Whither Pakistan?

Pakistan cricket is in smithereens. After the colossal fiasco in Australia, the men in green are left with the unenviable task of picking up the pieces and starting all over again. An analysis by K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

Agony and ecstasy are never far when Pakistan dishes out its brand of cricket that oscillates between the mercurial and the mediocre. It is a failing that afflicts the larger unit, the team, as well as the individual players. A classic example of this is Shahid Afridi, who was the star in Pakistan’s ICC World Twenty20 triumph in England last year and now sulks with a two-match ban following his attempt to bite the ball in the fifth and final match of the ODI series in Australia.

Pakistan’s latest woe reflected through the 0-3 loss in the Tests and 0-5 defeat in the limited overs series against Australia, has promptly set tongues wagging while knives are being sharpened for that fatal jab. The Pakistan Cricket Board chairman Ijaz Butt is in the firing line and a beleaguered skipper Mohammad Yousuf said: “I am willing to take advice on captaincy.” The chairman of selectors Iqbal Qasim has already resigned and within the Pakistan cricket establishment there is the sound of creaky chairs and shuffling of feet.

The lopsided performance against Ricky Ponting’s men has also been attributed to cliques within the team and the pitch was truly queered when bowling and fielding coach Waqar Younis was quoted in the Dawn as saying: “The performance of players was not the only reason behind the poor showing. I will only spell out these reasons before the National Assembly Standing Committee on Sports.”

It’s indeed a sad state to be in for a team that gifted lumps in the throat when Younis Khan held aloft the ICC World Twenty20 Cup at Lord’s on June 21, 2009. “It is bigger than 1992,” said an overwhelmed former captain Rameez Raja, who surely knows the value of that historic World Cup triumph in Australia under the stewardship of Imran Khan. It may be recalled that it was Raja’s catch that ushered in an epochal victory as he pouched England’s R. K. Illingworth while bowler Imran flung his arms skywards.

Cut to the present, last year’s T20 victory was expected to be the balm to assuage all wounds that Pakistan suffered due to the vortex of terror that did not even spare the visiting Sri Lankans as a shoot-out at Lahore triggered emotional scars in Mahela Jayawardene’s men.

And in a moment high on irony and catharsis, Pakistan defeated Sri Lanka to win the ICC World T20 title as Afridi’s unbeaten 54 eased in the final stretch of bouquets. Cricket’s exasperating band of combustible men seemed to have found their mettle but terra firma was quickly met as Pakistan suffered a 0-2 series loss in Tests while visiting Sri Lanka. Debutant Fawad Alam’s 168 hinted at promise but he too faded away like his team over the next few months.

In the subsequent ODI series too, Pakistan failed to find its feet and hobbled away with a 2-3 loss. The fluctuating performance graph soon found a bull run when Pakistan raced to the semifinals of the ICC Champions Trophy in South Africa. Arch-rival India too was swept aside as former captain Shoaib Malik struck a 128 but Pakistan inexplicably slumped against New Zealand in the semifinal and the tale of defeats had another increment soon in the United Arab Emirates.

Playing at the neutral venue, Pakistan lost its three-match ODI series to New Zealand at 1-2 though it did win two T20 games. An upset Younis opted for a break and Yousuf stepped in as the skipper for the tour of New Zealand. Umar Akmal’s 129 fired the imagination at Dunedin but Pakistan lost the first Test before Mohammad Asif’s nine-wicket haul restored parity at Wellington. Soon the third Test got swamped in a medley of runs at Napier with Imran Farhat chipping in with a 117 while the series ground to a 1-1 draw.

Interestingly, during the lone moment when the Pakistan batting displayed cohesion as evident in its second innings at Napier with Imran Farhat (61), Salman Butt (66), Faisal Iqbal (67), Yousuf (89), Umar (77) and Kamran Akmal (56) striking the runs, Misbah-ul-Haq scored merely seven runs. Misbah strangely lost his groove over the last few months as Pakistan increasingly relied on the Akmal brothers and the lower-order to prop up the scorecard. Yousuf too struggled to find his prolific act with the bat, averaging just under 34 as skipper.

The final nail though was hammered in by the Aussies. Pakistan did have its chance of redeeming itself at Sydney when the old combine of Asif and Mohammad Sami shot out Australia for 127, but Ponting’s men recovered in the second innings despite Danish Kaneria’s five-wicket haul and another dream crashed. Soon it was over and out as Australia drilled out a 3-0 victory while riding on tons by Ponting and his deputy Michael Clarke at Hobart.

The five-match ODI series proved no better as Pakistan lost all its games and even the returning former skipper Younis Khan failed to flourish as evident in his scores of 46, 0, 12, 6 and 3. For a brief while, the Indian Premier League’s insulting gesture of overlooking the talented Pakistanis distracted the fans from Faisalabad to Karachi but soon the realisation of the drubbing in Australia sunk in and all hell broke loose.

Pakistan does have the talent as evident in Umar Akmal, Salman Butt, rookie left-arm speedster Mohammad Aamer and off-spinner Saeed Ajmal. And with Mohammad Asif slowly finding his way back, there is room for hope. However, in an emotional country, the need for a strong captain in the Imran Khan mould is of paramount importance. The fact that four captains — Younis, Yousuf, Afridi and Malik — did their respective turns over the last 13 months reflects a top-brass that is pulling in different directions.

It is a slide that has to be stopped now and the men in green have to pull up their socks. For inspiration, they could perhaps see the video of their ICC World Twenty20 triumph.