits of Pakistan coaches, and it seems the BCCI has no problems fielding top-notch Pakistani umpires in its competitions as well. Commentators from across the borders seem to find space behind Indian microphones with a readiness never witnessed before, yet the current cricketers donning the Pakistan star seem to be valued nothing short of scum when it comes to IPL auctions.

Of course, the BCCI officials will point towards the political tensions between the two countries as the major thorn in efforts to better the relationship. But surely those tensions amongst politicians run both ways. In fact, when it comes to it, the PCB is under much tighter government control with the President of the country still acting as its Patron-in-Chief. The BCCI on the other hand, was till recently identifying itself as an independent “charitable” organization. Surely being such a strong administrative body the BCCI can make efforts (or at least match them) in rising above petty political bickering and use Cricket as a tool to pave the way for improved relations between the two countries.

Pakistan’s “deliberate” ineffective tackling of radical elements within their own country, which then also harm India’s sovereignty, is cited as the political excuse behind the BCCI’s lack of interest in resuming cricket ties. But surely if there is one single body that deserves to be supported for its anti-terror stance and perseverance in the face of terrorism it is the Pakistan Cricket team. Doubters can blame the ISI, the government even the army for having mixed intentions, but no one can doubt the international team’s suffering and resilience over the last five years.

They have been reduced, ironically due to this same threat of terrorism that irks the Indian authorities so much, to a nomadic bunch of sportsmen unwilling to bow down to the inexplicable atrocities that they, the PCB, or any other sporting body in the country have any control over. Yet they have fought on and performed amicably in their effort, which to most rational observers should be a cause that brings them closer to India, and all teams around the world, rather than being shunned like the poor estranged family relative. If the Indian government and the BCCI really want to take a stance against the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks it would serve them much better to reach across and help out the crippled cricket team that despite all odds, continues to fight a battle in every “home” game it plays in the desert heat of the UAE.

Of course previous administration disasters haven’t helped

The PCB of course is not guilt free. Its administration over the years has left a lot to be desired, and some stunted ex-heads have left relationships with most boards extremely sour. Once kingmakers with a considerable say in the running of the game, they are now scraping for crumbs, which are also being whisked away in moves such as this recent West Indies one. Yet for all its financial drawbacks and mishandlings the PCB has kept its promises of the FTP. They have emptied their coffers time and again, “hosting” sides in far-flung New Zealand, England and the UAE, taking revenue cuts in the effort to keep the interest of the game alive. Not just that, they continue to be the flag bearers helping cricket develop in fledgling countries like Afghanistan and Ireland.

In return, they deserve the promises made to them to be kept and enforced by the ICC. The West Indies tour must go on, and so should the planned series against India later this year. The current administration has extended a friendly hand, now is the time more than ever that big brother needs to answer.

Buried Alive ?

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The beauty of Test Cricket is not just numbers

It’s nauseating to see the number of articles detailing the plight of Test Cricket these days. Most cricket pundits seem to think the longest format is under major threat, and want to enforce this opinion on the general public through any medium available to them.

No body knows where this threat is actually emanating from- dwindling crowds in the subcontinent is often sought as a common excuse, but if that’s to be taken as a benchmark than we might as well have buried the five-day game fifteen years ago. Revenue from advertisement and TRP ratings compared to T20s is another common complain, but by that measure Test Cricket’s been on its death bed since the advent of the one-day format.

The latest grumblings filtering through are regarding the actual quality of Test Cricket on display. England is number one, but they get their slates wiped clean by Pakistan. India was number one, but got trampled over when they decided to test their arsenal outside their fortress. All this see-sawing, and inability to dominate like the Australia of 00’s is   supposedly unhealthy and unfit for the longest format. Supposedly it’s also a mark of mediocrity, and a sign that the Test teams don’t possess world-class batsman or bowlers they once used to.

Aren’t these the same people that often whined about how Australia’s dominance in Cricket was detrimental to the sport, and now with these silly arguments, seem to have completely flipped the switch. Last time one checked, close competition between the top brackets of any sport is what made it compelling. It is what makes the current era of men’s professional tennis the greatest it probably has been in the history of the sport. It is what makes the Euro in football a much better viewing than the World Cup itself. It is why most in the U.S don’t care about the regular season of the NBA, but come playoff time, even the uninterested are often hooked to their T.V sets. Its-(and this is just to drive home the hypocrisy of such statements) – what makes the IPL apparently so much more thrilling and consuming than any thing else on the planet.

One can call up a friend statistician, and come up with a dozen indicators to support a silly notion about the lack of modern quality Test Cricketers, but the beauty of the purest form of the game alas, lies in much more than just numbers. If Jonathan Trott is supposedly the only great batsman of the last five years, then where do Cook, Amla, Develliers, Clarke and Gambhir slate in? If the major reason bowlers have done well is only because they have had to adapt like “women in this liberated world”, leaving no space for conventional good bowling, then what do Asif, Amir, Anderson, Broad, Bond and Steyn count for.

But perhaps when it comes to Test Cricket, there is no need for such petty justifications. Perhaps it is best to sit back and let the format do its own talking. Like it did last year when first Sachin Tendulkar, and then Michael Clarke struck hundreds of immense skill and determination on their respective tours to South Africa. Or like this year, when Warner unleashed his wrath at Perth with some of the cleanest hitting imaginable. Or in the desert, when Ajmal and Rehman spun a web so dense, so mesmerizing that even the smallest of targets was whisked out of sight.

At the end of the day, no-matter how many such pieces are typed and tweeted out, the beauty of Test Cricket remains to the viewer, as vivid as ever. Leading one to the simple conclusion- it is not Test Cricket that has a problem, it is its so-called caretakers that have just fallen sick.

Misbah must give Pakistan its best shot

Why rely on mediocre seamers when you have the best spin attack in the world

Orginally for Dawn.com

First thing first … congratulations Team Misbah on following up on Moin Khan’s side of 2000 and bringing home the Asia Cup but the victory alas does seem rather hollow to me. Why shouldn’t it when the ‘Tuk Tuk’ motorcade took the easiest possible route towards the checkered flag, spluttered barely across the finish line, and more importantly faltered woefully at the all-important Indian Pit Stop.

Lets make one thing clear, as fine an addition as this intricate work of craftsmanship must appear in Pakistan’s ODI trophy cabinet, there was only one real contest on the cards for Misbah’s men in Dhaka. Having thrashed Sri Lanka and Bangladesh last year, I for one would have been content if the results of the first two games were decided on a mere coin toss. What I was looking forward to, of course, was a chance at slight redemption for Mohali in a probable double bout with the current World Champs. This dreamy scenario of course entailed softening them up in the group stages followed by a solid knock-em-out punching job in the final. Even a false-hope-raising win for our archrivals in the first one, only to be quashed a few days later in the all-important final would have done the trick. But no … Bangladesh had to go ruin it all with their well-deserved run into the final, leaving me with nothing but the most bitter after taste and an image of Kohli’s smug smile plastered across his face on the trip back to India.

Usually, I have a snarling retort ready for my Indian friends no matter what the magnitude of defeat/humiliation. But this time when one correctly pointed out that “it’s a bit more acceptable when you lose out due to your batting rather than bowling” I could do little but sigh in exasperation. She had a point of course, not being able to defend 330 when you claim to be one of the better bowling line-ups going around should not only hurt but is a tad inexplicable… plus it just looks bad when you fall short of an opposition that contains the likes of Ashok Dinda.

There was no reason we should have lost out to the Indians this time round. They were coming off one of the worst tours for a respectable touring team to Australia in recent memory. Pakistan had momentum on their side with hard-fought wins in the first two games and that man Ashok Dinda was also playing. Yet lose we did, and it wasn’t one of those “Oh … it’s ok we played well, it just wasn’t our day” sort of losses (they never are with India). We were out played and out thought as the opposition stroked their way home to a comfortable finish, leaving us with little else but our unmentionables clutched in our hands. As well constructed and beautifully orchestrated Kohli’s symphonic innings might have been, it still shouldn’t and wouldn’t have been enough if Pakistan had given themselves their best shot at a win.

For that is what Pakistan has not been doing off late with their selections in limited overs cricket. We have drifted away from a strategy that actually finds its roots in ODIs only to be drafted into Tests much later to wondrous effects against Sri Lanka and England. I talk of course of the ‘spin strangulation policy’ and the effectiveness of playing a quartet of spinners simultaneously. There is a notion amongst fans and critics alike that Pakistan is over dependent on spin and that an attack of such nature is only suited to certain conditions. But it is a claim that has little evidence to hold water. There has been ample proof on display now over the last year and a half that Pakistan is best when playing Abdul Rehman alongside Ajmal and Hafeez in Tests as well as ODIs. It’s not like I wouldn’t love to have quality fast bowlers in the side being assisted by spinners, but with the crop we have at our disposal at the moment (Yes my finger is squarely pointed at you Wahab Riaz) I would take four spinners any day of the week.

It’s not like Pakistan is compromising by playing Rehman over Cheema/Wahab either. A much more economical as well as wicket taking option, any man who is capable enough to roll over the world’s number one side two Tests in a row should really be a shoo in at the ODI level. Here is a bowler who offers you a guaranteed quota of ten with a maximum of 4.5 to the over, adds variety to your attack and snaffles up a crucial wicket or two as well … I mean why wouldn’t you play him? Not only that, having dependable bowlers like Hafeez and Rehman in Misbah’s artillery means the batsmen are forced to play more aggressively against Afridi and Ajmal and more often than not that automatically means more wickets.

This pressure valve leaks severely when Pakistan entrusts its bowling duties in the less capable hands of Wahab/Cheema, and the lethality of Misbah’s strikers (Ajmal & Afridi) is reduced to bits as the captain is forced to take on defensive fields for them as well. Remember the edge of Kohli’s bat as Ajmal flummoxed the set batsmen with his signature doosra in the first over of the batting power play. (If you are remembering a moment in the game when you suddenly scrapped out a good tuft of your hair, and simultaneously imploded into shouting obscenities at Misbah’s mother and sister, you remember correctly). That would have gone straight into Younis’s dependable hands at slip, if only Cheema hadn’t been clattered for a humongous six over square leg the previous over, forcing Misbah to just concentrate on blocking out the runs.

Let’s take the disastrous ODI series against England as an example. You would have thought after his performance in the recently concluded tests, Rehman was a sure shot selection. Deciding to re-live ground hog day instead the team management went in with Wahab, who obliged with 6.71 to the over. The left arm spinner was given a consolatory outing in the second ODI returning with appalling figures of 10 overs for 36. Alarmed at how much of a dent the egos of our sensitive faster men would take, the left arm spinner was understandably dropped for the third. Cheema was pursued with and went for a not too surprising 6.31 to the over. Carrying on with the consistent selection policy the old hand was given another go in the last game, disappointing the management and fans once again with paltry figures of 10 overs, 31 runs and the lowly wicket of the number three Jonathan Trott. Rightly enraged at this performance Rehman was shunned for the T20s and the entire Asia Cup.

The spinner’s only crime it seems is the fact that he doesn’t have his chest puffed out at delivery stride, and doesn’t have the thirty-yard run up to back that stride up with. The management and fans have become so blinded by pace that they can’t seem to come to grips with the fact that they actually don’t have worthy fast bowling options at the moment. It stabs at the ego of an entire spoilt generation brought up on a buffet of Wasim, Waqar, Shoaib and Asif to come to terms with the fact that it is indeed a quartet of spinners who are for the time being the flag bearers. The sooner Pakistan Cricket can swallow this false pride and realize the value of what is staring it in the face, the quicker it will relieve itself of having to sit through Kohli’s annoying angry young man celebrations…but more importantly it will mean that they at least would have given themselves their best shot.

Dravid & Bowling

Dravid might not have been a bowler but the all-rounder argument Sidvee makes   can be extended further by realizing how much of an impact his departure will make on good bowlingl.

The number of absolutely un-playable corkers delivered from bowlers to get batsman out every year for one thing will certainly take a hit. No other batsman perhaps in the current game had made bowlers work for his wicket more than Dravid, and through that fact alone one got to experience the  bowlers applying a bit more of their brain (in this age of t-20s, god knows one doesn’t see that enough). Invariably it was only an absolutely un-playable delivery that often got the better of Dravid.

I don’t remember any other batsman for instance getting as many corkers as Dravid. Who can forget Sachin’s first ball bowled against Shoaib Akhtar (off a good, yet nothing that impossible to handle delivery) at the Eden Gardens, but what people often side-line (as has been the case with Dravid his whole career) is the much more fearsome delivery the one-down batsman received the previous ball.

How about this (one of the, if not THE)  best delivered by the left hand of god himself.

Or this one by Shoaib Akhtar again more recently

(I am sure you can find many such examples…these are just some that have made it through my extremely biased Pakistani memory bank)

The point of this all is no at all to point out Dravid’s deficiencies, but to in fact pay homage to his astounding ability at pushing himself to the limit.  More importantly though at pushing his opponents along the way and evoking them to display their best. On most occasions the opponents were just not good enough, on others they would try to match up but still flounder at the sheer resilience of the man tapping his bat at the other end. But on those few occasions that he did come up against an opponent worthy of the competition we were often blessed with some thing special.

So thank you Dravid for not only your vigil and absolute master-class in batting….an institution in itself, but for helping us realize the best in bowling as well. You were indeed an all-rounder.

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.