Pakistan's sharp descent to the number four slot in the updated ICC T20I rankings feels as surreal as their 27-month reign at the top. The absence of global cricket for six weeks and counting adds to the bizarre context in which the baton of T20I dominance has been passed onto the rampant Australia side.
The days of unbridled excellence exhibited under the leadership of Sarfaraz Ahmed and tutelage of head coach Mickey Arthur currently seem like a distant memory. The T20 formula that made Pakistan such an invincible unit has supposedly vanished into obscurity and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic provides little opportunity for the team management to work on their flaws, adding to their woes if the T20 World Cup goes ahead as scheduled.
Debatable selection policies, shoddy gameplans and an unexpected leadership change have all contributed to Pakistan's downfall in the shortest format. We thus trace the team's journey in the past year and a half that eventually resulted in them losing the numero uno spot.
The series which arguably began Pakistan's deep slide was also the first to not feature Sarfaraz in the side after being appointed captain. Hence, Pakistan were already on the backfoot even before stepping onto the Newlands turf for the first T20I with Sarfaraz being sent home whilst serving a four-match suspension under contentious circumstances. He was sanctioned by the ICC for passing racially sensitive remarks at Andile Phehlukwayo in the second ODI and although he apologized for the unsavoury incident, the PCB was rather disappointed with the apex cricket body’s punishment imposed on the 32-year-old.
Amidst the bitter backdrop, Shoaib Malik was named stand-in captain for the series – Pakistan’s first loss in 11 series stretching back to 2016. The first two T20Is followed a virtually similar template – South Africa racking up a formidable total, Pakistan’s top-order heroics promising a successful chase but as has been the case for eternity, a collapse in the death overs seeing the visitors painfully stumble behind the finishing line.
A regal knock from Babar Azam (58-ball 90) in the second T20I could not be backed by half-decent contributions from the rest of the batters to ensure a win. Hussain Talat’s ugly swats in the final overs, despite spending 41 deliveries at the crease, painted a sad picture of Pakistan’s ability to implode from winning positions.
Shadab Khan’s late surge with the bat and disciplined bowling effort finally earned Pakistan a consolation win in the third match, which proved to be the only taste of T20I triumph for Pakistan throughout 2019.
The often-forgotten T20I clash between England and Pakistan is submerged by the hype surrounding Jofra Archer’s foray into 20-over cricket on the international stage. With a full-strength Pakistan side competing against an England team devoid of specialists like Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Jason Roy and company, the tourists still succumbed to another loss.
England completed a hard-fought victory ticking off the boxes in preparations for the ICC World Cup. Pakistan put up an impressive show with the bat, largely thanks to Babar and Haris Sohail, though the decision to award a maiden cap to Imam-ul-Haq attracted criticism. An abject bowling display offered by the pace duo of Hasan Ali and Faheem Ashraf, in particular, resulted in the seven-wicket defeat.
Sri Lanka’s tour of Pakistan for the limited-overs fixtures was preceded by a massive overhaul of Pakistan's coaching staff after the World Cup. Arthur, bowling coach Azhar Mahmood and batting coach Grant Flower all failed to secure an extension in their contracts by the PCB as the board eyed a new set-up to steer the proverbial sinking ship.
Misbah-ul-Haq was controversially given the dual role of chief selector and head coach, handing him a far greater set of responsibilities than any of his predecessors. Misbah immediately brought in an overwhelmingly new-look squad against a Sri Lankan team missing its core members since 10 players had pulled out of the tour due to security concerns.
Sarfaraz's dwindling form with the bat hastened his removal ©Getty Images
The left-field selection of Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad understandably prompted criticism but their presence was defended with a nod at their exploits in the domestic circuit. Health issues kept Shaheen Afridi and Hasan Ali out of the action as Pakistan locked horns with a weakened Sri Lanka as strong favourites but what unfolded in Lahore was beyond anyone's imagination.
The first T20I was a huge rout with Pakistan crashing to a humiliating 64-run defeat, barely managing to breach the 100-run mark. Pakistan's chase of the competitive 166-run target never found any stable force out in the middle and the recalled duo of Umar and Shehzad amassed a total of four runs between them.
Dismissed as a momentary slip-up, Pakistan vowed to avenge the rare blip at home and make an emphatic comeback, deserving of their No. 1 status. Things did not pan out as desired for the hosts as they once again received a shellacking to mark yet another series loss. Unknown commodities rose to the occasion for Sri Lanka to stun a Pakistan side that had been basking in the glory of their T20I success far too long. The alarming aspect of Pakistan's batting fiasco was their inability to handle the guile of wrist-spinner Wanindu Hasaranga. The leggie was at the fore of Sri Lanka's superior bowling skill, managing to outwit the opposition with his precise variations.
Changes were aplenty for Pakistan for the final T20I as they faced the prospect of a dramatic whitewash. Umar and Shehzad were shunned from the side, a lesson learnt perhaps a little too late by the men in charge. To add insult to injury, Pakistan were vanquished by Sri Lanka after being in a dominant position for a majority of the proceedings. The middle-overs choke and Hasaranga's craft consigned Pakistan to a resentful reality check.
Misbah's unorthodox selections for the Sri Lanka series paled in comparison to what transpired on the brink of the Australia tour. Sarfaraz, the influential leader who took over the reins of a team in tatters at the end of the 2016 World T20, was sacked by the PCB across formats. Moreover, he lost his place in the national squad as the talismanic top-order batter Babar Azam was given control over the T20I side.
The shocking sidelining of Sarfaraz and the decision to burden Babar with captaincy raised more questions than it answered for Misbah and the PCB. Critics pointed out to the fact that Pakistan's failure against Sri Lanka was primarily down to selection blunders than Sarfaraz's inadequacies while Babar's progression to the new role was deemed too abrupt.
The chopping and changing strategy plagues Misbah's reputation ©AFP
More debutants were called up for the Australia assignment in addition to some surprising recalls including 37-year-old Mohammad Irfan. Pakistan escaped with a draw in the first T20I as rain interrupted Aaron Finch and David Warner's blistering attack. The next two T20Is, however, exposed Pakistan's vulnerabilities even further.
Iftikhar Ahmed, batting at number six, stood out for his aggressive strokeplay but had minimal support from the other end. Pakistan's fabled pace legacy was stained with the destruction unleashed by the Aussies as teenagers Mohammad Hasnain and Musa Khan were blunted on a bouncy pitch.
The series victory over Pakistan was not the last of Australia's T20I juggernaut as they went on to defeat South Africa to strengthen their chances of elevating to the summit.
The fluctuating patterns of selection continued with Misbah bringing back the discarded veteran pair Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik. Both all-rounders reestablished their esteemed credentials on the slow Lahore surface by showcasing fine performances against Bangladesh, though their mediocre record in Australia begs the question regarding their inclusion as a viable option in the long run.
Another round of debutants was handed international caps as Pakistan claimed a timely series win to maintain their flimsy hold over the No. 1 spot. The short-lived happiness soon reached its limit.
Their demotion in the T20I standings following ICC's annual update has now snatched whatever minuscule breathing space Pakistan had earned for themselves. While fresh members are expected to be inducted into Pakistan's T20I unit whenever international cricket resumes, the chopping and changing strategy plagues Misbah's reputation as a sound decision-maker.