Pakistan’s campaign: trailing or derailing?

Jaideep Ghosh

misbah_pakistan

Pakistan’s captain Misbah-ul-Haq plays a shot during the World Cup Pool B match against India in Adelaide, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015.

There is never a dull moment in Pakistan cricket. Win or lose, they are always in the news as everything becomes something of a headline. It’s a fascinating story, written and re-written over the years.

It is news when their cricketers are caught with recreational drugs on some beach in the West Indies. It’s also news when Wasim Akram misses a crucial match against India in the 1996 World Cup and the entire nation is convinced he was feigning an injury.

News also comes through players falling in the match-fixing trap. Potentially great bowlers like Mohammed Aamir, good ones like Mohammed Asif and class batsmen like Salman Butt were lost to the sports, and even though Aamir has gotten a reprieve, one doubts if he will ever be the same bowler.

Sad, considering that he was considered way more talented than Akram was at his age.

Then comes the tale of Saeed Ajmal. Exactly what the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) plan was in hauling up bowlers with faulty actions, barely six months before the World Cup, no one knows. But it was enough to send him out of the tournament.

Then Mohammed Hafeez also fell in the same trap, and that was a multi-level blow, since Hafeez easily was one of the best openers Pakistan have.

Ajmal, along with Sunil Narine of the West Indies, will be the two bowlers missed most in the World Cup. The loss is completely ICC’s.

So it has always been a drama in Pakistan cricket, and none more so every time they play India. Invariably, they lose. It definitely is more a mental thing, since out of the six losses to India in the World Cup, at least three had Pakistan in a position where they should have won.

But where the wheels are really threatened to come apart is when they lost to the West Indies by a huge 150 runs.

It would be safe to say that for all their bravado, Pakistan expected to go down to India, since India is a way better side. But they had expectations of making it to the quarter-finals with wins over at least three of the other five sides in the group – the West Indies, Ireland and the United Arab Emirates.

But with Ireland beating the Windies and Pakistan going down to the Caribbeans, there is a definite possibility that Pakistan may not even make it to the next stage!

That is when the panic button was really hit. There were calls for the heads of everyone in the coaching staff, down from Waqar Younis, while skipper Misbah ul-Haq is in deep trouble back home.

Effigies have already begun burning and the situation is critical, to put it mildly.

Pakistan has had it really tough over the past few years, in view of the political scene in the country. As the cruel hands of terrorism gripped the region, Pakistan became a victim of almost daily assaults and aggression.

So straightaway, teams like England and Australia made it clear that they wouldn’t be visiting Pakistan. So it was left to the sub-continental sides to make an effort.

But all that also fell apart once in the March of 2009 as when the Sri Lankan team bus was attacked just outside Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore and some players were injured. That was the end of any cricket in Pakistan.

pakistan_cricketThis left cricket in that country in disarray and the players practically without jobs. The situation was becoming desperate.

Pakistan was restricted to playing away series and those too were few and far between. Their ‘home’ matches were being shunted to the United Arab Emirates and being played in huge stadia in front of a handful of spectators.

But the performances on the field were always promising. Pakistan has a virtual factory of fast bowlers and seems to specialise in left-arm seamers, something that became a fashion once Akram became a great.

So they came up with bowlers galore – Wahab Riaz, Junaid Khan, the giant Mohammed Irfan, Rahat Ali, and unending list.

This World Cup sees Riaz, Irfan and Rahat in the squad, while they have Sohail Khan and Ehsan Adil to give them the right-arm option.

Then there is Shahid Afridi, playing his last World Cup. He has played five, a testament to his longevity and form.

But he is way too erratic. The faith in his batting isn’t practical, it is emotional.

However, it’s the batting that will be challenged. The decision to play the veteran Younis Khan as an opener, a move forced by the late withdrawal of Hafeez, hasn’t worked, while the other batsmen have been tentative. At least in the first two matches they have played.

Misbah and Ahmed Shehzad will be tested to their limits as the inexperienced middle-order of Haris Sohail and Sohaib Maqsood tries to find its feet.

Another big factor is the wicket-keeper’s job. Umar Akmal has been asked to don those gloves since he is supposed to be an attacking batsman. But he grassed a vital one off Virat Kohli in the first game, and that may well have cost them the match.

Then he makes the cardinal sin of getting a half-century against the West Indies and getting out immediately.

Getting through the match with India was important. Win or lose, that is a match they want behind them so that they can concentrate on the rest of the tournament. But what followed was obviously something the nation had not bargained on. The concern now is real.

But the team has a long break now, before it takes on Zimbabwe on March 1, with hopefully fresh minds and renewed vigour. Pakistan cricket needs a break. Maybe this is the one.