"Jamie Vardy’s havin’ a party
Get your vodka and your charlie!”
Twelve months ago this month, the players of Leicester City football club assembled at the house of their star striker, Jamie Vardy to see Chelsea take on Tottenham Hotspur, knowing that anything but a win for Spurs would confirm that they would have won perhaps the most remarkable title in perhaps the history of English football. When the match ended 2-2, the players tweeted a memorable video of themselves having a party at Vardy’s. A team of no-hopers, also-rans and hidden gems combined during a particularly open season of the Premiership to win the title.
And then they imploded.
No one expected Leicester to make a legacy out of their improbable win, but no one expected the following season either as their title defence saw them battling relegation. Eventually, their much-loved coach Claudio Ranieri was sacked amidst rumours of a players’ revolt (which he resolutely denied). Ranieri, who had spent many years as the nearly man across several fashionable European clubs was meant to be dwindling down his career at Leicester, so his unbelievable title win had left many wondering if he was amongst the all-time greats. However, the ignominy of the following season meant that it was impossible to ignore that blemish when deciding his legacy. Ranieri’s side were always expected to struggle with having overachieved, but they were also done in by the fact that teams were now wise to their counter-attacking tactics.
Rather than bowing out on a high, Ranieri left with a tainted legacy. Does the story of his team mirror that of #TeamMisbah’s?
During the now traditional WhatsApp post-mortem of a Test match that all of us do these days, our group’s thoughts went towards the past year and how Misbah’s side had followed up going to no. 1 with a complete implosion. Since the England tour, Pakistan’s record has been 3-7-0, with all three wins coming against the West Indies. Most damningly, amidst wipeouts in New Zealand and Australia, they have now lost twice to a weak West Indian side even by their decimated standards, and almost lost one more.
The analogy with Leicester isn’t perfect. For starters, Misbah and the core of his batting has been around for almost seven years now, which in Pakistan cricket years is basically three decades. The bowling is perhaps the more instructive way of dividing up his long reign, as it has changed quite dramatically over the years. The run to world no. 1 began in 2014, when the chucking purges left Yasir Shah leading the Pakistan attack.
The England tour was where this cycle ended, although at the time it felt like the start of something magnificent. The addition of Mohammad Amir made the bowling feel more complete, while the batting continued its two year peak in a series that ended 2-2, but could have been won 3-1 by either side. The tour also quietened some of the criticism that Misbah’s side were (adopted) home-track bullies, given that much of the success over the two years happened in dominant fashion in the UAE.
"The England tour was where this cycle ended, although at the time it felt like the start of something magnificent."
Since then, the team has come apart. From 2014-16, six batsmen played 14 Tests or more and all averaged over 50. Since the England tour, Azhar Ali has exploded into the form of his life, but no one else averages better than Misbah’s 37. Over that same period, no bowler has averaged under 31 or has a strike-rate lower than 58. From 14-16, both Yasir and Imran Khan were regular bowlers with an average under 30 and a strike rate in the low 50s.
There has been a tendency to wash away the entire race to no. 1 as nothing more than a fluke, engineered by a run of big wins at home. Such a view is quite ridiculous, given that this is an era of sides lording it at home and the draw in England was a huge achievement that helped cement the legacy of the dominance at home. However, what is also clear is that Misbah’s side greatly overachieved.
If we return to the batsmen, we can see that each of the batsmen during the golden era were averaging anywhere between 5 to 13 runs higher than their career averages. Since the England tour, everyone’s down between 5 to 15 runs, with Azhar being a brilliant exception.
What was central to Misbah’s team's success was their tactics. The batsmen would try to score big and the bowlers would then use their patience to make the opposition collapse. As the table below shows, Pakistan conceded 15 runs less per wicket, and scored 0.3 runs per over faster than the opposition in the UAE. Compare that with the past three tours, where the bowling was destroyed in Australia, and the batting imploded in New Zealand.
As is quite clear, the team has struggled to impose its tactics (though the numbers for England mask a tour where Pakistan’s wins saw them successfully dry out the opposition).
In other words, they’ve done a Leicester. Now I must admit that such an analysis makes me uncomfortable, since it doesn’t account for the remarkable fact that Misbah’s side was playing in neutral grounds. As much as some say that was an advantage, it was one they built themselves. And they even took its lessons successfully to England. But ultimately, there was only so far the magic could last. That summer in England was the last high for both Misbah and Ranieri’s sides - the coming winters would prove to be legacy tarnishing.