The openers gave Pakistan a solid start. The middle order consolidated the platform. The late order accelerated and ended the innings on a high note. The new ball bowlers got early breakthroughs. The spinners choked the middle order. The fielders caught well. The wicketkeeper took some breathtaking catches.
Everyone clicked. Everything worked. Pakistan won comprehensively.
When they perform like this it makes you wonder why they can't do it more consistently. However, despite being notorious for playing like champions one day and like clowns the other, some semblance of consistency has definitely crept into this ODI team.
Since the 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Bangladesh, Pakistan has played 6 ODIs - 3 vs Zimbabwe and 3 vs Sri Lanka. In 4 of the ODIs, Pakistan batted first and posted a total in excess of 280; in the other 2 ODIs, they successfully chased targets above 250 comfortably.
Does anyone remember the last time Pakistan played 6 ODIs with this level of consistency?
Does anyone remember how many times Pakistan posted a total above 280 in the 4 years they played under Misbah?
Does anyone remember how many times Pakistan successfully chased a target above 250 under Misbah?
Lets answer these questions.
Batting First under Misbah
In the 4 years between 2011 and 2015, while Misbah was captain of the ODI team, Pakistan batted first in 40 ODIs (barring ODIs vs Associates). In those 40 ODIs, Pakistan scored over 280 a mere 5 times.
Chasing under Misbah
In the 4 years between 2011 and 2015, while Misbah was captain of the ODI team, Pakistan chased targets in 37 ODIs (barring ODIs vs Associates). In these 37 ODIs, Pakistan successfully chased a target of 250 or above only twice!
So basically, what Pakistan achieved in 4 years and 77 ODIs under Misbah, is pretty much what Pakistan has managed to achieve in 4 months and 9 ODIs under Azhar Ali.
What a joke! What a waste of 4 years.
Batting First & Chasing under Azhar Ali
In 9 ODIs under Azhar Ali, whether batting first or second, Pakistan have failed to cross 250 only once.
So what has changed for Pakistan? What are they doing differently now? What were they missing under Misbah?
I can think of a few reasons.
1. The Captain's Attitude
It is no secret that Misbah had a defensive mindset and Pakistan never adopted the modern approach to ODIs under him. Not losing wickets was the order of the day instead of trying to take risks and bat with a high run rate. Misbah himself never tried to play his natural game and instead built a game that focused on blocking endlessly and cutting loose only near the end of the innings and losing his wicket while doing so. The entire batting order played defensively and as a result Pakistan hardly scored enough runs to win ODIs.
Misbah's approach to batting was so outdated that instead of progressing, Pakistan's ODI cricket actually regressed during his 4-year tenure, which ended with Pakistan languishing at number 8 in ODI rankings.
Azhar Ali, on the other hand, started his ODI captaincy career by accepting the fact that ODI cricket can no longer be played the way Pakistan had been playing it for the past 4 years. He showed awareness of his own game and focused on improving his own strike rate and asking the same of his team mates.
While Misbah mostly played at number 5 and blocked away his time at the crease, Azhar Ali took on the responsibility of opening the innings and taking charge from the get go. Misbah was happy blocking the ball back to the bowlers, Azhar Ali charges down and clubs the ball over the bowlers' heads.
Talk about taking responsibility head on and leading from the front.
While Misbah the batsman did alright as captain, it was never enough. He also pales in comparison to Azhar Ali the batsman in the short period that Azhar has been captain.
2. Utilization of Key Players
Mohammad Hafeez is a key batsman in Pakistan's line up and he was key under Misbah as well. However, under Misbah, Hafeez was entrusted with playing the anchor role and his instructions were largely to keep one end intact. Not only did that curb the scoring rate but also denied Pakistan of aggressive starts considering that Hafeez either opens or plays at number 3.
Under Azhar Ali however, Hafeez has shown more aggression. The change is apparent and it is quite visible that the instructions from the captain and the dressing room are quite different from what they used to be with Misbah in charge.
The difference is highlighted by Hafeez' significantly higher strike rate under Azhar Ali as compared to under Misbah.
Shoaib Malik is a player who suffered a lot under Misbah. He lost his touch around the same time that he lost his captaincy to Younis Khan in 2009, however under Misbah he was constantly in and out of the team and did not seem to have a permanent position in the batting order.
Every time Malik would make a comeback to the team on the back of his prolific domestic form, Misbah would use him sparingly at 6 or 7. Malik was never able to translate his domestic form on the international stage and finally was out of favor with the selectors.
Out of the 21 innings that Malik batted in under Misbah, 15 of them were at 6 or 7. It makes you wonder why you would use him there considering that he bats at 4 in domestic cricket and that majority of his international success has also come at numbers 3 and 4.
The difference between his performance under Misbah and under Azhar Ali is drastic!
Under Azhar, Malik has comfortably slotted at number 5 from where he has successfully finished games for Pakistan while chasing, and he has taken advantage of solid platforms and played aggressively to give Pakistan strong finishes while batting first.
We finally have the Malik of the mid-2000s back. Unfortunately, Misbah never utilized him to his full potential.
Haris Sohail made his debut under Misbah after several successful domestic seasons. He displayed his prowess soon enough, yet for some reason he too had to curb his natural aggressive instinct under Misbah. Just take a look at the drastic difference between his strike rates under the different captains he has played under thus far in his short career.
Umar Akmal is another player who was wasted under Misbah. The junior Akmal played 67 ODIs under Misbah and batted in 59 of those. In 15 innings he batted at number 5, while in 35 innings he batted at number 6. Umar averaged 35 and had a strike rate of 86.6 under Misbah, which is similar to his career stats. He is one of the only 3 batsmen from Pakistan who average above 35 with a strike rate above 80 (other two being Saeed Anwar and Zaheer Abbas).
Umar is by far the most talented batsman to come out of Pakistan in the past decade, yet today he finds himself out of the international scene. Under Misbah, he was used as merely a slogger, despite various requests from him to play up the order. A batsman with his ability and stats to match should have been playing at 3 or 4, yet Misbah continuously played him at 6 while persisting with the likes of Asad Shafiq and Younis Khan in the top order.
Even Azhar Ali has been performing far better as captain than he did in his initial ODIs under Misbah. He had a pretty good average back then, but look at the difference in strike rates, which clearly highlights the changing mindset and approach.
3. Persistence with Non-Performers
I will never understand Misbah's fascination with the likes of Asad Shafiq. It is obvious to everyone that Asad is an absolutely magnificent test batsmen, yet at the same time he is a total misfit and atrocious in ODIs. I never understood why Misbah persisted with him for so long and that too at number 3 or 4 while the likes of Azhar Ali, Fawad Alam, Umar Akmal, Sohaib Maqsood, and Mohammad Rizwan either warmed the benches or languished lower down the order.
It really makes you wonder why Misbah never fought hard for Fawad Alam's inclusion the way he did for Asad Shafiq's.
While Misbah has been a brilliant captain in tests and has even gone on to win more matches as test captain than any other captain in the history of Pakistan cricket, he was completely rubbish as an ODI captain. He has been the driving force behind Pakistan's rise to number 3 in the test rankings, while at the same time he has been the sole reason behind Pakistan's fall to number 8 in the ODI rankings.
Not only did Misbah cramp Pakistan's batting in ODIs, he made the batsmen around him play defensively as well. It is the same players who are now flourishing under Azhar Ali, which goes to show what Pakistan has been missing in ODIs for 4 years.
With Haris Sohail and Sohaib Maqsood out with injury and the likes of Sami Aslam and Babar Azam warming the benches, it augurs well for Pakistan's batting bench strength.
The future looks bright, yet it could have looked this way had the PCB not sacked Afridi and replaced him with Misbah at the helm 4 years ago. Probably the biggest mistake ever in Pakistan's ODI history.