The 3-0 drubbing of England is one of Pakistan cricket’s greatest triumphs. As a Pakistani, the joy is unimaginable, especially given our trip to hell and back in the past two years. In its aftermath, the English press is doing what it does best: eviscerating the English team and calling for Pietersen’s head. Pakistan, on the other hand, is thinking a bit far ahead. They are starting to aim at that elusive number one ranking in Test cricket. It’s a great goal, but a lot of work needs to be done before that goal is even remotely achievable.
The truth is that the current Pakistan team is not capable of getting that number one ranking. It’s a good team. It has always had a bounty of talent. Under Misbah-Ul-Haq, it has also become disciplined. There is no infighting. This isn’t a handful of talented individuals playing cricket. It’s a team playing cricket. This was most evident on the field during the past series. Early during England’s second innings in the third match three catches were dropped. There were two things to notice when these drops occurred. Firstly, the guys who dropped the catches weren’t annoyed; they were in anguish. Adnan Akmal, who’s kept remarkably un-Akmal-ish this series, dropped a thick edge off Strauss. What followed was new: he shook his head in disappointment, too ashamed to look up. That wasn’t fury. That was disappointment in letting the team down. The second thing to notice was that after these catches were dropped, the team didn’t lose the plot. In previous years (Australia 2009 comes to mind), the cricket would get sloppier, the fields would get defensive, the players lax. On the fourth day, Misbah continued with the attacking field, and the bowlers maintained their impeccable focus. Umar Gul was precise, ball after ball, over after over. And Abdur Rehman? 36 overs on the trot, and nary a bad ball. He was spectacular. This camaraderie, this work ethic, it’s unprecedented in Pakistan cricket. If it can be maintained, the team can move further up the rankings. But all these matches are being played in Asian conditions (1). What about the England, South Africa, and Australia?
A lot of the commentators have focused on how Pakistan’s spin attack has been effective because of the turning pitches. Or that the English players couldn’t cope. Or the spinners won’t do great in foreign conditions. That the bowling would be rendered ineffective in England or Australia. The reality is that, hands down, the Pakistani bowling attack is the most comprehensive in the entire world.
In UAE, the spinners were spectacular. The first match was won far before the pitch started turning. The spinners were sublime with their variations. If Ajmal was weaving a web on one end, Rehman was tightening the noose on the other. It is easily the best spin attack in the world right now. Obviously the spinners overshadowed the pace men in this series. Will they get assistance from the pitches late in the match in Australia or England? No, but that’s where the fast bowlers come in.
We already saw the skill and precision with which Umar Gul bowled. During the first match he was warming up as I’d like think, but by the third Test he was firing with unerring accuracy. His line and length were immaculate (2). He was unlucky to get the five-for in the first and last match. It’s a pity that the other two bowlers, Junaid Khan and Aziz Cheema, didn’t get a chance to perform; particularly Cheema in the first match, who bowled well even if he had little to show for it.
These two will probably get a chance to perform overseas. The conditions in both England and Australia will assist them. Besides the preceding three players, Pakistan also has Wahab Riaz and Mohammad Talha. Admittedly, Riaz is a bit erratic, but it never hurts to have a 140-plus kph bowler in English and Australian conditions. The bottom line is that the Pakistani bowlers will thrive in any condition. In turning pitches, the spinners will do great. In seaming and bouncy pitches, the fast bowlers will take over (3). So the current Pakistan team has the team discipline and the bowling attack to thrive. That just leaves us with the batting.
Simply put, the Pakistani batting lineup won’t be winning matches in foreign conditions. In the first match Pakistan posted a winning total because everyone contributed. There were no big scores, but every batsman performed. Unfortunately, Pakistan didn’t win the last two matches because the batting was great; they won because England’s was wretched (4). Pakistan’s batting holds up well enough in Asian conditions, but it won’t hold up in seaming conditions (5). Of the younger players, only Mohammad Hafeez and Azhar Ali seem to have the potential to thrive. Taufeeq Umar, Asad Shafiq and Adnan Akmal definitely need some more work. Perhaps it’s time that the PCB finds a replacement for Taufeeq Umar. He looks like a duck with one leg wading in water. The moment the ball seams or swings, it’s a matter of when he’ll get out. On the other hand, I don’t know where to stand on Shafiq. He’s clearly no Umar Akmal when it comes to batting with flair, but he seems to have a better head for Test batting. As he showed in the second Test match, he is more than capable of occupying the crease, something that the younger Pakistani batsmen need to learn. The PC should consider dropping Taufeeq and replacing him with Kamran Akmal as an opening batsman. He’s a fairly aggressive player and should be able to handle the opening position (6). He’s got less talent than Umar Akmal when it comes to batting, but he plays a slightly less rash game. It just might be the right combination alongside Hafeez for a great opening combination.
The last remaining weakness that needs to be addressed is the wicketkeeper, or as the position should be called these days, wicketkeeper-batsman. Adnan Akmal is the best wicketkeeper from the Akmal clan. Conversely, his batting is the worst of the bunch. At the moment we don’t seem to have a better option. I’d like for him to stick around. Play with a straight bat, and no need to chase the wide balls (7). Maybe he can be a permanent fixture. There is also Mohammad Salman, but he hasn’t been given a chance to play yet. It seems like the Akmal brothers have a monopoly on the wicketkeeping position. Maybe the PCB should disclose that agreement soon.
The last problem for Pakistan’s ascent to the top is probably the trickiest one of all. It’s the lack of upcoming tours in the next couple of years. They play two series this year, then another next year. By then Misbah and Younis, the backbone of the batting order, will be quite old. And sooner or later time catches up with everybody. Misbah has been fantastic for Pakistan. I could talk about his effect on the team, but Gary Naylor from the 99.94 blog did a much better job:
…a captain who, like Mike Brearley before him, appears to sail through a match hardly noticed, yet is everywhere for his team, geeing up and calming down, advising here, cajoling there. This is a team in Misbah-ul-Haq’s image – good, but not great; talented, but not mercurial; and, most of all, committed to the execution of winning cricket. He has been the world’s most important cricketer since assuming his nation’s captaincy and has hardly put a foot wrong on or off the field – and no praise is too high for the man.
It’s hard to replace someone who has done this much for Pakistan is such a short time. But this team, “good, but not great”, can get to the top. We just have to start planning now.
(1) UAE is not sub-continental, and UAE is not home, regardless of what the commentary teams and press would like us to believe. back up ↵
(2) Or as Boycott kept saying, “the corridor of uncertainty”. back up ↵
(3) This timely analysis by S. Rajesh on Cricinfo is an absolutely must read. Really drives home the point about Pakistani bowlers being the best everywhere. back up ↵
(4) And Pakistan’s bowling was spectacular. back up ↵
(5) I’m convinced that the Pakistan team will cope better in bouncy conditions compared to the seaming conditions, when they seem to be utterly baffled by which ball to chase and which ball to leave. back up ↵
(6) Statistically, he averages 35.8 from 9 innings as opener compared to his overall average of 30.8. back up ↵
(7) I guess that’s good advice for literally any batsman. back up ↵
(8) Oh, the song that inspired the heading: Matt Kearny, “Where We Gonna Go From Here”.