India and Pakistan: A system failure
We're a funny bunch. Some of us can't bat; the rest of us can't bowl. We're separated by a line drawn in deserts, fields and mountains; a line that doesn't separate race, caste or religion, which many innocents presume to be its purpose. No, the fateful line drawn by an Englishman born in India is something far more fundamental. It is the eternal partition between a horde of batsmen and a tribe of bowlers.
We stare enviously across the border, not at the grass--it is never greener--but at the mastery of cricketing skills that for decades have eluded us. It was once a joke that India doesn't produce quality fast bowlers and Pakistan struggles for high class batsmen. It is a joke no longer. Nor is it a mere hypothesis or theory. It is fact.
Take the respective campaigns of these estranged siblings in Sri Lanka's World T20. Forget the stats about India only losing one match and L Balaji's wicket taking. India's bowling attack carried the solitary threat of R Ashwin--a hapless formula to win any tournament. Meanwhile, Pakistan's batsmen floundered on cue in the Super Eights stage of the competition. When the pressure intensified, batting techniques and temperaments melted away. These are ancient laments with no sign of end. Issues both nations and their cricket boards have failed to remedy.
A World T20 requires young bucks to bowl and field. India's selectors backed warhorses. Pakistan have their own problems with old steeds, though less extreme than India's. Pakistan's warhorses are the chargers batting in the lower-middle order. It seems, as ever, that the greatest barriers to the success of both Indian and Pakistan cricket are the conflicted men of power who make small-minded decisions from behind their oversized desks, leaving coach and captain to manage huge expectations with inadequate resources.
Mohammad Hafeez, Pakistan's T20 captain, was as dynamic in the field against Australia and Sri Lanka as he had been lethargic against India. That India match was a perplexing collective failure. A defeat isn't the issue; it is the manner of defeat that hurts. The plan might have been to hold fire and keep wickets in hand but Pakistan's top order missed scoring opportunities with such regularity that it betrayed their apprehension and limitations. Imagine what Hafeez might have achieved with a squad of gun batsmen?
MS Dhoni remains an inspirational leader for India. Even in the death throes of India's World T20 challenge it was Dhoni who rallied his team to a total with an outside chance of qualification. When India defended 121 while South Africa chased 153, Dhoni set attacking fields--two slips even--despite his powder-puff pace attack. It was his country's only chance, other than an earlier and longer spell from Ashwin. When Dhoni pointed to his team's record of only one defeat in the tournament, he had a point though not the one he made. His bowling attack and fielding side would have been unlikely winners of this World T20 but imagine what Dhoni might have achieved with a younger, hungrier set of players?
An uncomfortable truth for Indian cricket is that the Indian Premier League isn't especially helping Team India's cause for world domination. Indians wedded to cricket's power politics or blinded by nationalism will never accept that analysis. But India has now failed to mount a serious challenge in three consecutive World T20s. Perhaps the IPL is too easy a competition, a cheap thrill to flatter the egos and averages of the performers? Perhaps the goldfish bowl of the IPL, of the whole filmy masala of Indian cricket, takes the edge off its top players? Pakistan, with plans for its own showy T20 premier league, be warned.
For a moment India were No. 1 in Tests, and then world one-day champions, but the brevity of that high suggests unstable foundations. An honest appraisal of Indian cricket would look further than financial success and consider chronic failures to progress in fast bowling and fielding. Indian cricket is a mighty success as a commercial enterprise but a mighty underachiever when cricket results are measured. If any of us had Virat Kohli's talent for batting we might cry too at elimination from a tournament that we had the potential to utterly dominate.
Precisely because cricket has become a batsman's game, bowlers matter. Even average international players now boss bowlers and thrash boundaries. Only excellent bowlers thrive--and they are the ones who tend to influence matches most. This dynamic works against India and in Pakistan's favour. It helps to explain why Pakistan, with its meagre resources, overachieves compared with its neighbour. Bowlers tend to be natural, self-taught artists. Batsmen require much more than natural skill and fast reflexes for longevity in international cricket. Refining batting technique in the modern age is dependent on facilities and technical advice and support.
Yet the tale of Pakistan's three consecutive world semi-final defeats tells a contradictory story. First, a narrative of success in defiance of the circumstances - a nation in conflict and a cricket system damaged by exile still competitive despite all predictions of rapid decline and doom. On the flip side is a recurring nightmare of how chronic neglect of the arts of batting can dash blossoming hope and ambition. Pakistan do emerge stronger from this T20 tournament with the impact of Nasir Jamshed and consolidation of Umar Akmal but neither batsman's further development is assured, which is precisely the problem.
No team or nation has a divine right to success. Results cannot be guaranteed or entirely predicted. Defeat comes to us all and we are able to accept it. Only fanatics, not supporters, would think otherwise. But an unpalatable taste of failure lingers. Somehow, by some means, we were undersold. Players who could have helped strengthen our weaknesses were unselected or improperly used.
There is the rub. We stare across the border and, although our cricketing challenges are poles apart, we share a common woe. We can see what's wrong, as can the world. We know that this isn't the best we had to offer. There was more to give but we couldn't show it. More than results we want the world to see our talents in their best and truest light. And we know that the men of power have other cares, of bank balances and status, of political gains and personal victories.
We're not so strange a bunch really, staring up at the stars. Enough of us can bat and plenty of us can bowl. We share a passion for cricket and enjoy the pride and pleasure it often bestows upon us. A line, a border, doesn't separate our failings; it unites and binds them--in cricket at least. There is no good reason why Pakistan hungers for batsmen and India is starved of fast bowlers other than the persistent oversight of the people who rule cricket in our countries. Years have become decades, decades will soon turn into a century. It is a system failure without a fix.
The people deserve better.
Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here