Pakistan: A shadow of its former self!

Replacing the fearlessness of the triumphant side in 2009, was a tentative Pakistan of self-doubts in 2016. Even if the side had plans, their execution on the field of play was awry. Pakistan has to rediscover its pride and passion. The sooner the better.

Pakistan skipper Shahid Afridi's batting is inconsistent and his leg-spin bowling is on the wane. Players in his team don't see eye to eye and recently Afridi had a run-in with senior opener Mohammad Hafeez in the nets.   -  AP

The iconic Imran Khan with the 1992 World Cup. Pakistan cricket was in fine fettle when he was the captain. Despite the bubbling talent at its disposal, Pakistan has won only two world events, the 50-over World Cup in 1992 and the World T20 in 2009!   -  GETTY IMAGES

An inspired Pakistani team can captivate. But then, this explosive team can so easily implode. Rifts within have derailed the side just when it appeared to be gaining momentum. Pakistan’s campaign in the ICC World Twenty20 is a case in point.

There was no dearth of ability. Yet, there was a lack of team spirit.

When television cameras caught Umar Akmal complaining to the legendary Imran Khan about his batting slot in Kolkata, it indicated that all was not well within the Pakistani camp.

Then there was a heated exchange between skipper Shahid Afridi and senior cricketer Mohammad Hafeez in the nets. Hafeez did not get to bat against India and was left out of the two subsequent games. Injury was given as the official reason There were whispers too, but Hafeez was not keen on playing.

It was clear that the Pakistan team at this event was not chugging along as a cohesive unit. There were fissures in the side and these cracks were clearly visible.

When Pakistan triumphed in the ICC World Twenty20 in England, 2009, the side did so by dishing out a fearless brand of cricket. In Younis Khan, the team had a captain who brought his men together.

The batsmen played a bold, uninhibited form of cricket, taking the bowlers on and powering the team to strong totals. Then, the versatile bowling unit of Umar Gul. Mohammad Amir, Saeed Ajmal and Shahid Afridi tormented the batting line-ups.

That Pakistani side played with a breathless intensity, put the opposition under pressure. It then made inroads.

The key ingredients that drive a successful side were missing in Pakistan’s recent campaign in India. The side meandered along without a sense of purpose.

Take the early overs of the Pakistan innings against India in that highly anticipated clash at the Eden Gardens. Pakistan openers Sharjeel Khan and Ahmed Shehzad appeared to play under so much stress.

In a match reduced to 18 overs-a-side, Pakistan crawled to just 24 for no loss in the first five Powerplay overs. Then the 50 arrived in 9.3. Looking back, the contest was won and lost at that point.

Replacing the fearlessness of the triumphant side in 2009, was a tentative Pakistan of self-doubts. Even if the side had plans, their execution on the field of play was awry.

The charismatic Imran had given Afridi’s men a pep talk ahead of the duel versus India. Yet, apart from the brief moments when fast bowler Mohammad Sami struck twice off successive deliveries, the Pakistan side seemed largely deflated. In other words, the side played with a cluttered mind.

In Test cricket, Pakistan has performed rather well over the last few years. The side is currently ranked No. 4 and the difference between Pakistan and the top-ranked Australia is just six points.

In the longest format, Pakistan has a stabilising influence in the calm and collected Misbah-ul-Haq who has led the team admirably. He has captained by example, kept the side largely united. In other formats, Pakistan has slipped. It doesn’t do Pakistan any credit that apart from the epic victory under Imran in 1992, the side has won just one ICC event subsequently, the 2009 World Twenty20.

The captain’s role, already significant in cricket, holds even more importance in a team such as Pakistan that tends to be riven by dissensions.

Imran lifted the side with some sensational captaincy. Whether unleashing Inzamam-ul-Haq and Moin Khan — he called them his ‘tigers’ — in the semi-final against New Zealand or imploring a young Wasim Akram to go all out in the final, Imran made all the right moves. Crucially, he quelled dissent with the sheer strength of his personality, backed youngsters and kept seniors on their toes.

When Akram, bowling at his quickest, fired Pakistan to the title triumph in Melbourne, Imran deserved his share of credit. After all, he had told Akram to bowl full clip without bothering about no-balls or wides. Imran, cleverly, had removed the pressure off his strike bowler, got him into an aggressive frame of mind. Akram went for the kill.

Pakistan, indeed, is at its best when it attacks. But lately it has been strangely subdued, whether in the ICC 2015 ODI World Cup or at the World Twenty20.

There have been moments of aggression — such as Wahab Riaz’s fiery spell against Australia in the last ODI World Cup quarterfinals — but they have been few and far between.

The gifted stroke-makers such as Saeed Anwar, Inzamam and Mohammad Yousuf have disappeared. Gone too is the sheer determination and single-mindedness of a Javed Miandad.

Afridi is close to the end of his tumultuous career, but he is still the team’s biggest ‘impact’ player, its foremost game-changer with the willow. This doesn’t say much about the rest.

Match-winning off-spinner Saeed Ajmal’s action coming under a cloud, forcing the bowler to change his methods, has also hurt Pakistan. Particularly since Afridi’s leg-spin is on the wane.

Pakistan still produces fast bowlers as if off an assembly line, but is yet to discover a spearhead, someone around whom the attack revolves. Wahab Riaz seems to have gone off the boil lately, but Amir still has plenty of possibilities.

Yet, Amir could well have been on his way to greatness by now but for a grave error of judgement. The match and spot-fixing scandals have hurt Pakistan.

And when the external factors are not conducive, the team wears an unsettled look. The lack of organisation and discipline has undermined Pakistan's chances in the World Cup duels against India, across formats, where the side has an abysmal record. India has been so much better prepared.

Above all, Pakistan has to rediscover its pride and passion.