The Honeymoon is Over

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The honeymoon is over, the bubble has burst, and Pakistan have woken up from their dream. From 2002 to 2016 – over a 15-year period – Pakistan won more than they lost against the top-7 (all Test playing nations except Bangladesh, West Indies, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Ireland) in only one calendar year. To put it simply, in only one of these fifteen years were Pakistan an above average ODI team. Then, in 2017, Pakistan won twice as many ODIs as they lost against the Top-7, to go along with shellackings of the West Indies. Sarfraz didn’t just turn a decrepit team around, he turned a decade and a half long trend around. In a way it was a reminiscent of the Test team’s turnaround under Misbah – who went from not winning a series in four years to the longest unbeaten run Pakistan had had in two decades. But much like that team, this one too came crashing down to earth with a clean sweep in the Southern Hemisphere.

The trend in both cases were built by a new crop of players. The Test team had experienced domestic dominators like Azhar, Asad, Rehman and Ajmal, who provided the injection of quality that the squad needed. In Sarfraz’s case it was the post-PSL generation – Fakhar, Hassan, Shadab et al – who played a similar role. The question now for Sarfraz and Pakistan is how do they avoid going down that Test team’s route, which took a couple of years and a new crop of domestic dominators (Yasir, Zulfiqar, Sarfraz) to return back to challenging at the top of the rankings. With the World Cup just 18 months away, Sarfraz doesn’t have much time.

Pakistan did what they did in 2017 by going against what the conventional wisdom is. The fifteen-year swoon that Pakistan had coincided with the balance between bat and ball overwhelmingly moving towards the former in ODI cricket. As the game became more reliant on batsmen, Pakistanis couldn’t keep up; a trend that was accelerated once international cricket left these shores. And this series is a reminder that when the bowlers stop doing extraordinary things, there’s not much left of the national team.

The good news for Sarfraz is that being clean swept isn’t the end of the world.

Table 1 - Cheema Article
The list of captains that have gone through what Sarfraz just went through is either the greatest captains in Pakistan’s history or short-term measures that didn’t come off. Considering what Sarfraz achieved in 2017, it’s obvious that he won’t be among the latter, so he can console himself by knowing that what he just went through puts him in exalted company.

The question now for him, Mickey Arthur and Inzamam-ul-Haq is how do they avoid repeats of this.

Firstly, the bowling: Pakistan’s travails in New Zealand has allowed the local media to run their favourite narratives. “Why can’t Amir take wickets with the new ball? Is he even good enough to be the spearhead of this attack? Is Rumman quick enough to survive at this level? Is Fahim a true wicket taker? Whatever happened to Hassan Ali? And can Shadab actually ever run through a batting lineup?”

The answers to all this are in the following numbers: Over the last five seasons New Zealand in bilateral series at home had scored 5.87 prior to this series; add the 2015 World Cup and the number goes up to 5.97 runs per over. Against Pakistan in this series, despite the best efforts of Munro and De Grandhomme, they scored at 5.72.

Pakistani bowlers actually performed at a level that is considered the norm in ODIs in New Zealand in this era. Their numbers are almost identical to what Australia achieved last season, with a pace attack that had Hazlewood, Starc, and Cummins. Despite what the sports channels here might say, this isn’t worth panicking over.

Table 2 - Cheema Article

Of course, Pakistan didn’t bowl as well as a team that considers itself as the best bowling unit in the world should, but there are reasons behind that, and few that should concern Pakistan in the lead up to the 2019 World Cup in England. Without Usman Shinwari, Imad Wasim, Junaid Khan, and the banned Mohammad Hafeez Pakistan didn’t have anyone beyond Mohammad Amir who prefers bowling with the new ball. Pakistan’s pace battery consisted of bowlers who prefer the older ball. And while New Zealand and England are often described as having similar conditions, it is far easier to get the ball to reverse on the giant squares of English grounds than on Kiwi grounds with drop-in pitches. Thus, Pakistan doesn’t really need any knee-jerk measures, and just need to stay the course as far as their bowling is concerned.

Staying the course isn’t an option available to them as far as their batting is concerned though. The bowling unit has carried the team for the duration of Sarfraz’s tenure (or rather more accurately: the bowling unit has carried the team throughout Pakistan’s ODI history, with the possible exception of the Woolmer era). But if Pakistan is going to compete with the best in the world, they need to reconsider who they are.

 

Table 3 - Cheema Article
The first question that Pakistan has to answer is whether the six men that have become permanent fixtures in the team since the 2015 World Cup are worth sticking with. Malik and Azhar’s numbers against the better sides cry out for improvement, but considering the paucity of other available options, Pakistan needs to stick by them. For one, they still need their minnow bashing abilities whenever they have to face the lesser sides. For another, both Malik and Hafeez have shown considerable improvement against the better bowling units in their latest iterations. So, do Pakistan stick or twist? I really don’t have an answer for that.

Table 4

 

Firstly, having looked at those numbers, one wonders if Babar Azam’s future is as an opener. Like all Pakistani number 3s he already works as a third opener thanks to the national team’s decades-long opening problem. Everyone expects him to be the Pakistani version of Kohli or Root but perhaps the player he should aim to emulate is Mahela Jayawardene (ODIs as opener – average 43, SR 91; in the middle order – average 33, SR 78). But considering what he has achieved as the number 3, is his position really the thing you want to tinker with? Again, I don’t have an answer for that.

What I do know is that even with this group of batsmen Pakistan, quite clearly, aren’t maximizing their resources.

After Babar, the second notable point is the such similar strike rates in the middle overs. The answer to that is simple: a strike rate of 83.33 translates to a run rate of 5.00. It’s obvious that each of these batsmen aim for – and achieve – their target of going at 5-an-over through that phase of the innings. What Pakistan require is for them to turn it up a notch. If even two of those four get even close to 90 Pakistan go from a team built to score 260 to a team built to score 300.

But that too is a minor quibble. The major issue here, that screams from the screen demanding our attention, is the contrast between Sarfraz Ahmed and Mohammad Hafeez. Now you might argue that the sample size is too small, but all the numbers do is provide evidence for what’s clear to the fans. Even without these numbers any hardcore Pakistan fan knows that Sarfraz is an elite rotator, good enough for any team to build its middle overs around; while Hafeez often seems stuck in that phase, but is a different animal once he is batting at the death and he can return to his tape-ball roots: Chanda Hafeez is better for the national team than Professor Hafeez. What Pakistan have is a world-class rotator batting at number 6, and the purest timer in the country batting at number 4. Until the team management doesn’t realize what their batsmen’s best roles are, they’ll never be able to maximize their talent.

I realize, having spent time in dressing rooms now, that pure numbers are often trumped by the ethos and politics of a dressing room. In a culture such as ours, any captain that tries to build a team around his own game is immediately accused of being selfish. Thus, by demoting himself in the order Sarfraz presents himself to be a selfless captain: how can anyone complain about their role in their team if the captain puts the interests of the team ahead of himself after all?

The problem with that logic is Sarfraz batting at 6 is not in the best interests of the team.

That’s not exactly new either. Anyone familiar with the domestic game knows of Sarfraz’s habit of not utilizing himself properly: in the last 10 domestic List A matches he’s played, he has batted at number 6 or later in each of those occasions (he captained in all 10 of those matches). In the 2017/18 National T20 Cup he batted at six or lower in five of the six matches (twice batting below Anwar Ali). The lone instance of him batting in the top five produced his only innings in excess of 30 (39 off 26), and yet that aberration wasn’t enough to convince Sarfraz.

Perhaps we are hoping against hope, and there is enough evidence to dissuade us. But when has evidence ever stopped us from wanting something else? We should learn from the plethora of political talk shows in Pakistan and do what works there: shout our point so loudly and so consistently that the opposition gives up any hope of convincing us otherwise and relents to our demands.

So, here goes nothing:

SARFRAZ AT FOUR, HAFEEZ AT SIX, SARFRAZ AT FOUR, HAFEEZ AT SIX, SARFRAZ AT FOUR, HAFEEZ AT SIX…