It is said that at the end of a dark tunnel, there is always some light. Pakistan cricket seems to have found that light, a year after the infamous spot-fixing scandal in England which has even today shaken people’s faith in world cricket.
Many predicted that Pakistan faced a dull future because Salman Butt was a great skipper and batsman in the making, Mohammad Asif could have led a young bowling attack while Mohammad Amir’s performances in the last two years had been commendable considering the fact that he is just a rookie and teenage fast bowler.
But unlike their Asian counterparts Sri Lanka, Pakistan has had the belief that they can end their period of transition soon. This is one of the reasons why their performances have taken a U-turn since the scandal. Here are the ten main reasons why Pakistan’s comeback has been surprising, yet an inspiring one for the rest of the teams in world cricket –
1) Misbah ul Haq and his captaincy
To enforce the belief of changing quickly after the 2010 disaster, Misbah ul Haq’s stewardship has played a huge role. Misbah was not even considered to play in a second string Pakistan side at a point of time but the selectors wanted a true gentleman to help clear the image of Pakistani cricket to the world. And who better than Misbah?
He has not disappointed one bit. His simplistic and method-based style of captaincy has won the admiration of the youngsters in the side and senior players alike, something that the nation’s skippers in the past have been unable to do so. His ‘safety first’ approach towards leadership has changed Pakistan’s style of playing from being a mercurial side to a reliable team capable of putting up consistently good performances to watch from time to time.
Pakistan seems to be finally playing as a united team, something rare in their cricketing history. And this is so important in any team sport. If Misbah-ul-Haq can prolong his career by fighting age successfully, this wise-head could become one of the country’s greatest captains of all-time since he would have been able to bring back a team from the dead.
Batting wise, Misbah is in the form of his life and as captain, he has been able to gel so well with his team that even without a permanent and reputed coach, they have come out with flying colours. His excellent rapport with Mohsin Khan has helped reduce any conflict arising in the team and meet individual as well as team needs, and this is a prerequisite to good man management in teams.
Even in the ODIS, Misbah looks to be a promising prospect as captain but it is too early to judge him as of now having captained the team only against Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and a woefully out of form Sri Lanka. Yet, even in this format of the game he seems to understand the happenings of the match and react quickly to certain situations. Although, he is helped by an efficient bowling attack, Misbah being like a big brother to them inspires them to perform to their fullest and as a result Saeed Ajmal for instance is one of the world’s top bowlers in ODI cricket.
2) Shahid Afridi’s maturity
‘Boom Boom’ Afridi he is called, because of his capacity to clear the rope the maximum number of times more than any other cricketer in the world and this is the way he plays. His style of batting may make him the darling of Pakistan fans across the globe, but can be sometimes detrimental to the team’s cause as his wicket is one of the most prized ones for the opposition. Besides, if a senior player does not set the right example for the youngsters, then who will?
But Shahid Afridi has now come to terms in realizing what his role in the ODI team is following his decision not to play Test cricket ‘permanently’ and resigning as the captain in the ODIS and T-20s in May last year. As a result, when he took a sabbatical from international cricket for a few months, he decided to instead fine tune his all-round skills by appearing for Hampshire in English county cricket for a period of two months.
Come the ODI series against Sri Lanka, and Afridi’s transformation was visible enough from a man who would just mindlessly slog the ball to being calmer and waiting for the right ball to be hit out of the park. And if he would get good balls continuously, he would put it away for a single or a two if possible which would make the scoreboard tick. Batting at No.7 or No.8, his role is to bat with the tail-enders and so he has become more responsible when it comes to batting, valuing his wickets 100 times than before. He even seem to love the fours these days which has made his mind uncluttered and thus there is a better clarity of thought with the bat in his hand.
Even in terms of bowling, Afridi has made rapid strides therefore being more effective than before, obviously having the vote of confidence from Misbah. He realizes that he is the most experienced player in the ODI team and has to act like a mentor to the rookie youngsters, and for that he has had no issues with Misbah or coach Mohsin whatsoever.
Recently, he was seen playing for Melbourne Renegades in Australia’s Big Bash T-20 league since he does not play Tests for Pakistan. So he has also learnt how to utilize his free time extremely well and has ensured that his form never dips and he remains in full fitness when asked by Pakistan to turn up in national colours.
3) Changes in the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB)
There is a strong belief that good sports team is a by-product of a good administration. Afterall, a team well taken care off is expected to perform better than its counterparts. This is in fact one of the most crucial factors in Pakistan’s revival in the last 15 months or so.
When Ijaz Butt was the chairman of the PCB, there was huge ciaos in Pakistan cricket. His tenure oversaw Pakistan lose the rights to host international matches at home following a terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in March 2009, which was partly the fault of the PCB who did not agree with the Sri Lankan cricket board to host the fateful Test match in Karachi instead of Lahore where there were security issues at the time. And also the fact that adequate security was not given to the Sri Lankans, which were the reasons why they were vulnerable to an attack. This incident also compelled the ICC to remove Pakistan as one of the hosts of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 in the Indian subcontinent, a few months after the country was also suspended from hosting the ICC Champions Trophy 2008.
Followed by which, Pakistan have seen five captains in the last four years in all formats of the game. Shoaib Malik, Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf, Salman Butt, Shahid Afridi were victims of the PCB’s impatience in persisting with most of them as long-term captains, although Afridi’s tenure was still relatively long. This is one of the reasons of the inconsistency in Pakistan’s performances on the field. No other team in the world has had so many captains in this period of time.
This callous attitude of the PCB is the reason why Afridi resigned as captain after the tour of West Indies in May 2011, since they did not wish to believe what he had to say about the team’s performance and relied more on the coach’s words with whom he had a spat with. In fact, Afridi made himself unavailable to the team and only returned when Ijaz Butt was sacked and replaced by Zaka Ashraf.
Then ofcourse the spot-fixing scandal took place in August 2010 involving Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir. This is definitely due to the PCB’s poor vigilance of their players in their actions and the fact that the board has always followed a policy of not thoroughly investigating into fixing activities and take action against it. Pakistan must be the only team in the world to be accused of so many fixing allegations. In turn, Ijaz Butt went on record to accuse England of spot-fixing in the ODI series in England which shows the personification of the arrogance which got Pakistani cricket down on its knees.
Ijaz Butt was replaced in the summer of 2011 by Zaka Ashraf, an investment banker who was a college friend of Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari. Ashraf maybe dealing in commerce as his profession, but it has been seen that he has an analytical mind when it comes to solving cricketing issues and that has been helping the team focus on cricket and nothing else going on around. It was due to Ashraf’s appointment that Afridi returned to play ODI and T-20 cricket for Pakistan and this is a good sign for their future.
While Intikhab Alam is responsible for handling the team of selectors, in the absence of Mohsin Khan who has been appointed the temporary coach of Pakistan since the tour of Sri Lanka a few months ago before the team can find a new coach.
Besides, Ashraf has also atleast made an attempt to bring back international cricket in Pakistan unlike Butt, by inviting Bangladesh for a short tour in April 2011. The tour may be approved by the ICC and the Bangladesh Cricket Board in the coming days, giving Pakistan fans finally the due they deserve, to cheer their cricketers in their own backyard. While the players will definitely feel more satisfied and comfortable as well as relieved to play at home.
4) The spot-fixing controversy
Sometimes a challenge can bring out either the best or the worst from a team. The biggest challenge Pakistan cricket has had to face is moving on from the spot-fixing saga of 2010 when the then Test skipper Salman Butt and pacers Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir were caught in a plot to deliberately bowl no-balls in the fourth and the final Test match against England at Lord’s, in return for a substantial payment by their so-called ‘agent’ but actually a book maker, Mazhar Majeed.
Mohammad Amir was one of the promising fast bowlers in world cricket at the time, having taken 50 wickets in the few Test matches he appeared in. Due to his young age and the fact that he was forced by Butt to perform such a heinous act, he was banned by the ICC for five years in February 2011 while a few months later, he was sentenced to six months of prison by a London court, although he is now out on bail after just three months of staying in a ‘rehabilitation centre’, portraying good behavior. Yet, it will be a mountainous task for Amir to return into international cricket as he will have to fight it out extremely hard in terms of his skills, attitude and more importantly fitness since he is a fast bowler. And even if he does make a return, he will be 23 by then, but will he be the same bowler again?
Mohammad Asif, easily Pakistan’s bowling spearhead was banned for seven years by the ICC and jailed for two and a half years in a London prison. By the time he finishes serving both the sentences altogether, he will be 34 years of age and therefore ineffective to stage a comeback in international cricket.
Salman Butt, who actually implemented this plan as per the bookie, was rightfully banned for ten years by the ICC and jailed for two and a half years in London. His international career has definitely been put in the dumps by the PCB and this was considered to be the saddest case of them all since Butt was proving to be an asset to the team as captain as well as an opening batsman.
But despite the entire trauma their team mates have gone through and Pakistan’s name being spoilt in the cricketing world, this has actually been a blessing in disguise for the team. They needed a kick on their backs to wake up and realize their dream of becoming the World’s No.1 in all formats of the game in the upcoming years, and they have ever since gone about to pursue this dream preferably removing any obstacle coming in their way. Afterall, to gain something you have to lose something and this saying seems to be apt for the current affairs in Pakistan cricket.
5) The role of the coach
Pakistan like their captains, have never been too permanent in keeping a coach to guide the team on a consistent basis. This has been the case especially since the mysterious and unfortunate expiry of the late Bob Woolmer after Pakistan’s first round exit from the World Cup 2007 in the West Indies.
Following Bob Woolmer, Intikhab Alam was asked to coach the team on a temporary basis until they could find a suitable coach for the team. The PCB thought that the Australian Geoff Lawson would complete the requirements of the post and so was appointed, with his first assignment being the T-20 World Cup in South Africa in September 2007. Pakistan made it to the finals of the competition, under the captaincy of the young Shoaib Malik. Malik and Lawson could have formed one of Pakistan’s best captain-coach duos following decent performances in India and Bangladesh towards mid-2008. But the wheels had begun to come off with some poor showings by the team and by the time Malik was sacked as captain, Lawson’s coaching tenure too was not too far away of coming to an end.
In relation to a long-term coach, Lawson was replaced by the legendary Waqar Younis but Waqar seemed to have problems with other coaches around him guiding the team such as a batting coach in Javed Miandad, captains, the overall running of Pakistan cricket as well as the unity of the team which could not allow him to relax and focus on his job, but instead complain most of the times about the team’s performances.
Waqar quit in June 2011 as coach citing personal problems, but it seems that he has had enough of the mess involved in Pakistan cricket and felt that commentating was a way better job. Pakistan have since then not had a permanent coach with Mohsin Khan being another man playing the role of an interim coach, from being a key member of the selection committee.
Mohsin however has been supported by the PCB surprisingly so far and is expected to continue this ‘short’ tenure of his for more time until they can finalize a deal with Dav Whatmore, who is said to be a more skilled and experienced coach after helping Sri Lanka win the World Cup 1996 and coaching Bangladesh in its early years in international cricket. So in terms of coaching, Pakistan is bound to do well unless Whatmore turns out to be the hard task master which the Pakistani players would not like.
6) Adapting to a new ‘home’
It is a known fact that it has been close to three years now that Pakistan has not played a single international match on home soil, with the last being a Test match against Sri Lanka at Lahore in March 2009. Teams have been reluctant ever since to tour Pakistan, with the security situation getting bleaker by each passing day due to an unstable government and an unpredictable army.
Hence, there was a need to make Pakistan feel as if they would be playing at home even though they technically were not. The United Arab Emirates was unanimously decided to be considered as Pakistan’s ‘home’ mainly due to the fact that the country possesses a huge Muslim population and houses many Pakistanis, who migrated from their country perhaps in search for a job and a better standard of living. Thus, there are many Pakistani fans to cheer their team every time they take the field, with tickets priced at nominal rates depending on the opponent they are playing and the format of the game.
Besides, the country does not have much of its own cricketing identity and so hardly any international matches take place there, especially after the match fixing saga in 2000 where Sharjah was implicated to be the main link of bookies across the world to bet illegally on matches. And the fact that the weather conditions and pitches are very similar to that in Pakistan, and so there is no reason why they should be playing somewhere else.
Pakistan have taken full advantage of this and not lost a single Test series since August 2010 playing in this country, while winning against Sri Lanka in 2011 and losing to South Africa in 2010 ODI series. They have been relatively successful at home generally, although the crowds have not been big in number as in Pakistan. But the team is now on the verge of completing a whitewash against World No.1 England in the 3 Test series being played at the moment and that would mean that they indeed have made this their home.
The other ‘home’ for Pakistan was England as they were obligated to play Australia for a short tour of 2 T-20s and 2 Test matches after a cramped calendar year of 2009. Pakistan won both the T-20s and drew level the Tests 1-1, since the conditions suited their bowlers extremely well.
7) A fine blend of seniors and juniors
In a movie, the lead actor’s performance is not appreciated without the presence of a supporting actor. Well in this case, the supporting actors are the rest of the players. Misbah ul Haq cannot achieve the team’s vision on his own. He needs support from the entire unit and that is exactly what they have given him. It has been a story of give and take.
For that, there has been a decent mix of oldies and the youngsters in both formats of the game. Misbah, aged 38 is leading the team being its senior statesmen while he is supported by much more experienced players such as Shahid Afridi in ODIs and Younis Khan in both ODIs and Tests.
Younis Khan also has played a pivotal role in mentoring the middle order batsmen, making him a batting captain of sorts due to his experience. This has largely reduced Misbah’s workload and he can focus on his own batting better and formulate the ideal strategies on the field. Plus, Younis’s form is a good sign for Pakistan looking to dominate atleast in Test cricket, a format which they have perennially struggled in for years. While even in the ODIs, Afridis’ and Younis’ expertise is a must for the team which otherwise has players with a relatively lesser amount of experience or they are completely rookies, having played very little of international cricket.
Amongst the juniors as well as the relatively inexperienced players, when it comes to Test match cricket, Azhar Ali has made the No.3 spot his own, being amongst the top five run-getters in Test cricket in 2011. While Asad Shafiq has adapted perfectly batting at No.6 and going by his form in the last 12 months, he could definitely cement the No.3 or No.4 spot in Tests in the future. Adnan Akmal has done decently to be Pakistan’s wicket keeper in Test matches after the failure of both his brothers, Kamran and Umar. Aizaz Cheema, Saeed Ajmal, Abdur Rehman and Mohammad Hafeez have all performed consistently as well by listening to advice well and sticking to the basics as per the game plan.
8) Saeed Ajmal, the world’s best bowler
Ajmal’s rise has been meteoric, having played close to 30 months of international cricket. Pakistan have clearly moved on from Danish Kaneria in Tests, because of Ajmal’s squeaky clean image so far and his ever improving performance leading Pakistan to winning matches, if not series, in the West Indies, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and England. While in the UAE, Saeed Ajmal has benefitted the most from the dry pitches and not so humid conditions throughout the year, aiding him in spinning the ball better and becoming a master at bowling the ‘doosra’ better than any other bowler in the world.
He ended as the highest wicket-taker in the world in 2011 in both formats of the game, taking 54 wickets in Tests thereby clearly being the World’s No.1 bowler even ahead of contemporary spinners such as England’s Graeme Swann and India’s Harbhajan Singh.
At the moment, the world champions England are suffering from Ajmal’s form in the 3 Test matches being played. He has improved leaps and bounds as a bowler ever since the bashing he suffered in the hands of Mr. Cricket, Michael Hussey in the World T-20 semifinal in 2010 in the West Indies.
Even in terms of bowling, Aizaz Cheema has made a name for himself with his pace and Umar Gul has been given the responsibility to lead the attack, which he enjoys doing. Saeed Ajmal completes what is certainly one of the most potent bowling attacks in the world today, even without the likes of Amir and Asif.
9) Stability at the top of the order in Test cricket
In Test cricket, the team which has the best opening pair usually dominates this format of the game. Whether you take the West Indies side of the 70s and 80s which had Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes at the top. Or the Australian side of the 90s and 2000s which had Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer opening in Tests for the maximum period of time.
If Pakistan wants to be a long-term No.1 in Test cricket, they can hope to become so because of a promising opening pair in Mohammad Hafeez and Taufeeq Umar. Both of them are relatively young, below 30 years of age and are in the best of forms, especially when it comes to batting with each other. In 2011, they had the most century partnerships in Tests and the most number of runs between opening partners as a result.
This combination is unlikely to change as long as the team continues this form and Misbah ul Haq is captain of the team. Misbah has backed both of them despite their repeated failures in the past, as Taufeeq had not impressed much to gain a Test spot due to his slow run scoring and the now disgraced Salman Butt’s emergence. While Hafeez was considered more of a player who was suited to the demands of limited overs cricket rather than Test cricket.
However, their huge partnerships have helped make life easier for a relatively inexperienced batting line up, despite Younis Khan batting at No.4 and Misbah ul Haq batting at No.5. Openers can either take the game away from the opposition as quickly as possible or make the game for the opposition as they put pressure on the middle order to deliver.
10) A strong bowling unit
Pakistan has always had a history of possessing a dearth of bowlers, especially quick ones. But this Pakistani attack can be considered the best in the world at the moment because it is well balanced in Tests, ODIs or T-20s.
The retirement of Shoaib Akhtar after the World Cup 2011 semifinal against India can now be thought of as a boon for Pakistan since it opened the door for the Pakistani selectors to search for fresh talent in domestic cricket, to burst onto the international scene. The selectors chose Aizaz Cheema to do so, despite being 33 years old, only two years younger to Shoaib. This is definitely a short-sighted selection perhaps due to reasons such as Cheema being in tremendous form in domestic cricket or wanting to give other bowlers some time before they can adapt to the rigours of international cricket. Yet, Cheema has been a perfect replacement for Shoaib since he can bowl regularly close to 145 km/hr in any conditions.
While Cheema can make life miserable for the batsman, he perfectly complements spearhead Umar Gul who has a lot more variations in terms of line, length and pace to trouble batsmen. Junaid Khan, the young fast bowler also seems to be an ideal first change bowler for Pakistan in the future in Tests, in case they wish to play 3 quick bowlers. Wahab Riaz is also amongst the bowlers warming up the bench in Tests and ODIs while Sohail Tanvir is always someone to pick in ODIs for his all-round abilities.
When it comes to spin, in Tests it is Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman who can be the team’s spin duo despite Rehman being above 30 years of age. His left-arm spin can trouble even the best of batters in world cricket, and who knows this better than England’s Kevin Pietersen! Whereas, in ODI and T-20 cricket, Ajmal can form a fine quartet with Shahid Afridi who is now more of a bowling all-rounder, Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Hafeez as both of them can do some tricks with the ball to put opponents off-guard.
Pakistan is headed in the right direction and now there should be no looking back for a side that is headed towards greatness in the long run.