March 14, 2014

Pakistan's pace-bowling talent is dwindling

Fast bowlers always bailed the team out of trouble. But in this Asia Cup, we saw the trend reverse

It's clear that the methods of bowling coach Mohammad Akram (in the white hat) are not working © AFP

The batsmen performed. The bowlers didn't. That's an unusual post mortem for Pakistan in any series or tournament, but it is the atypical verdict that keeps recurring however you choose to dissect the Asia Cup. One tournament, on flat wickets with short boundaries, is dangerous to draw strong conclusions from. But an important underlying trend in recent years is the steady decline in Pakistan's bowling attack. For a country that stands on the shoulders of its bowling heroes this is sombre news.

Since the 1980s at least, high-class fast bowling has come naturally. When the chips are down, the bowlers, especially the fast bowlers, step up. Partly they have had to. Pakistan's batting has been so unreliable that the bowlers have grown familiar with defending small totals. Success has generally been achieved in alliance with quality spin bowlers, but pace bowling has been fundamental to Pakistan's competitiveness.

The loss of Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif in 2010 certainly hurt Pakistan, but Junaid Khan and Mohammad Irfan were once worthy replacements. Now, Irfan is unfit and Junaid is struggling for form. Umar Gul's powers have dwindled and Mohammad Talha is new to international cricket. In the Asia Cup, despite heroics from the batsmen and Saeed Ajmal, the pace bowling carried an unfamiliar ordinariness.

Form is temporary, we know, but class has dwindled. Pakistan's bowlers were once unerring in their ability to hit the right areas, as commentators love to describe. It was almost taken for granted. Yorker, bouncer, length ball, you name it, the ball was on a string. As Sri Lanka chased down the victory target in the Asia Cup, yorkers were absent. There was no pressure on the batsmen, the kind of pressure that brings wickets. There was no sense of attack or threat. The plans were poor, and if the plans were good the execution was abysmal.

Unlike his more illustrious contemporaries, Mohammad Akram wasn't known for his attacking style. His trade was containment, or what passed for it in a bowling line-up that knew only how to attack. The difficulty is that this decline in Pakistan's pace bowling coincides with his tenure as bowling coach. Let's be clear that despite many pointless coaching appointments, Pakistan's bowling maintained its sense of threat. Bowling is a natural skill, which was executed with verve.

This doesn't mean that Akram doesn't know what the bowlers need to do, but it does mean that his methods aren't working. The outcome is there for all to see. The steady decline in fast bowling has been a matter of disbelief but the Asia Cup exposed it. Yes, the wickets were lifeless in Bangladesh but that sequence of bowling performances was as docile as I can remember, on any track.

There was plenty to inspire in this Asia Cup and it all came from those scoundrels, the batsmen. How could they fail us for years on end only to deliver, in the space of a few days, some of the most thrilling performances ever by a Pakistani batting line-up? In Ahmed Shehzad and Fawad Alam there is real hope, while Umar Akmal and Shahid Afridi showed what can be achieved if they channel their craziness.

But why do we have to suffer such uneven performances? When the bowlers excelled, the batsmen didn't. Now the batsmen impress and the fast bowlers capitulate. Pace bowling comes easy to Pakistan's cricketers. It's been a defining feature of the country's cricket. It will be a tragedy to make an ordinariness out of a strength.

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