x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Line-up to blame for Pakistan's timidity

Last week's heavy defeat to New Zealand should also serve as a wake-up call to Waqar Younis, the team coach, and Shahid Afridi, the captain.

Waqar Younis, left, gives instructions to Mohammad Hafeez and Misbah-ul-Haq, right, during a training session. Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / AFP
Waqar Younis, left, gives instructions to Mohammad Hafeez and Misbah-ul-Haq, right, during a training session. Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / AFP

Pakistan take on Zimbabwe in a must-win encounter at the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium today, fresh from their 110-run thrashing at the hands of an hitherto unfancied New Zealand.

That defeat, while confirming everyone's worst fears about the manifest flaws in selection and strategy of the Pakistan team, should also serve as a wake-up call to Waqar Younis, the team coach, and Shahid Afridi, the captain.

Afridi and Waqar, not renowned for their tactical acumen at the best of times, have been timidly defensive in their approach and paid the penalty against a rampant New Zealand.

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It is clear that the team "think tank" is missing someone with the cricketing foresight and intelligence of a Wasim Akram or a Bob Woolmer.

The strategy of going in with just two pace bowlers, one of them an ageing Shoaib Akhtar, backfired spectacularly when New Zealand scored a staggering 114 runs in the last six overs. Packing the side with batsmen is useless when the bowling and fielding cannot perform the basics.

Such is the depth of the Pakistani batting order (or the height of Pakistani nervousness and fearfulness about their batsmen) that Abdul Razzaq, one of the best hitters in world cricket, seldom gets a proper bat.

And Umar Gul, who on his day is good enough to bat at No 8 in one-day games, is languishing at No 10.

The team leadership thus appear to be guilty of not being true to the principal Pakistan cricketing ethos of “all-out attack”.

Instead, they seem to have adopted a safety by numbers approach and filled the side with “bits and pieces” cricketers instead of specialists and wicket takers.

Former Pakistan captains Imran Khan and Wasim Khan have both been scathing of this approach since the very first day, and the game against New Zealand demonstrated precisely why.

The pace and aggression of Wahab Riaz was badly missed that day, and he simply must be included in the side at the expense of one of the many superfluous batsmen.

Similarly, Shoaib needs to be given a day off and Junaid Khan, a younger pace bowler who so far seems to have been brought on tour simply to enjoy the sights and sounds of beautiful Sri Lanka, should be tried. In Waqar and Afridi’s defence, one can understand where they are coming from.

Pakistan’s recent successes and sustained run of good results in Test cricket under the astute and calming leadership of Misbah- ul-Haq have come with precisely this safety-first, unexciting but a very stable and sensible approach.

However, one-day international cricket (ODI) is a very different game, especially in the subcontinent.

The same approach when applied in ODIs is negative and risky. It can lead to dividends, such as the win over Sri Lanka, but can also spectacularly backfire on other days. Far more sensible to attack from the first ball.

On the bright side, the Pakistan team continues to live up to its “unpredictable” and “mercurial” tags, though in this World Cup, they are by no means the only ones.

This has been a tournament of surprises; not of huge upsets yet like in 2007, but of many unexpected twists and turns, almost on a daily basis.

India were the form team, with huge home advantage and an almost impregnable batting line-up.

However, the myth of Indian batting was tentatively bruised first by lowly Ireland and the Netherlands, and then conclusively shattered by South Africa in a thrilling encounter on Saturday.

South Africa were among the pre-tournament favourites, but failed to chase a very modest 171 against England, thus belying claims that this new-look Proteas team had finally got over the unfortunate “chokers” tag.

However, they then defied all odds to triumph in the very last over against India, scoring 300, and silencing a hostile Nagpur crowd in the process. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, the other two hosts, have similarly flattered to deceive.

England huffed and puffed to narrow wins over South Africa and the Netherlands, but were unable to overcome an under-pressure Bangladesh side, who held their nerve to triumph in the penultimate over.

England’s woes seem particularly acute. It appears to be the same old England, struggling in World Cups.

In the words of Bob Willis, the former England captain and now a television commentator: “Give England a World Cup to plan for, and they will make sure they completely implode.”

This then is turning out to be one of the more exciting cricket World Cups in recent memory, the lackadaisical and needlessly long schedule notwithstanding.

There have been more unforeseen plot twists than an Hitchcock masterpiece, and the “established narrative”, if it can be called that, has not remained in vogue for more than a few days each time. And Pakistan are not the only team who seems to have turned up with a split personality.

South Africa, England, Bangladesh, even India have all blown hot and cold; all-conquering and supremely confident when things are going well; timid and ineffectual when they are not, and sometimes all that on the same day.

The only “certainty” thus far then is that the relentless Australia juggernaut will continue on its merry way. Ricky Ponting’s men remain the team to beat.

Not only are they the only unbeaten team of this World Cup, they have not lost any World Cup encounter since May 1999; including yesterday’s win against Kenya, that is 33 games unbeaten ... and counting.

Will the 2011 World Cup, this most unpredictable of tournaments, end up with a very predictable outcome, one that we have already seen in 1999, 2003 and again in 2007?

All cricket fans bar those with Australian passports would be fervently hoping against that.

sports@thenational.ae

sports@thenational.ae