A few years ago, a friend came back to visit Pakistan from Australia, where he lived. After a week or so in, he said that the best and worst thing about Pakistan was that everything was “same, same”.
What he meant was that at one level it was reassuring to find things being the same way they were when you left them, but that in many ways that sameness was difficult to adjust to, and troubling. In fact, it was difficult to tell whether things were getting better or getting worse.
Take those pictures of old newspapers from the ‘80s where you have the government promising to end load shedding by the end of the year. Take those divides of rich and poor that stubbornly continue to persist, no matter what changes. Take those celebrities who are still living off a hit album or TV show from several years ago, stealing the limelight. Take those killings over honour, over words, over beliefs that have been a part of our society for as long as my generation has been alive. It happened then, it happens now - ‘same, same’.
For sure, even as we have lived through an era of a much more active media, an expanded economy and uninterrupted spells of democracy, as the sitting government continues to evade justice for its crimes, one can’t help but feel that despite all this progress things are inevitably ‘same, same’.
And things get really, torturously ‘same, same’ when it comes to cricket. While the rest of the world began to change its cricket about ten years ago, the combination of no-home cricket and the IPL ban meant that Pakistan’s white-ball cricket became frozen in time. In fact, it even seemed to regress, going back to the ‘90s. As everyone else, including associate sides, came to embrace the era of batting big and chasing fearlessly, Pakistan continued to think of 225 as a par score and any chase above 6/over to be impossible.
“While the rest of the world began to change its cricket about ten years ago, the combination of no-home cricket and the IPL ban meant that Pakistan’s white-ball cricket became frozen in time. In fact, it even seemed to regress, going back to the ‘90s.”
Terrorism, security issues mean no home matches for Pakistan
Every ICC tournament felt ‘same, same’ - Pakistan would be described as mercurial and unpredictable in the previews but their form and eventual performance would be closer to predictable mediocrity. Since the win over England in the 1992 World Cup final, they’ve only won two knockout matches in 50 over ICC events. Beyond the odd morale-boosting victory - India in 2009 CT, Australia in 2011 WC, South Africa in 2015 WC - they would only pick up frequent flier miles on their early flights home. After India thrashed them in their opening match at this Champions Trophy, Pakistan looked set to be mired in another round of ‘same-same’.
“Pakistan would be described as mercurial and unpredictable in the previews but their form and eventual performance would be closer to predictable mediocrity.”
Since the win over England in the 1992 World Cup final, Pakistan has only won two knockout matches in 50 over ICC events
What happened next wasn’t that something changed. What happened next was that the rest of the world suddenly had to come and live in Pakistan’s alternate universe of ‘same-same’. For a few days in England, the cricketing world has had to live through ‘same-same’.
Sarfaraz Ahmed’s much-mocked out-of-the-box strategy against India seemed to simply be to open the bowling with Imad Wasim. As is known of his captaincy, Sarfaraz refused to change the plan even when it failed to get wickets.
Since that chastising defeat though, he’s dropped that tactic and stuck to his guns. Despite an appalling batting line-up, he’s sought to chase each time. He’s opened with his pacers, brought in spin early and then, crucially, brought the pacers back just after the halfway mark to wreck the opposition.
Sarfaraz’s team has dragged opponents down to their 90s game
South Africa started to fall against the spin, and in fifteen overs between the 14th to the 29th, they lost five wickets for 58 runs. Sri Lanka split their collapse. They lost two wickets for one run in the 14th and 15th overs before settling, but when the pacers came back, they lost four wickets for six runs between the 31st and 36th overs. Today, England lost 4-34 to spin and pace between the 28th and 39th overs.
Then there was their death bowling. Against India, Pakistan conceded 72 in the last four overs, and 106 in the last 10. Against South Africa, they conceded 63 in the final 10 overs with three fours and a six. Against Sri Lanka, 50 runs with four fours. Against England, 38 with just one four and that too off an edge. In each match, Pakistan's rhythms and team tactics have been ‘same-same’, and yet the opposition hasn’t had any answers.
And truth be told, there is no tactic outside of this ‘same-same’ approach that will is likely to produce a Pakistan win. Throw in a flat track and their batsmen wouldn’t win in two innings. Throw in a slightly tough chase and they’ll wobble. Throw in a team that doesn’t panic, and they’ll start to do it themselves. But much like Misbah-ul-Haq forced Test sides to play to Pakistan’s slow, dry pace, Sarfaraz’s team has dragged opponents down to their 90s game.
Modern sides can’t handle this old-school approach. Power hitting sides in the modern game prefer knowing a target to aim for. Setting one seems to cause them more trouble, especially if there isn’t a stable foundation or they’ve lost early wickets. It might sound simple, but preventing either of these things has pretty much gone out of fashion in ODI cricket. Except against Pakistan.
“But much like Misbah-ul-Haq forced Test sides to play to Pakistan’s slow, dry pace, Sarfaraz’s team has dragged opponents down to their 90s game.”
Maddeningly, even a win in the final is unlikely to lead to long-term change or growth. If Pakistan continues to play in their ‘same-same’ style, they will lose far more matches than they will win. But every now and then, time loses its way and things get back to same-same. And when they do, Pakistan doesn't leave anyone feeling the same again.