Australia 2009-10 January 6, 2010

Fear and dread in Sydney


The drum beats for Afridi's captaincy must be growing louder © AFP

A thrilling day of Test cricket has ended in dejection for Pakistan fans and deserved joy for Australia. I say ended, but the gloom set in as soon as Mohammad Yousuf put two fingers up to the warrior tradition of Pakistan cricket by setting a field for 800 for 8 instead of 80 for 8. Cricket is all about numbers and their interpretation, and Yousuf misinterpreted the numbers of hope and anticipation for the numbers of fear and dread.

Captains are celebrated when they turn a match with a fortunate bowling change or a clever fielding position. When they fail it is often quite hard to pinpont the decisive moment unless it is an error at the toss. Yet, Yousuf did something remarkable. For a whole session he pursued such a glaringly flawed strategy that he killed Pakistan's ambitions of winning their first Test in Australia since the mid 1990s. He will always be remembered for it: glorious failures are the stuff of legend.

What goes on inside Yousuf's head is something of a mystery. What motivates him? Why does he choose defence when the whole world would attack? As a younger batsman, he would launch an all-out batting assault at the most inappropriate moments. He must empathise with the rash strokemakers in his team because he has been one of them, and was perhaps among them again today. What goes on inside his head that he can blame his lofted drive for Pakistan's defeat, an uncontrolled moment, but seem oblivious to the two and half hours of stupidity that eased the pressure on Australia, played Australia into form, and allowed them a winning advantage?

It is difficult to be too hard on the man. He blames himself enough, he hurts like the rest of us, and he does care. But is that enough to be captain of Pakistan? It is a position that Yousuf has coveted, and believed he was unfairly denied for too long. Sometimes, however, the ambitions of our hearts and heads overestimate the sum of our capabilities. A close observation of Yousuf's captaincy has been alarming viewing during this cricket season, defensive and uninspiring in the extreme, only serving to reinforce the suspicion that he is captain by default. This morning's session was Yousuf reverting to what he knows best at a time of pressure. At such moments are captains judged.

Yousuf remains Pakistan's best Test batsman but the concern is that while the captaincy has delivered a newfound determination to his batting, it may have also made him less prolific. Is this a situation that Pakistan can afford with the national team's poverty of batting riches? Pakistan's problem is that alternatives are few. Younis Khan is out favour and out of love with the captaincy. Kamran Akmal has plenty of problems of his own before saddling him with another responsibility.

Worse still, Yousuf doesn't have enough tactical support among his senior players and his management team. Pakistan captains have never turned to Intikhab Alam for advice, his non-interference is the reason they have always kept him. Even Waqar Younis, wonderful bowler that he was, found captaincy a struggle. Where does a rookie, naturally defensive captain find a mentor in the Pakistan camp? The answer is nowhere. It is every man for himself with the vultures circling for a kill.

Yet is it Yousuf's fault that he was appointed to a post that is beyond his capabilities? That responsibility of course lies with the Pakistan Cricket Board, its chairman and selectors. These are the men, and their predecessors, who have grown fat on the largesse of administrative perks while the cricket team has withered at their whim. When your country's cricket structure boasts a spine of Ijaz Butt, Iqbal Qasim, Intikhab Alam, and Yousuf you probably don't need any further explanation. Who will hold these people accountable?

Pakistan's cricket has been given a false veneer of progress by three factors. First is the excellence of Pakistan's bowling attack, which has developed into a major force over the last year. Second is the emergence of Umar Akmal to add some thrills to a declining batting order. Finally, New Zealand were poor and Australia have been below par too, keeping Pakistan's wobbling enterprise on the tracks.

Nor is it that Pakistan's problems are new or unpredicted: The openers, namely Imran Farhat. The number three position and absence of Younis Khan. A tail that has forgotten how to wag, especially with failures from Misbah-ul-Haq and Kamran Akmal. Fielding and wicket keeping below top international standards. And a struggling captain. That's just about everything except the bowling. These areas of weakness have been obvious too, no stroke of genius to observe that Pakistan could do much better.

The first disappointment is that this is not the best of Pakistan that has represented us Down Under in Test cricket. The second is that the selected players, with notable exceptions, failed to put on the show of their lives to win the final day for their country. It's not the defeat but the manner of it that will be etched painfully into the brain of every Pakistani supporter who saw it. Defeat from the mother of all jaws of victory.

The deficiencies in batting, fielding, and wicketkeeping have been analysed to death. Change or improvement is required in all these areas. But the biggest loss that Pakistan has suffered is the loss of leaders on the pitch and in the dressing room. Umar, Mohammad Aamer, and Mohammad Asif deserve other warriors among them, and the top of my priority list would be recalls for Younis and Shahid Afridi. And if Younis is unwilling, for Yousuf is incapable, then the drum beats for Afridi's captaincy must be growing louder.

Would you prefer a coward's death or a warrior's? As I've said before, this is the most critical period in the history of Pakistan cricket. It has to be all not nothingness.

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Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here