Michael Jeh May 2, 2009

Not Imran's Pakistan

Watching the 4th ODI from Abu Dhabi, I suspect that had Imran been captain, the game plan would have evolved differently

The first time I began to understand the true significance of the term ‘momentum shift’ in cricket was the 1992 World Cup when Imran Khan used it to devastating effect. He picked the moment when he felt his ‘cornered tigers’ were ready to attack and set them loose. The sudden shift in gears when Inzamam and Imran were batting and his decision to unleash Wasim Akram at crucial times underscored his total mastery of the art of sensing momentum swings and then exploiting it with sudden, brutal aggression. It was great theatre.

What’s happened to Pakistan recently then? They seem to have lost that legacy that Imran handed down to them in the early 1990s.

To be fair, it is more an art than a science, difficult to measure or describe. It is probably a gut instinct but it’s certainly something that cricket has now tried to turn into a science. The most successful captains in recent times are the ones who sense these game-changing periods in the wind and can then execute a daring attack that is difficult to counter. Once momentum starts to shift, a game can change forever in a few short overs of mayhem.

The mighty West Indian teams rarely had to worry about momentum shifts – it was usually just one-way traffic with chin music playing in the background. The only way some countries occasionally beat them was to pick a rare moment to try and swing the game violently away. India famously did this in the 1983 World Cup Final, Australia did it to Richie Richardson’s team in the 1996 World Cup semi-final and England did it in front of a packed house at Lords in 2000 when Caddick and Gough bowled like West Indians themselves!

Pakistanis seem to have an instinct for this art form to suddenly transform a game that appears to be meandering along. Their tour of England in 1992 was famous for searing yorkers and late-afternoon collapses engineered by Akram, Waqar Younis and Aaqib Javed. It was masterful captaincy and high quality bowling but the secret was in the timing of the assault.

In this latest series against Australia, it seems to be an instinct that has deserted Pakistan. Watching the 4th ODI from Abu Dhabi, I suspect that had Imran been captain, the game plan would have evolved differently. Last night’s tactics were reactive, defensive and utterly lacking in that sixth sense or intuition that tells great captains when to pounce. The innings was crawling along at about 3.5 rpo in the 33rd over when Afridi came to the crease. He was immediately off to a good start with the Shoaib Malik well set at the other end. It was the perfect moment to take the batting powerplay and change the momentum of the game. Against the new ball on a slow deck, Afridi’s hitting power was probably the only thing that would have changed the direction of the game at that point. Pakistan needed a moment of inspiration but it never came.

Instead, Pakistan chose to keep delaying the PP until first Malik and then Akmal were dismissed, followed by a long period of stagnation when Arafat got stuck at the start of his innings. By the time they eventually took the PP in the 43rd over, that moment had come and gone. Half an hour earlier, the game was ready for that momentum shift but in the end, Afridi holed out in the second PP over and they finished with roughly twenty five runs and two wickets to show for it. We’ll never know what could have been but it’s safe to assume that two for twenty was not part of the perfect blueprint. Not even close!

Watching the innings unfold, I kept shouting at the television, willing Pakistan to break the game wide open while there was still some life in the batting order. It may not have worked but it was worth a try. Afridi is always likely to do something extravagant anyway, even with fielders in the deep so it just made no sense to deny him every chance of inspiring that momentum shift. The longer they waited, the more likely it was that he might be out before he could use the full five overs. In the end that’s exactly what happened.

Even the earlier games had similar moments of indecision. Hopes and Hilfenhaus were allowed to recover in Game 1 when the spinners were taken off with one wicket to get. In Game 3, they delayed the PP so long that they ended up being bowled out halfway through it. Perhaps, even this skill suffers from a lack of practice. One should not forget that Pakistan have played precious little cricket recently.

With someone like Afridi in your team, it’s almost criminal to waste his explosiveness. Some situations demand a momentum shift strategy and this was Pakistan's window of opportunity. What would Imran's cornered tigers have done in the same situation I wonder? They won a World Cup, no less, feeding on smaller scraps of inspiration.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane