Michael Jeh January 15, 2010

What ails Pakistan

While Sri Lanka and India have improved the standards of their out-cricket to reach the levels of the world's best, Pakistan still lags behind, and pay the price for it, time and again.

Salman Butt was involved in two mindless run-outs in Hobart, instances which highlight Pakistan's poor out-cricket and how badly it lets them down © Getty Images

Forever, since cricket began, players from the Asian countries have been labelled wristy, mercurial, mystical, whippy and many other superlatives that attempt to describe their unique styles, as distinct from the non-Asian countries. These generalisations were probably easier to make some twenty years ago but many of them no longer apply. Players like Jayasuriya, Wasim Akram, Virender Sehwag, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Shoaib Akhtar and a host of others have shown off techniques, physiques and styles that defy those typical Asian sterotypes, positive and complimentary though such descriptions were meant to be.

On the flipside, Asian cricketers used to also suffer from the perception that they were a bit unathletic, had poor throwing arms and often did not do the basics as diligently as teams like Australia and South Africa were renowned to do, almost to the point of being boring. Right until the point when it paid dividends – often at the most unexpected instant.

Watching Pakistan’s openers starting off comfortably in pursuit of Australia’s 519 in Hobart, my cricket-crazy six year old son observed that the batsmen weren’t running as hard as the Aussies usually do. Piqued by his naïve analysis, I started paying more attention and found that he was absolutely spot on. Nothing major, nothing catastrophic, just little things like turning blind or running with gloves in hand or dawdling on the first run. Nothing catastrophic until day gave way to Evening Horribilis for the visitors, when they lost Mohammad Yousuf and Umar Akmal to ridiculous run-outs. On a flat pitch where a player of Yousuf’s technique would have been virtually impossible to prise out, he found a way to dismiss himself. A few minutes later, Akmal joined him, another victim of not doing the simple things correctly.

It got me thinking… India and Sri Lanka have now moved beyond those basic stereotypes when it comes to doing the basics. Their fielding and running is generally no different to the other international teams, although their fast bowlers are still a bit cumbersome in the field compared to the Steyns, Johnsons, Andersons, McGraths etc. But generally speaking, both India and Sri Lanka do the little things with all the professionalism and attention to detail that you come to expect from Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and England.

So why then does Pakistan still continue to make basic errors, time and again, game after game? Their ability and skill is on par with anyone else in the world but they seem to give away 10% in all the facets of the game that don’t actually require much more than discipline and habit. As desperately disappointed as I was to see those two wasted run-outs today, it made me wonder why they still seem to make these basic errors. It cannot be a lack of ability. The stunning T20 triumph in England and impressive, albeit erratic ODI performances, just proves that when they are on song, Pakistan can mix it with anyone. What amazes me is why these performances are so variable? You look at a team like Zimbabwe in their prime 10 years ago, when the Flowers, Strangs, Whittals, Heath Streak and Neil Johnson were regulars. What they lacked in sheer grunt under the bonnet, they made up for by consistently making up for their inadequacies by doing the basics right.

The opposite is true for Pakistan. Even in the field, when it comes to backing up or saving the odd single or catching the sitters, they make difficult things look ridiculously easy at times but so many of the basics are ignored. Is that merely a function of them being a bit rusty because they haven’t played much cricket recently? What happens in domestic cricket in Pakistan?

I have never seen the domestic system in operation so my question is a very genuine one. Is the focus mainly on the batting and bowling skills, to the exclusion of the other, less glamorous aspects of the game? Even when South Africa were isolated from international competition for so long, their cricketing basics were on par with world’s best practices when they returned, so that alone seems to be a poor excuse if there is a viable domestic structure in place.

Is it because the outfields in the formative years of playing the game, not always lush cricket fields but, laneways, beaches and other uneven surfaces do not lend themselves to diving? Why did Akmal not dive to save himself tonight? Can you imagine De Villiers, Hussey or Collingwood not diving full-length to make their ground? Had Akmal done that, it would just about have saved his skin (metaphorically, not literally). So what explanation do we have for this lack of instinct when it comes to these simple things?

Watching these last three Tests, it is clear that Pakistan’s skills are the equal of any other nation. Man for man, they compete in pure cricketing terms except when it comes to those little ‘one percenters’. It’s all over the park – fielding, running, stealing singles, backing up, throwing, catching technique and tail-enders slogging indiscriminately. Desperation. Discipline. Detail. Nothing that can’t be fixed with minor adjustments. Little things but they all add up to a significant deficit when compared to a team that plays with brutal efficiency, squeezing every ounce of performance out of seemingly lost causes, as Australia proved in Sydney.

If a six-year old boy can spot these things merely by watching the telecast, surely it must have attracted the attention of the coaches throughout Pakistani cricket? I can’t explain it but considering I’ve backed the draw in Hobart, I’m hoping that some Pakistani brilliance will emerge these next three days. If not mercurial Pakistani flair, at least some reliable Tasmanian rain might just save my bet!

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