September 16, 2013

Losing my naivety with Pakistan

We can talk about Misbah and Hafeez, propose new stars and offer retirement to others, but we all know the game isn't cricket - it is the politics of self-interest and greed

Pakistan cricket is falling short, for a multitude of reasons, and the greatest impact is on the batsmen © AFP

When did you lose your naivety? I guess this is an unfair question since we lose our naivety in many different ways. On some matters we remain naive until our deaths. I lost my naivety about Pakistan in the mid-1980s. I was still a teenager, on a visit to Lahore. I held an idealistic image of Pakistan in my head. The Land of the Pure, built on a benevolent Islam promoted by its faultless founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah. A new nation, inhabited by proud and talented people, establishing itself in the world. All this idealism thrived despite the martial law of General Zia-ul Haq. My romanticism was blind to the absence of roads or electricity in my family village beyond the Murree Hills.

I was browsing in Ferozsons, Lahore's grandest bookshop, when an elderly shop assistant approached me. He asked me what I was looking for. I wasn't sure but I was interested in the story of Pakistan's creation. It wasn't easy to find a well-written Pakistani perspective. My idle quest captured the old fellow's imagination. He was instantly animated. He had a story to tell; his own story. He had lived through those times and met with the legends of his age. They had gone on to create Pakistan and died. He sold books in Ferozsons and lived. His was an interesting tale, although he saved his choicest anecdote till last.

"What those books won't tell you," he croaked, in the educated English of his generation, "is that Jinnah was a drinker. He enjoyed a glass of wine or two with his dinner. More than that, he often had bacon for breakfast." I was shocked. Whether or not I believed him, and my teenage version found it hard to, my naivety was lost. Perhaps our heroes aren't as perfect as we imagine them to be?

I was naive about Pakistan cricket too, and that naivety lasted much longer and was much more resilient. For that I blame Imran Khan. He captained a team of proud and talented players, which established itself in the world of international cricket. It took a while for that Imran effect to wear off, even though the man himself was gone from cricket. That particular naivety somehow endured most of the 1990s, which in retrospect is hard to believe.

I remember the precise moment I lost it. I was sitting in the glorious new media centre at Lord's, watching Pakistan collapse to defeat in the 1999 World Cup final. They had dominated the tournament. My naivety had even survived an unexpected loss to Bangladesh in Northampton. But the World Cup final defeat and the match-fixing revelations that followed were the point of no return. Perhaps our heroes aren't as perfect as we imagine them to be?

Now Pakistan have lost a Test match to Zimbabwe and drawn a series that was meant to be a formality. You'd have to be naive to believe it couldn't happen. There are no formalities in international sport. Ten years ago Pakistan almost lost a Test to Bangladesh in Multan, although for some reason I remember it more for my first impression of Salman Butt than for Inzamam-ul-Haq's last-man-stands performance. Butt looked a real talent, a player with time to spare. Four years later Pakistan lost a World Cup match to Ireland and Bob Woolmer died. It was easy to be critical of Inzamam and his players. It was hard to understand what had happened to Pakistan's coach. It still is. There are no formalities in international sport. It was three years before the Sydney Test and spot-fixing destroyed another revival.

You see, Pakistan cricket has suffered 20 years of rise and fall. Don't build your hopes. Don't be naive. Expect to be disappointed and you might be pleasantly surprised every now and then. Supporters of other countries enjoy the spectacle of Pakistan's rollercoaster. Our failures deliver them unexpected victories. Surely it's fun to be a Pakistan fan, though? We're ungrateful, aren't we?

It's easy to be glib when you aren't emotionally attached. Try telling a Manchester United fan to enjoy the rerun of an exciting defeat to Liverpool. When it's your team, the one that you are emotionally bound to, however illogical that attachment might be, defeat hurts. It hurts even more when it shouldn't have happened. As well as Zimbabwe played - and it looked as if they played out of their skins - Pakistan should not be losing a Test match to them except by monumental fluke. The bekarare in Harare was that Pakistan grafted and still lost. Two years ago we whitewashed England. Rise and fall, the curse of Pakistan cricket.

The reasons are well rehearsed. There is no logic to selection. Talent is wasted, even destroyed. Favouritism and cronyism rule. The stench of corruption is ever present. Domestic cricket is a basket case. International cricket has to return to Pakistan. It's all here, in these pages and everywhere else. The mantras are the same. Even Misbah-ul-Haq sounds predictable, each press conference a lament for better batting.

It's a simple enough explanation, Pakistan don't score enough runs. Indeed, they generally haven't done so for over a decade. Take the performance of Pakistan's top three batsmen, for example. In the past four years, their average in Tests is clearly second rank, on par with West Indies and Bangladesh. Many of those Tests have been played on batsman-friendly wickets in the UAE. It isn't the bowlers or the fielders, it's the batsmen, and the top three at that. It's an open-and-shut case - except that the causation is complex.

It's so complex that it's hard to know where to begin to resolve it. Batting isn't like bowling. Bowling is a more natural skill. A bowler can work on his own with a small amount of input from a coach or a talented colleague to refine his art. A bowling error isn't usually fatal in a Test match either. Bowl a full toss and all you do is return to your mark and hope for better next time. You might be taken off but another spell will beckon. Batting is fatal. One mistake and you are toast. Minimising errors and maximising shot execution takes hours of practice.

There is no longer any naivety about the prospects of Pakistan cricket. It is a horror show sanitised by flashes of individual brilliance and resolute doggedness - and it will not change until the lapdogs appointed by the Bhuttos and the Sharifs are no longer being appointed

It also takes facilities. High-quality practice pitches and high-level coaches, bowling machines and video analysis. The past masters coped without such gizmos but the world and the game have moved on. The preparation international batsmen go through is unrecognisable from that seen in the glory days of Pakistan cricket. Many young club cricketers in England and Australia have access to better facilities than domestic cricketers in Pakistan do. And domestic cricket is the place to develop your skills before entering international cricket. The story is similar in squash and hockey. Once natural talent was superseded by preparation and sophisticated facilities for player development, Pakistan's supremacy evaporated.

In short, Pakistan cricket is falling short for a multitude of reasons, and the greatest impact is on the batsmen, who require a thriving domestic first-class game to develop into international cricketers. We are naive if we believe that simply selecting the right players and the right coaching staff will cure our ills. These measures will help and they must be a high priority, but Pakistan cricket has been eroded from the top down for so long that there is now very little propping up the Test team. It is a flimsy façade when you think of the number and quality of players that were emerging between the 1970s and 1990s.

There is no quick fix. Promises of support from the international cricket community in Pakistan's time of political difficulty have not translated into concrete assistance. Pakistan has to find its own solutions but that means finding the right people to run the national game, people of integrity, independence and vision, capable of implementing a three-to-five-year plan that will halt the decline in Pakistan's cricket, especially its batting. But such people rarely find their way to power in Pakistan, even more rarely to a position of influence in the Pakistan Cricket Board.

If our heroes aren't as perfect as we imagine them to be, then what hope of the right decisions from people of whom we expect little? There is no longer any naivety about the prospects of Pakistan cricket. It is a horror show sanitised by flashes of individual brilliance and resolute doggedness - and it will not change until the lapdogs appointed by the Bhuttos and the Sharifs are no longer being appointed. I was once naive enough to believe that cricket could separate itself from the corrupt carcass of Pakistani society, and offer an example of how an organisation can flourish and compete globally.

We can talk about Misbah and Hafeez and Whatmore and Moin. We can propose new stars and offer retirement to others. (We still should, because it matters that Pakistan's cricketers remain competitive.) But the great game is the same, all that changes is the players. The game isn't cricket. It is politics, the politics of self-interest and greed. The salvation of Pakistan cricket lies in the hands of its most powerful politicians. The ICC could help here. Its new governance rules require independence of the cricket board from politicians. That clearly isn't the case in Pakistan. But the ICC doesn't really care. Why would a ruling body run by India care too much about the fortunes of Pakistan cricket, especially since India is flourishing effortlessly without its problematic neighbour?

Everything hinges on appointing a suitable chairman of the cricket board. That's how Pakistan cricket works. But the current man is disbarred from taking office by the courts and, in any case, is little bothered by a defeat to Zimbabwe. How can that be? Each periodic collapse in the Zimbabwe series was a symptom of a terminal disease that has been destroying Pakistan cricket for decades. It reflects the failures of society. The greatest responsibility lies with Pakistan's political leaders. Normal sport is not possible in an abnormal society. To think otherwise is naivety in the extreme.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dhumper on September 20, 2013, 17:17 GMT

    I usually like Kamran's articles but this was just too negative, a lot of blame game n India and others and just didn't make sense. All countries go through good and bad times. Recently India lost 8 test matches in a row, Australia is in shambles and England also operates on a roller coaster ride at times. Pakistan just went through one bad series. Our team is still world class capable of beating the best. We will bounce back for sure. Pakistan cricket is different than Hockey or Squash. This is what the whole nation is crazy about - we won't let it go to the dogs. Relax watch the next series and have fun!

  • Dummy4 on September 20, 2013, 2:21 GMT

    @Aniket Tyagi well said the thing here is the author is bl aming iccs carelessness and india hapens to be 1 of the major stakeholders . to all the indians nothing against u guys in the article . now for cricket fans in general zimbabwe in zimbabwe is no easy team to beat they almost beat newzealand in a test match in bulawayo they are a talented team and if sl tour to zim goes ahead we can campare ou performances. we are also in a tight spot here the sa tour has robed the confidence of our batsmen such as asad azhar hafeez and in haffeezs case can fans not see that hafeez has been a consistent perform at odi t20 and test cricket for long periods if he is having a lean period we should support him have we no respect for our heros are we too selfish?whenever our heros grow old or have bad form we should support them rather than forgetting all they have done and criticizing them mildlessly . trust your team they will comeback that is the pakistani spirit

  • Steve on September 18, 2013, 11:06 GMT

    I think BCCI, which in effect also controls ICC decision making these days, has not supported Pak's efforts to return to normal cricket ties at all. Unless international teams start touring Pak again, it is difficult to improve cricket standards there. I strongly believe that Pak cricket needs an honest, clean, successful, well respected international cricket ambassador to work with other boards to work on behalf of PCB to restore cricket normalcy once again. I can only think of Imran Khan or Zaheer Abbas for this role. Their PM, who I believe is an ex-cricketer himself and a PCB patron, should take the lead in this matter.

  • Dummy4 on September 18, 2013, 10:24 GMT

    Please do not blame India, or lack of international cricket or budding cricketing stars not getting overseas exposure as the woes for Pakistani cricket. What lies at the heart of the problem is an ailing Pakistani society, where political, social, economical and religious institutions are stagnating. The will of a few dominate and dictates the direction of the country, leaving little time or interest for the harnessing the gifts and talents of its people, sports and cricket being just one example. In the villages, towns and cities and in the schools of Pakistan there is abundant cricketing talent where if the infrastructure was in place would make Pakistan a major contender again. We do not need foreign coaches or administrators. The country has all the talent required to build the cricketing structures needed. Where there is a will, there is a way. But it will take the combined will of government and the private sector to deal with the issues. I hope and pray it will happen soon.

  • Dummy4 on September 18, 2013, 5:07 GMT

    Harpreet, I agree with your comments. Too much is being blamed on India... Problems or issues cannot be solved by blaming others for your losses.. you will only go deep in the quagmire of mediocrity... keep blaming India and you will find no time to improve your self....

  • Dummy4 on September 18, 2013, 4:46 GMT

    what the writer is saying is a matter of fact. and not hatred. ICC is dysfunctional. india doesn't sign FTP. it doesn't allow DRS. it is killing SA tour just because of Lorgat. A functional global body helps like we see in case of IOA banned by IOC. India has no role in decline of Pakistan Cricket and writer isn't saying that. He is saying that because ICC is hostage to India, proper global governance is being done for the game.

  • Prasanna on September 18, 2013, 4:16 GMT

    Well Harpeet, if you accept the premise that BCCI runs the ICC in many direct and indirect ways, you have to accept what the author says, and also expect to hear" India" in a negative sentence more often than not. Accept it, champions league and no direct qualification for any team from WI, Pakistan, New Zealand, Srilanka or England (and Bangladesh and Zimbabwe), while 4th best IPL team get chance! Such dogged stance towards DRS in a democratic system! Not one team from India has ever been sent to Nepal or received from Nepal (21st ranked in ICC and which is landlocked virtually in all sides by India ), no first class, grade or college team.Compare that to what SA does for Zimbabwe, what England does for its neighbors? What duty has BCCI ever fulfilled? Who else has it ever looked after than its own economy. What moral value does it adhere to? Get used to, Harpeet, India may be the best country for you, BCCI has done it justice enough that cricketing world praise India like might you.

  • James on September 18, 2013, 4:05 GMT

    I think Pakistan (and India and SL too) are run on the whims of individuals. Under some individuals, it seems to work though the damage they do is swept under the carpet for the time being. I remember, that though Imran was successful as a captain , it was more towards the late end of his career, and his biggest achievement (the world cup) was a fluke. And the infighting that happened after he left had a lot to do with the way he managed his team (you can see lots of similarities with the partisan approach of Dhoni and Ganguly in recent times). Pakistan now is still recovering from the loss of Amir, Asif and Butt. They have also committed a bit of harakiri by their failure to nurture talents like Umar Akmal, and Jamshed, and their tendency to give continued chances deadwood like Kamran Akmal, Shoaib Malik, etc. Still, given the way they play, I wouldn't write them off against SA.'

  • Dummy4 on September 18, 2013, 4:01 GMT

    Good article... But question remains the same..... Why every problem faced by Pak cricket is some how connected to Indian cricket...? Please understand that we have enough problems to deal with rather than concentrating on how to prevent pak from improving its cricket.....

  • Som on September 18, 2013, 3:56 GMT

    Kamran you are absolutely right in diagnosing the problem. Pakistan may be one of the most corrupt nations, but India is not too far behind. The reason Indian cricket thrives today is because the incentives are all aligned and there is a payout for every pirate in the mix. And the large flow of the booty comes from economic development, which happens because of pluralism and multiculturalism. Let democracy thrive for a while (atleast 10 yrs, uninterrupted), and you will start seeing the change. Absolutely love Pakistan cricket, the Imrans, Wasims, Inzis, but as you rightly said, no matter of raw talent can now do a catch up with the levels of preparation now needed to thrive in international cricket.