The problem in Pakistan cricket is not only about Azhar Ali © Getty Images
The problem in Pakistan cricket is not only about Azhar Ali © Getty Images

As Pakistanis struggle to crack it in England, one must realise that the problem is not only about the lack of power-hitters or bowling attacks, or indeed, Azhar Ali. In modern one-day cricket, you can only afford to lose, on average, a maximum of 2 wickets for the first 20 overs and a total of 4 for the first 40 while scoring at least 5 an over. On Saturday, Pakistan lost 3 in the first 19 balls.  FULL CRICKET SCORECARD: Pakistan vs England 2016, 2nd ODI at Lord’s

This is a problem that the present team management and indeed past ones clearly seem to understand, albeit subconsciously in some cases. They face a Catch-22 situation between playing unreliable batsmen who can score quickly (for example, Sharjeel Khan or Umar Akmal) and reliable ones who cannot (for example, Ahmed Shehzad and Misbah-ul-Haq). READ: England win 2nd ODI vs Pakistan by 4 wickets

I mentioned Shehzad as a reliable batsman simply because he manages to spend a lot of time at the crease, invariably for little returns. In between there are players who have the potential to play fluently orthodox cricket and deliver but cannot overcome their own mental blocks (for example, Azhar Ali, who can potentially be Pakistan’s closest response to Hashim Amla). 

The failure of newer players can be highlighted by the repeated returns of (the now retired) Younis Khan and Mohammad Sami. They made those comebacks not because of their whims (as it would seem in Younis’ case) or past glories, but essentially because the newer ones (the likes of Umar Akmal) were simply not good enough and Pakistani selectors had no option but to keep going back to them — just like the Pakistani Air Force was still flying their F-86 Sabres when USAF landed in Karachi for some mock dogfights with their F-15s.

Mickey Arthur’s assessment that Pakistani ODI cricket is languishing in the 1990s is spot on, except one finer point: Pakistanis could still have win a lot more if they had a bowling attack of the calibre of their 1990s one when they would defend sub-par scores for fun. PAK vs ENG, 2nd ODI Highlights: Root’s clinical knock takes hosts to 2-0 lead

The thrust on T20 is going to hurt Pakistan even more. At times, some of the ODI selections are based on T20 success, and the selected players tend to find the game as hard as Test cricket.

Contrary to some of the assumptions, this is not a new state. Pakistani cricket team, for a while after the 1992 World Cup, have invariably struggled to win major ODI tournaments consistently while doing somewhat better in tests. This was rather damningly noted in the December 1992 issue of The Cricketer (Pakistan), in which it was insisted that the world champions had a far-from-ideal one-day line-up.

As a 14-year-old, I found it hard to digest but subsequent struggles in Australia confirmed the fears expressed in the article were not unjustified. The problem then was somewhat more chronic: Pakistanis, in 1992, were a World Cup winning team and had the most outstandingly varied bowling line-up. READ: Akram unhappy with PAK’s mentality in ODIs vs ENG

The openers were fine as long as they delivered but the one-down position was not settled, as Saleem Malik’s continued struggles made way for Inzamam-ul-Haq or even Asif Mujtaba depending on the mood of the match selection committee. Javed Miandad, a fixture at No. 4, was in decline, and no longer an asset in ODIs. Pakistanis would play six specialist batsmen which meant that the fifth bowler, usually made up of a combination of Aamer Sohail and Mujtaba, was always a liability on flat wickets and indeed in any crunch situation. There was no assured backup for Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis as the veteran Salim Jaffar had been jettisoned.

These are only few of the factors that ensured that a few early hiccups was all that was needed to ensure a bad, ill-tempered failure of a tour. Surprisingly, even on that New Zealand tour Pakistan had managed to win the only Test — a low-scoring thriller at Hamilton that featured Miandad’s last great Test innings and Inzamam’s first to provide Wasim and Waqar with enough cushion to deliver a signature performance.

Only three years earlier, in 1990, Pakistanis were a far more formidable ODI side. In fact, in the lead-up to the 1992 World Cup, Pakistan had won 11 out of 13 ODI series and tournaments over three years, when they had been absolutely formidable on flat wickets where they could mount challenging scores while retaining ability to bowl teams out. It is surprising to realise that for most of this phase, Imran Khan was no longer an international-level bowler and Miandad was mostly off-colour. And yet, the team had enough steel in it to win most of what came its way.

It is here that we need to return to my earlier concern that Pakistanis are caught between a combination of various dilemmas when playing one-day cricket.

For starters, there is an issue with power-hitters. For years, Pakistan’s lower order, led by the all-rounders Abdul Razzaq and Shahid Afridi, would usually ensure some abnormally productive last few overs through some quick 20s and 30s. Both declined rapidly and no replacements were prepared or sought out. READ: PAK vs ENG 2016: Hafeez ruled out, Irfan comes in

It was all the more catastrophic because Razzaq fell out of favour much earlier than Afridi and there should have been alarm bells ringing to address the issue. Instead, after a series of public outbursts, the whole case became history and as a result, when Afridi’s career ended, Pakistanis were suddenly short of not one but two replacements.

Pakistan’s other problem remained a subconscious desire to make ends meet through hook or crook rather than engaging the Pakistan-specific approach of having specialists. Mohammad Hafeez is a case in point: What cannot be questioned about Hafeez is not a match-winning bowler and can only win fair-weather low key matches. With his bowling out of the equation, there was little justification to persist with him at 36. Instead, the unique means of showing loyalty that Pakistanis have branded for themselves in recent years worked its way through and Hafeez has survived.

It was the same when Saeed Ajmal was recalled immediately after his action was cleared and was consequently hammered out of international cricket by Bangladesh. By playing bits-and-pieces cricketers like Hafeez, who have inflated averages by repeatedly playing mediocre opposition on flat wickets, Pakistanis preferred a short-term stop-gap arrangement than looking for a long-term one. Pakistan have the ‘advantage’ of the hindsight heuristic, but who can now justify Hafeez’s selection ahead of Sami Aslam in Tests and now ODIs?

But again, this is not only about Hafeez. Should they qualify for the World Cup (which they, in all likelihood, will), Pakistanis would have noticed the way huge totals are being put up with ease in England. The wickets are far flatter and it will be a far cry from the World Cup of 1999 that had a plethora of world-class fast bowlers on soft, seaming wickets in swinging conditions. It should also be remembered by that time, Hafeez would be 39 and Shoaib Malik 37. Even Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq shall be approaching mid-30s. Have Pakistan put some thought into it?

Ideally, by 2019, Umar Akmal and company should have been world-class players having had ten years of international experience. Instead we find the younger Akmal hopelessly slogging in third-rate T20 leads trying to make some bucks while moaning about “not given a proper chance”.

The same applies to the other young batsmen, Haris Sohail, Sohaib Maqsood, Shehzad and Nasir Jamshed. Had they worked hard enough, these players would have been well-groomed ready-to-step-in replacements for the declining veterans, Misbah, Younis, Hafeez and even Azhar Ali and Shafiq (should he play ODIs). Circumstantial evidence suggests that this is a case of negative attitude of the players as well as the management.

Pakistan’s bowling has similar dilemmas. It is possible that Sami may make yet another comeback. What is more likely is that Muhammad Irfan, a year younger than Sami, is his replacement. He would be around 37 when the next World Cup is played. READ: Kohli is batsman who I respect and admire, says Aslam

Yasir Shah was mishandled in the 2015 World Cup by playing him on a flat Adelaide wicket against Indian batsmen who had been in Australia for months and had actually played both their practice games at the same ground. Yasir was then dropped for more crucial games based on that same show.

This time round the same mistake is being repeated in England against a team that is capable of scoring 400 runs in an innings, can chase 300 in 40 overs and recently chased 230 in a T20I against South Africa. Leg-spinners need patience and careful handling, and that is precisely what Yasir has been denied in ODIs.

Mohammad Aamer has been steady. He has not been helped by dropped catches but has consistently been the bowler England have respected most. The backup though is not promising. For example, Wahab Riaz would be 35 by the time the World Cup is played and he is no Shoaib Akhtar. The same applies to Umar Gul as well. This is where the non-selection of bowlers like Sadaf Hussain is baffling.

Sarfraz Ahmed will struggle too. Saleem Yousuf’s heroics had slowly turned the Pakistani mindset to believe that a wicketkeeper’s ability to score runs more than compensated for any failings with the bat. His gutsy batting continues to mask some major failings: it is easy to get carried away by what was indeed a very good hundred. However, had the main batsmen clicked, Sarfraz would not have been required to score these runs. His wicketkeeping errors though continue to haunt at least Aamer if not the rest of the team. READ: The method in Sarfraz Ahmed

Sarfraz’s role must be defined: He is being looked at as a potential future captain and the role that he has to play must be clear. Every team has produced successful wicketkeeper-batsmen but none of them were as consistent in dropping catches as Sarfraz is. In such cases, his hundreds and fifties would come in lost causes. The upshot would be that they would serve to show him as a hero and camouflage the real problems with both the Pakistani batting line-up as well as his own primary job, wicketkeeping.

The most eye-catching performance in Pakistan’s 2015 World Cup campaign was Wahab’s spell that came in a lost cause against Australia where Shane Watson survived him and then hammered him to all parts of the ground. However, that spell was good enough to camouflage what was otherwise a horrible campaign and included some embarrassingly tame surrenders, so very similar to praising Sarfraz’s batting in the two defeats.

Should they want a change, Pakistan must plan for the 2019 World Cup systematically. The team should be primed to first qualify for the tournament and then enter it with no suitability blues.

(Kamran Wasti is a mechanical engineer from Lahore with a bit of interest in cricket. He writes athttp://grassywicket.com)