Can somebody get me in touch with whoever coined the term “favourites”? For some reason known only to Pakistani fan logic, there was a sense of belief that the team that had so convincingly won the Champions Trophy had a real shot at the Asia Cup or at least qualifying for the finals. We were playing at what we have considered our home ground since 2009, how bad could it possibly be? With Sri Lanka not even a serious contender this time around, the Asian Cricket Council had scripted a perfect story for not one but two guaranteed India-Pakistan clashes and a nearly secure place in the final.
Being the ever-eager masochist, I travelled to Dubai for both the Pakistan-India matches returning with a sense of realisation of how truly far behind we really are. To put into perspective, it’s not that Pakistan lost, it’s that we were never really ever in the game, to begin with. Sitting in the stands, you could hear the chatter about how there used to be a real contest between the two sides. We were likened to Zimbabwe and West Indies, the latter hitting too close to home. Perhaps my biggest fear is that we will always live in glories past, that our victories will always be flukes and rare moments of hysteria as opposed to deserved clinical wins by a world-class side. The manner in which we collapsed, our inability to play basic spin, the fact that not a single century was scored by our batting line up and that your only hope in each match relied heavily on a player nearing the edge of retirement left a heavy sense of dread.
The team’s selection, to begin with, was absolutely baffling. After Amir’s abysmal performance in our opening game against Hong Kong, why was he played ahead of Junaid Khan who has taken 10 wickets in 8 matches compared to Amir’s 3? Given Amir’s recent ODI performance, nobody with his record should even be close to the national team, and yet the illogical “big match player” card put him ahead of cold hard stats. When Junaid finally did get his shot against Bangladesh, he took four wickets for 19 runs which left us all wondering of what could have been in the earlier games. Hasan Ali who was world #1 not too long ago almost seemed like a shadow of a player he once was, but we can chalk that up to one bad tournament. Perhaps what’s most disturbing is why Shadab Khan was the only real spinner Pakistan had in their side on UAE pitches. Who made this decision and with what justification? Could we not have put Yasir Shah to use? What about the ever-handy Hafeez, with an economy rate of 3.24 and the ability to bat, should he not have been a serious contender? Is Mickey Arthur picking and choosing his favourites?
The real mystery to me, however, is how Sarfraz Ahmed had all of us believe he was a decent batsman. I celebrated harder than the next person during Pakistan’s fairy-tale wins under him, but the fan in me craves consistency. His run since the Champions Trophy has been dismal with an average of 17.2 against mostly low ranked teams for that matter. Forget his captaincy, with a batting line up as brittle as ours, he doesn’t deserve a place in the side. Asif Ali was another player that perhaps joined a little too early; PSL success doesn’t always convert to ODI glory for the national side, and his inexperience showed in all the matches. A complete waste of his position. I do thank him for the only memorable 22-run over we had though. The need to strike a balance between young blood and experience could not be more evident than when Malik came on to bat. With over 16 years of experience under his belt, he was the only player that gave us any semblance of hope. Young Imam-ul-Haq and Shaheen Shah Afridi proved to be the two other positives to come off this tournament while Fakhar Zaman looked like the most insecure version of himself. He was either dismissed through poor shot play out of sheer frustration or on two occasions chose to forego the review despite not being out!
While I can understand that fitness is a priority in 2018, have we forgotten that skill should also have a part to play? By the looks of it, Inzamam probably wouldn’t have made the cut today! It is key to invest in our players beyond just yo-yo tests and PSL matches. We need domestic cricket to improve; we need to pour money into academies and equipment and training facilities that other countries are employing. We can’t train like the 90s and play in 2018, the contest between bat and ball has changed so why haven’t we? Talent has never been an issue for the Pakistan cricket team; we just don’t know how to nurture it. There are so many player development programmes cropping up across the country but what about the players who have already been capped? The Quaid-e-Azam trophy is a complete sham because if First-Class stats really mattered, Fawad Alam would have been included in the side.
Watching from the stands, everything about Pakistan was wrong in this tournament. There was no self-belief; we were defeated before we even walked out. While our batting has always failed us, our bowling was even more painful to watch. What was even more hilarious was the fielding and the incredible stats that were released right before the Asia Cup claiming that our catching percentage was 85.9%, the highest it had been in 2 years. Pakistan went on to drop eight catches during this tournament; Rohit Sharma’s, in particular, was shattering.
Within the comedy of errors, the reality of doom looms quite near; this was supposed to be the team we were grooming for the world cup. While we may be the No. 1 side in the T20s, the erratic chaos of our ODI side has meant that Pakistan have only been able to win 5 out of 22 matches against the top 5 teams since 2016. Pakistan’s quick decline in Tests from the No. 1 ranking in 2016 to number 7 today is a further cause for concern. So where does Pakistan go from here? Removing the captain or coach so close to the world cup is likely to do more harm than good, Pakistan need to really pick the best off the bench and get to work if we stand any chance to put up a good show in 2019. As true Pakistan cricket fans, let us pray that we may never be jinxed with the favourites tag again and look on to 2019 with hope, after all, haven’t Pakistan traditionally done well in England?