Thursday, February 19, 2015

There's a secret to chasing, and Pakistan knows it

This article first appeared on DAWN.
When India posted 300, the match was as good as over for a majority of people considering how little confidence any of us have in Pakistan's ability to successfully chase totals in ODIs.
But for some, the hope lingered on. It was a flat pitch, the boundaries were short, and Pakistan's 'big hitters' had shown some form ahead of the match. The hope, though, remained just that; hope. Pakistan surrendered meekly, losing their way in the middle, like in so many other chases.
Looking at Pakistan's record while chasing in ODIs since January 1, 2010, there isn't much that one can conclude about their ability to chase. They have won almost as many games as they have lost while chasing in the past five years of ODI cricket. The record reads:
30 Wins

33 Losses

The problem is truly spelt out when one takes a look at ODIs in which Pakistan has been set a target of 250 or more. The record for that since January 1, 2010 is not a good reading. In the past five years, Pakistan has won less than 20% of the ODIs in which their bowlers conceded 250 or more runs. This record reads:
5 Wins

24 Losses

These 5 wins in the past 5 years include:

• Beat Sri Lanka by 4 wickets in Hambantota, August 2014 (Target: 275 in 45 overs [rain-shortened match])
• Beat Bangladesh by 3 wickets in Dhaka, March 2014 (Target: 327 in 50 overs)
• Beat New Zealand by 2 wickets in Napier, February 2011 (Target: 263 in 50 overs)
• Beat South Africa by 1 wicket in Dubai, November 2010 (Target: 275 in 50 overs)
• Beat South Africa by 1 wicket in Abu Dhabi, October 2010 (Target: 287 in 50 overs)
There's an interesting fact about these wins. Except for the win against New Zealand, where the total was chased down in 49 overs, all the other wins were achieved with just one ball to spare. This highlights one very important lesson in chasing: take the game till the end.
There are three key underlying trends in each of these successful run chases that Pakistan can pay attention to in future games.
1. Strong Contribution from an Opening Batsman
Ahmed Shehzad has been an instrumental figure in Pakistan's successful run chases of 250 and above. He played in three of these five ODIs against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and New Zealand and knocked scores of 49, 103, and 42 respectively. Mohammad Hafeez also featured in a couple of these five wins with scores of 52 and 42 against Bangladesh and South Africa respectively.
While Ahmed Shehzad scored 47 in the loss against India, he got bogged down in the latter half of his innings. Additionally, the other factors that I discuss below did not feature prominently for Pakistan in their unsuccessful chase of 300.
There is no doubt that Shehzad will have to play a key role for Pakistan if they are to have a successful World Cup campaign.
2. Continuously Ticking Scoreboard
Fawad Alam is a proven match-winner for Pakistan, and his absence from the World Cup squad raised eyebrows everywhere. He played an instrumental role in three of these five ODI wins by ensuring that he kept rotating the strike in the middle overs, which has been Pakistan's biggest problem in run chases. Fawad did it brilliantly against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and South Africa with scores of 62, 74, and 48 respectively. In each of these games he came in to bat between the 16th and the 23rd over and stayed at the crease till between the 42nd and 50th overs.
In the other two games, against New Zealand and South Africa, it was surprisingly Younis Khan who played the same role in the middle overs with scores of 42 and 73 respectively. Younis is the reason why Fawad is not in the squad, and if Pakistan expects him to play the same role in the World Cup then they need to play him at the right spot and not make him open the innings.
If not Younis, then Pakistan will have to find someone else, maybe Haris Sohail, to play the same role if they are to successfully chase down totals that teams are putting up in this World Cup.
3. Sustained Aggression
In one of the matches against South Africa, Pakistan required a run rate of 8 or more in the last 10 overs of their innings to win the match. Such a scenario is only possible if a team has wickets in hand, or someone plays a blinder at the end of the innings. For Pakistan, it has usually been the latter case, however in each of these five games there have been batsmen who have played scintillating knocks with quickfire finishes, and they have been well supported with aggressive late order hitting.
Against Sri Lanka, it was Sohaib Maqsood's unbeaten 89 off 73 deliveries with support coming from Shahid Afridi who remained unbeaten on 14 off 10 deliveries. Against Bangladesh, it was Shahid Afridi's blazing 59 off 25 deliveries and the support came from Umar Akmal who remained unbeaten on 14 off 9 deliveries. Against New Zealand, it was Misbah-ul-Haq who remained unbeaten on 93 off 91 deliveries and his support came from Sohail Tanvir who was unbeaten on 14 off 6 deliveries. Against South Africa it was Abdul Razzaq (33 off 38), Wahab Riaz (18 off 10), and Zulqarnain Haider (19* off 22) who collectively took Pakistan over the finish line. And in that memorable game against South Africa, it was Abdul Razzaq's blinder unbeaten 109 off only 72 deliveries. He didn't need any support!

It doesn't require much science to figure out that a successful run chase is scripted by a strong opening, a constant flow of runs in the middle overs, and a late flurry. In fact, the same is required when setting up good totals. In Ahmed Shehzad, Haris Sohail, Misbah-ul-Haq, Sohaib Maqsood, Umar Akmal, and Shahid Afridi, Pakistan have the personnel to assume those roles, but they need to be defined appropriately.

Pakistan's management and captain need to put their heads down and come up with the right combination that can provide them with desired results. Accommodating Younis Khan in the playing XI will not achieve that. Level headed decisions are the need of the hour and Pakistan cannot afford to be emotional about their senior players. If Shahid Afridi could take the decision to drop Shoaib Akhtar during the World Cup in 2011, there is no reason why Misbah cannot take the decision to leave Younis Khan out.
Ireland demonstrated the other day that totals in excess of 300 are chaseable. Their script was also very similar to what I described above. Paul Stirling provided the strong opening, Ed Joyce kept the scoreboard moving in the middle overs, and Niall O'Brien finished the game off.
If Pakistan are found in the middle of a 'Gayle-storm' on February 21, they will need to all of this and a bit more. But there is still plenty of cricket left in this World Cup and Pakistan has time on their hands to get their act together.

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