By Osama Siddiqui
With Pakistan’s World Cup campaign now over courtesy of a QF exit on par with pre-tournament expectations, its time to take a look back at the players’ performance and the future outlook.
Player Stock – Biggest Gainers
Pakistan’s player of the tournament without any question, and that was before The Spell against Australia. From the very first game he was quick, fearsome and had batsmen deep in their crease. All the pre-tournament talk about speed centered around Steyn, Starc and Milne, but Wahab’s 154 kph thunderbolt in Pakistan’s opening game against India remains the tournament’s fastest delivery. Since his comeback against Sri Lanka last year he’s finally consistently stringing together the kind of performances that he’s been hinting at since his Test debut and his semi final performance at the last World Cup. Tellingly there have been no discussions about fixing his wrist position or release points. He’s been entrusted to run in and bowl fast, and he’s repaid the faith. His bowling has now become must watch theater for cricket fans around the globe. The only question right now is how long he can continue on this new found run of pace and consistency. He’ll be 34 by the time the next World Cup comes around, and if he wants to ensure he remains effective into his 30s he needs to work on his yorker and the ball that comes back into the right handers.
Came into the World Cup on the back of a record breaking year in whites in 2014, firmly cementing himself in both the Test team and the hearts of the nation. Recalled to the limited overs setup on the back of his Test form, he performed well as a makeshift opener in the absence of Mohammad Hafeez and was selected for the World Cup as first choice gloveman and backup opener. A couple of poor performances both in front of and behind the stumps in the leadup matches to the World Cup, meant that all of a sudden he found himself both out of the playing XI, and with his ability to open the innings completely and suddenly disregarded by the team management. Injuries and the form of the other openers meant that he did finally get a chance in the World Cup, in a must win match against South Africa no less. 3 matches, 160 runs, and a century later, there is no longer room for any questions. His approach of backing himself to play his natural game, constantly looking to rotate the strike and remain proactive throughout his innings showed that talk of his technique not being suited to the conditions was just that, talk. Just as refreshing as his own batting was the visible effect he had on his partners, even pushing and cajoling Ahmed Shahzad to reach a half century at a run a ball against Ireland. Although doubts about both his glovework and his ability to be a long term solution to the opener problem remain, he has undoubtedly shown that he deserves the extended opportunity to make both roles his own.
Player Stock – Non Movers
Misbah ul Haq
As expected he scored runs, and as expected he was criticized and lauded in equal parts for the manner in which he scored them. Despite having a few opportunities he couldn’t sign off his ODI career with the century that would have brought immense pleasure to him and his fans. As captain he started the tournament in conservative fashion, but starting from the Zimbabwe game with the dropping of Younis Khan, and in his demeanor in the field he showed a new and hitherto unseen attacking streak. With 4 quick bowlers at his disposal he looked for wickets throughout the innings in a manner in which he has not when Pakistan has had 3 and at times even 4 spinners in their ODI attack. There remained the feeling however that this new found approach came a little too late, and only when there was no other option. Ultimately as captain he is judged by the team’s performance, and a 3rd place finish in the Group stages and a Quarter Final exit was on par with pre-tournament expectations.
Came into the World Cup with his workload and fragile body carefully managed, and expected to lead the attack in Ajmal’s absence, but fitness doubts still lingered. Ultimately the fitness doubts were confirmed as he suffered another stress fracture and took no part in Pakistan’s last 2 games. Despite his limited appearances he left some lasting memories both good and bad. He looked completely out of sorts against India, but bounced back with some incisive and quick spells, especially against Zimbabwe and South Africa. Although there have been no such signs from team sources, one gets the feeling that this latest injury could mark the end of Irfan’s career. If this is the end of the road for him, he will be fondly remembered for his brief spell in international cricket in which he challenged top order batsmen with his unique combination of pace, steeping bounce off a good length and the left armer’s natural angle. Equally he should be remembered for the remarkable improvement he made both as a bowler and a fielder between his international debut in 2010 and his recall in December 2012.
His selection came about as a result of being in the right place at the right time. A member of the Test squads against Australia and New Zealand when doubts about Hafeez’s action first surfaced, the management decided to work on his bowling and quickly decided that he had done enough to fill in as 5th bowler in the ODI arena. He replaced Fawad Alam for the ODIs against New Zealand, made a few decent scores and even bowled with decent results. Eventually come the World Cup, his bowling was hardly required and although he performed better than most of his middle order counterparts that’s not saying much. Nothing we’ve seen so far suggests that he’s a misfit in the ODI arena, but tellingly his List A performances have been average where he’s yet to score a century and it’s his First Class record that’s exemplary. A definite long term prospect in whites, the jury’s still out on his long term prospects in colors.
Made pre-tournament headlines by calling out Kohl and then backed up his words by being the man to dismiss him. His last over against India was brilliant and he missed out on a hat trick by the narrowest of margins. Looked impressive in parts, but very ordinary in other parts, often moving between the 2 extremes within the same spell, and ended the World Cup as Pakistan’s most expensive front line bowler. He probably hasn’t done enough to cement a regular place in Pakistan’s limited overs squads for the upcoming series. Unfortunately he’s also one of the players who needs to work hard on his fitness and fielding standards.
A surprise late call up to the squad as an injury replacement for Junaid Khan, he made the squad more for his work horse performances in the Test team than for his recent List A performances. He repaid the faith with some good performances once he was brought into the playing XI. Tall, strong, the ability to bowl long spells, moves the ball both ways, he has all the tools that a fast bowler requires. He is missing the spark that is necessary to be the leader of the bowling unit, but he can be an excellent second or third seamer for Pakistan for many years to come. He would have been higher on this list if not for his poor fielding standards and That Drop. Even if he had held on to it 213 was probably not going to be enough, but with Wahab in that mood you never know. It will remain the What If? moment of Pakistan’s campaign.
Picked up a wicket in both matches that he played, and although he certainly didn’t look out of his depth at this level, he failed to impress as well. His domestic stats are impressive, and the management it appears thinks highly of him and are likely to give him extended chances to cement a place in the team. If that does indeed happen, he must improve his fielding. The days of tolerating shoddy fielding from a fast bowler are long gone.
No less a player than Shane Warne has branded Yasir as his favorite player and the best legspinnner in the world. He only got the one opportunity in this World Cup against India, and was thoroughly unimpressive, he would have perhaps been better suited making his World Cup debut against West Indies in the next match. He’s on as a non mover because that performance can be put down to nerves, and he’ll certainly get extended chances to prove himself in colored clothing as we look to build a new team. Although he is an able fielder he will be remembered for his mistakes in this World Cup. He couldn’t hold on to the potentially game changing tough chance offered up by Kohli off Afridi’s bowling in Pakistan’s opening game, and who can forget the moment when he pantsed himself attempting to stop a boundary in the deep.
Player Stock – Biggest Losers
There once was a talented left handed Pakistani opener named Nasir Jamshed, now there is just a left handed Pakistani named Nasir Jamshed. He was perhaps unfairly thrust into the team, but as a member of the World Cup probables and ODI squads leading up to the World Cup, the call up shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise. Getting out is excusable, getting out for consecutive single digit scores can even be excused. But what is completely inexcusable is, being dismissed in the exact same manner each time, and setting new lows in international fielding and fitness standards. It is worth investing time and effort in him still, for the chance of rediscovering his early promise and potential. But regardless of how many runs he may score in the future to push for a possible recall, unless he significantly improves his fielding and fitness standards he should not be allowed anywhere near the international setup.
Came back into the ODI team on the back of a record breaking Test run against Australia and New Zealand, he cemented his place for the World Cup with a scratchy hundred in the last ODI in the UAE just as it looked it he wouldn’t make the flight to Australia. Ultimately he was completely unable to translate his Test form to the ODI arena and seemed to lose the ability to score altogether. His dismissal against India was not befitting a player of his Test stature and record, and although he looked fluent in his brief stay at the crease against South Africa, he will want to forget these last few months. The hope is that the public does too, and does not let the narrative of ‘a selfish plea to play in the World Cup’ overshadow his significant and ongoing contributions to Pakistan Cricket in the Test arena. Despite expressing a desire to play on and even to captain the ODI outfit if the opportunity were to present itself this is almost certainly the end of Younis Khan’s ODI career. Should the selectors discuss their intentions with him in person this time and hopefully not following a family tragedy, I am certain he will take their decision with grace and humility.
The stage was set for a final hurrah, the moment had arrived, the hour had come, but the man was nowhere to be found. With the ball he was expected to enjoy the conditions, but dropped catches off his bowling and an unfamiliar role as sole spinner meant he never settled and only picked up 2 wickets in the tournament. With bat he could only manage a highest score of 28, lacking even the solitary whirlwind innings he has so enthralled us with over the years. Most surprisingly he appeared listless in the field. The spark, the booming voice, the sign that he was always in the game, were all missing. His stellar form with the bat in the lead up to the World Cup had many believing his retirement was premature, but his performances in this World Cup have shown that the timing was right. The great Brian Lara himself said that when he played cricket, he played to entertain, he considered himself an entertainer. You may scoff at Afridi’s numbers, or curse him for his inconsistency and failure to mature as a batsman, but you must admit that in the ODI arena, few have ever entertained quite like Shahid Afridi.
Between the last edition of the World Cup and the current one, only MS Dhoni and Angelo Mathews had scored more runs than Umar Akmal at the number 6 spot in ODIs, and only Dhoni had done it a better average. Despite this there was a sense that Umar Akmal needed to prove himself once again. He had always done well at the ICC events and the general expectation was for more of the same, but it was not to be. There were no signature innings but plenty of what are becoming signature brainless moments. He seems to have developed a new habit of hitting a bad ball straight to a waiting fielder. In 6 innings in this World Cup, he got one bad decision, one great delivery and 4 dismissals off poor balls hit straight to fielders after looking fluent and set for a big score. Worryingly, over the last year, in 17 innings he averages less than 20 with just a solitary 50 plus score. He still has all the tools to be a modern great, but the chances of him putting it all together are far less than they were 4 years ago after the conclusion of the last World Cup. Unlike a Sarfraz Ahmed, Umar Akmal does not seem to thrive under pressure, when the chips are down, when there is something to prove. His career is now at a crucial juncture, and where it goes from here will depend firmly on how he goes about using what is between his two ears.
227 runs, an average of 32, the numbers belie how poor his performances really were. Scored some easy runs against Ireland and the UAE, the 2 weakest bowling attacks in the World Cup, but did nothing else of note. Worryingly he is continually praised by the management despite his repeated inability to construct innings and his frequent disciplinary issues. It is premature to call this the end of his international career, especially given Pakistan’s historic inability to develop openers, but other options must be explored.
Entered the World Cup with a growing reputation as a solid ODI batsman and a potential future captain, he leaves the tournament with his future in the team under a heavy cloud of uncertainty. Displaying a previously unseen streak of irresponsibility, he was often dismissed as the result of a poor shot. Although I believe he is a long term ODI prospect, I would not be surprised at all if he was dropped from the team for Pakistan’s next tour.
With the retirements of Misbah ul Haq and Shahid Afridi, the likely end of Younis Khan’s ODI career and continued concerns surrounding the batting, the fielding, and the overall approach to ODI cricket, the selectors and think tank have a lot of work to do and a lot of questions to answer. With Pakistan’s next assignment around the corner, we won’t have to wait long to see which way the wind blows.
There seems to be no right answer for this, there are however a lot of wrong ones. Any of Shoaib Malik, Mohammad Hafeez, Asad Shafiq, Ahmad Shahzad, and Umar Akmal must be avoided. Ideally the captain should be someone with enough cricket still left in them to be able to lead the team for the next 5 to 7 years at a minimum. He should be someone with a clear vision of how to go about the game, someone who can gain the trust of all the players, the coach and the selectors, and someone with the courage to say no when it matters. With no clear candidate, and a team with potentially no players over the age of 30, the selectors must ensure they don’t fall into the trap of the revolving door captaincy of the 90s. As long as they avoid the obvious wrong candidates, the most important thing will be to give the new captain the time, space, and the long term support to suffer through some growing pains.
Pakistan’s ODI batting has long been a concern, the time is right to take a fresh look and overhaul its method and approach, if not all the parts. The fear is that Pakistan’s stellar bowling performances in this World Cup will lead to calls to ‘just bat out the 50 overs’, or ‘leave the aggression to the bowling attack’. Must we be reminded that this is the exact approach we have adopted over the last 4 years, with the spin trio of Ajmal, Hafeez and Afridi along with the fast bowlers putting in stellar performances with the ball? It’s an approach that has seen us challenge for none of the ICC ODI silverware in that time period, and an approach that has seen our ODI ranking fall to 7. Part of the solution lies perhaps in changing the kind of wickets that Pakistan plays most of its ODI cricket on in the UAE. In the UAE the ball often keeps low and stays slow, and there is little reward for stroke makers. Although the natural characteristics of the pitch such as grip for spinners, or abrasiveness to encourage reverse swing should remain, the pitches should also be ones where the ball comes onto the bat nicely and stroke-play is rewarded.
Kohli, Amla and AB may indeed be transcendental talents, the likes of which cannot be replicated, but there are many successful batsmen in the ODI circuit these days who are not lauded for their technical brilliance and were even disregarded as ‘T20 batsmen’ earlier in their careers. No one can disregard basic tenets such as footwork, hand eye coordination and shot selection, but they must go hand in hand with an aim to score first, with an aim to keep the scoreboard ticking, and with an aim to transmit rather than absorb pressure. There are plenty of batsmen that deserve a look, names such as Babar Azam, Sami Aslam, Mohammad Rizwan, and once again Fawad Alam. Although there is no doubt that new faces need to come in, the existing crop of batsmen must be given one last extended chance to prove themselves. A year with greater responsibility and specific targets, they must be told to shape up or shape out.
The Allrounder Slot
It is not difficult to take a look at Afridi’s statistics and dismiss his career, easier still perhaps to think that Pakistan will replace him easily. But for all his maddening inconsistency with the bat, his ability with both bat and ball has made finding the right balance in the team selection an easier job whenever he’s played. Case in point, 4 years on since the last world cup and Abdul Razzaq (who admittedly was the superior all rounder) is yet to be replaced. If Pakistan is unable to find a number 7 batsman that can bowl, (or a bowler than can bat at 7) it will likely ensure the return of Mohammad Hafeez, and unfortunately at the top of the order. One look at the recently concluded domestic season, and its apparent that all rounders are a rare commodity in Pakistan these days. Hammad Azam has been around for a while now, but between continually being overlooked by the selectors, injury concerns and stellar performances in the domestic circuit, unfortunately it looks like he won’t be getting a chance. Anwar Ali and Bilawal Bhatti showed some early promise but neither can consistently give you 10 quality overs with the ball or 30 runs with the bat. Zafar Gohar is another young name that comes up, but his batting is still very raw. One thing’s for sure, whoever does come into the team will have some very large shoes to fill. If not in terms of consistent all round performances, than certainly in terms of sheer entertainment value.
This is one area where Pakistan have multiple answers at their disposal. Ajmal for all his services to Pakistan Cricket and his obvious quality, deserves a recall without a doubt. If his action holds up, and his bowling retains its mystery and accuracy, he will be an asset for at least the next couple of years. Yasir Shah will likely get an extended run in Pakistan’s upcoming series, and then there’s Raza Hassan waiting in the wings. Given that Pakistan’s next series is in Bangladesh, I would expect all three of them to make the ODI squad.
Another area where Pakistan have multiple answers at their disposal, answers that weren’t apparent as recently as even 6 months ago. Wahab is finally ready to lead the attack, Rahat is ready to ably support him, and Junaid will certainly slot in once he has regained full fitness. It remains to bee seen whether Irfan can recover from his latest injury, but if this is the end of the road for him, his loss will not be felt as deeply as it may have been a year ago.
Fielding and Fitness
This is an area of huge concern for the Pakistan Team. Their fielding standards remain below par, and in some cases completely unacceptable. Much was made of Pakistan’s push last year towards improving fitness and fielding standards and of Waqar’s reputation as a taskmaster. For a period of time following the training camp last summer, results were visible. Any gains though have been wiped out now. If a fast bowler can’t bowl 6 overs on the trot, and if any player can’t make a diving stop in the field or hold on to a simple chance, he shouldn’t be allowed in the team. If this means that new talent coming up from the domestic circuit need a couple of months work before they make the cut at the national level, so be it. It’s an investment that will pay dividends.
Misbah ul Haq’s Legacy
Without any obvious improvement in the team since he took over, and without mounting a serious challenge for ICC silverware under his stewardship, his legacy as captain remains up for debate. Ultimately it will be decided in his absence, by where the Pakistan team goes from here. If in 2 years the team has moved up the rankings and mounts a serious challenge for the Champions Trophy, Misbah’s detractors will feel vindicated that Misbah was the man standing between the Pakistan team and progress. If however the team continues to slide down the rankings, Misbah’s supporters will feel vindicated that Misbah was the man standing between Pakistan and ignominy. If still, the status quo is maintained, the debate will rage on endlessly.
Pakistan are currently a long way from consistently challenging for ICC silverware. The future however, looks bright as always. The bowling resources look well stocked for the first time in a couple of years, and the batting although troublesome looks set to turn a corner. The onus however is squarely on the batsmen. For Pakistan to win and win consistently, the batsmen must figure out a way to consistently post large scores and put their talent to good use.