January 8, 2017

Blame domestic cricket for Pakistan's losses

The pitches don't encourage the development of world-class talent, so what can the captain, or anyone else, do?
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The Pakistan system is so lacking that a lot of the player development only takes place at the international level © AFP

Misbah-ul-Haq wanted to retire as early as the autumn of 2014. In hindsight that would have been a mistake. He'll probably end up retiring after this Australia tour, or at the most after the West Indies tour later this year, and most people will feel like he ended up staying on too long.

Perhaps he should have retired with the mace in hand, having just completed a famous series in England. But drunk on his team's successes, and on the belief that they could win down under, Misbah has ended up harming his legacy over the last few months of his tenure. He'll still leave with the second most number of wins for an Asian captain (behind MS Dhoni) and the most wins outside Asia for an Asian captain (tied for the top, with or without Zimbabwe). And he'll still leave having placed himself on Pakistan's Rushmore. But he'll now leave with a bad taste in the mouth.

The captain whose bowling plans have inspired tomes of writing had his opposite number questioning whether he had any plan whatsoever. Through it all, the man who could have - and has - helped Misbah the most in this regard was up in the commentary box.

Much was made of Waqar Younis' supposedly exorbitant salary in his second tenure as the head coach of the Pakistan team. But with each passing day, as his value to the whole project becomes more evident, that seems like a bargain.

Pakistan Test bowling since Feb 2010 (when Waqar was first appointed as head coach)
  Tests Wickets Average Economy Percentage of Tests in Asia
With Waqar 28 218 31.7 3.24 61%
Without Waqar 33 262 35.8 3.28 58%

Despite having played in friendlier conditions since Waqar's departure, Pakistan's fast bowlers have shown significant deterioration - which makes sense considering the attack is still inexperienced and somewhat leaderless. The only active fast bowlers with over 25 Tests for Pakistan are Umar Gul and Mohammad Sami, neither of whom has played a Test for four years now.

Pakistan now have to face the question they have been dreading and avoiding since Younis Khan and Misbah first saved a Test in the autumn of 2010: what happens when they are gone?

The answer to that lies in the domestic game. But as with everything related to domestic cricket in Pakistan, there are more questions than answers. There are myriad reasons why Pakistan isn't producing the players it once did, why the limited-overs teams are years behind the rest of the world, and why the Test team's successes have to do with non-Pakistani virtues like teamwork, planning and patience.

There's the small matter of finances, which leads to a lower standard of professionalism than is required at the highest level. That's why Pakistan remains perhaps the only team where a lot of player development, especially in fielding, has to take place with the national side.

Then there's the state of the pitches (more on that in a bit), which leads to complacency towards collapses, and produces bowlers who rely on the ball and the conditions to do the work for them.

The average Pakistani's solution for such a malaise is either the intervention of the military or to give more power to cricketers as administrators, which is odd considering the changes that led to the current state of Pakistan cricket were initiated by a former player under a military officer in charge of the PCB. That former player is, of course, now most vociferous in the commentary box when it comes to longing for the Pakistan of bygone years.

The numbers from this season's Quaid-e-Azam Trophy perhaps provide an obvious illustration of the problem the domestic game is facing.

Percentage of first-innings scores for both teams in Quaid-e-Azam Trophy 2016-17
City* Under 250 250-400 400+ Average score
Karachi 53 34 13 250
Lahore 29 38 33 352
Sialkot 33 42 25 337
Faisalabad 50 50 0 224
Rawalpindi 75 8 17 228
Islamabad 40 50 10 261
Peshawar 42 42 16 289
TOTAL% 45% 38% 17% 279
*Cities with at least five matches

In comparison, the average first-innings score in the 2016 County Championship Division 1 in England was 334, with only 28% of scores falling under 250; in the 2015-2016 Sheffield Shield in Australia, the average score was 300 (32% under 250). And if you dial back to the 1992-93 Patron's Trophy in Pakistan, the average score was 294 (34% under 250).

From this season's Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, an average first-innings score of 279 across the season might suggest an equal battle between bat and ball, but a breakdown of the numbers indicates otherwise. Nearly half of the first and second innings of matches ended with scores under 250, even as commentators keep saying that the pitches and conditions in the UAE are just like those at home. The low-scoring game is the norm in Pakistan, and until that is sorted out, the national team will continue the need to punch above its weight to compete.

Take the Quaid-e-Azam final. Played under lights, the match was a competitive affair as long as there was something in the pitch and the pink ball was moving around. But once the pitch flattened out and the ball stopped swinging, the conditions were very much like those the Pakistan bowlers had to face in Australia.

Over a decade of this system has produced fast bowlers who rely on accuracy and conditions rather than speed, batsmen who succeed by gutsing it out and reining in their strokes, and spinners who are used for containment more often than not. Among the top 20 wicket-takers in this season's Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, 16 will never be considered for the national team.

You could call it the Sadaf Hussain conundrum. Hussain, a left-arm fast bowler, finished with 28 wickets at 23 from seven matches this season, but the cricket fraternity believes he isn't fast or fit enough for the international level. Thus we have a system where the best performing players are discredited because the cricket they play can't be translated to the international game.

Of course, these are problems that will take years to fix. But there are short-term solutions on offer. Some, like Waqar, believe the quality of the balls is the major problem. The balls used in the domestic game move around far more than the Kookaburra and perhaps even the Dukes. And while the issues of player remuneration and the quality of balls can be solved as soon as the PCB decides to pump money into the domestic game, there won't be any real progress till the pitches are returned to their pre-2000 selves.

Until then Misbah, Younis, Waqar and the like can keep covering the cracks, and we can keep arguing about how they are the ones who are letting Pakistan cricket down.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, commentator, co-manager of the Islamabad United PSL franchise, and co-host of the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @mediagag

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ami_perth on January 18, 2017, 13:39 GMT

    Misbah is one of the big positive and big negative altogether of Pakistan cricket..he definitely settled somehow test side but didn't settle odi squad..For intance he backed Asad and Azhar in test squad but didn't back FAWAD ALAM in odi squad despite Fawad's better performances compare to Asad and Azhar..at one moment befor 2015 world cup Fawad was top scorer with top batting average 47 runs in odis but he dropped him and preferred Nasir Jamshed and Haris Sohail over Fawad..Fawad was unlucky same as in 2011 before world cup..he was then amongst top 3 with Umar Akmal and Shahid Afridi..in my opinion if Fawad was get selected atleast in one world cup Pakistan would win..

  • PlayfromDallas on January 17, 2017, 16:15 GMT

    Problem in Pakistan cricket in chronological order:

    1- PCB - PCB chief needs to be ex test cricketer not a bureaucrat. 2- Regional Bias 3- Senior's Player's Lobby 4- Domestic Structure 5- Lack of Comparative Club Cricket 6- Last but not the least lack of loyalty to the country

  • t20cric on January 10, 2017, 23:19 GMT

    From these types of articles one gets to learn a lot. Over here the author says that Pakistan use balls good for bowling in their domestic cricket while I read in another article that Pakistan uses old-school bats in domestic cricket as well. That explains why there is a decline in Pakistani cricket. With the odds stacked against the batsmen in domestic cricket, the batsmen are then forced to play more defensively to get their runs (and get used to that defensive mindset), while the bowlers are more used to everything going their way (which certainly isn't the case in international cricket). Anyways, if the reason why Sadaf Hussain isn't picked is because of lack of fitness then why do Irfan & Gul often get picked & end up being injured 1-2 games after their recall. Also, another thing, why exactly will 16 of the top 20 wicket takers never be considered for national team? A lot of them are mid-20s or younger & really should get a chance soon enough.

  • t20cric on January 10, 2017, 22:31 GMT

    I'm normally a big defender of Misbah but I put a lot of blame on this series on him. His defensive captaincy is not good enough outside of Asia or WI. He likes to have bowlers who get wickets by constricting the flow of runs & causing a crazy shot to relieve pressure. That worked for a long time because we hardly stepped outside Asia & were playing with bowlers who shared that mindset (Ajmal, Hafeez, Rehman, Junaid), but in 2016 we played most of our tests outside Asia & had more attacking bowlers (Amir, Wahab, Yasir). With these naturally attacking bowlers being told to defend in places where defense doesn't work, they failed because they aren't good at defense & weren't allowed to attack. Our batting in this series was reasonably good but we needed more consistent batting performances to win the tests. In every test we only had one good inning while we needed to bat good twice.

  • Cricinfouser on January 10, 2017, 15:13 GMT

    can someone tell me who is the former player who is now a vociferous commentator responsible for the mess, the author was referring to??

  • mhasan12 on January 10, 2017, 12:31 GMT

    Hassan Cheema makes a number of points in his article. With the advent of technology in cricket talent alone is not enough. Pakistan in the past tended to rely on raw talent but now with the use of video technology opposing teams can quickly figure out strengths and weakneses of each players very quickly. A key differentitor also in the use of science in nutrition and fitness which has enhanced the physical condition of players in other teams. This shows up in the areas of fielding and running between the wickets which now is a major gap between Pakistan and most opposing sides. The fear is that Pakistan cricket may go the same way as hockey and squash where from being world leaders in these sports, Pakistani players/teams figure nowhere.

  •   espn84643048 on January 10, 2017, 5:24 GMT

    It's way beyond domestic pitches! Its the Pakistan.

  • caribbeanfan on January 10, 2017, 4:25 GMT

    Have said this time and again, Misbah and his defensive nature is brilliant for test cricket on pitches which have nothing for fast bowlers at all (Australian pitches have bounce) but it has kept Pakistan in the 90s when everyone else has moved on.

    In ODIs batting first on a batting paradise Pakistan score around 280 if they do well and cross 310 if they do really well. That is if they do well they still think 240 is a good score.

    Most teams on the other hand are looking for at least 50 more runs. 310 is a par score in ODIs these days. They need someone who is 1) aggressive and is willing to lose for the long run of Pakistan cricket.

  • cheguramana on January 9, 2017, 18:49 GMT

    I wonder how much of this assessment is accurate. After all, Pakistan has been famous for producing world class pacers out of taped-tennis ball bowlers from the streets of the country. Or is that just a myth ??!

  • loopa on January 9, 2017, 18:15 GMT

    hassan you mentioned good points, like ball and players pay other then that they should make diverse pitches, reduce teams form 16 to 8 for grade 1 Q-trophy. it will be more competitive with less teams. they have domestic ranking system which is flawed they can make it more advance and players should be selected based on those rankings. cronyism(rahat ali, rizwan, hafeez) should be stopped. Furthermore you wrote about sadaf that he is not fast.....can somebody tell me Richard hadlee was speedster or currently M.Asif and philander(they are all world class bowlers), the answer is no. I am not comparing hadlee to sadaf, but the question is valid and then he is not fit (he has been bowling in domestic level for so many years) if he is not fit for tests ,then instead of these lame excuses, he can be tried in one days, if he doesn't prove himself then their you go, nobody will say you didn't give him a chance or he is a good bowler

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