Brash youngsters or scapegoats?
Ahmed Shehzad was sweating bullets. He was jumpy when he walked in, he was changing gloves by the second ball of the match, and his running was a mess. He ran his opening partner out, then himself, almost, and then his captain, almost. He finally got out playing the shot of someone with an exhausted mind, tamely missing a ripping legbreak from Mishra and being stumped.
Umar Akmal was calmer. He started cautiously and picked up some boundaries in his flamboyant style. But then he started getting bogged down, suffered one of his typical brain freezes, and got out playing a terrible shot he should never have tried.
Shehzad made 22 off 17, Umar got 33 off 30.
Compare that with the smart cricket played by the seniors. Shoaib Malik showed how to slog Mishra, calmly stepping out and getting to the pitch before depositing him in the stands. Kamran Akmal had the measure of the bowling, piercing the field twice for glorious fours before his partner cut his innings short. And Mohammad Hafeez was completely set and going for the kill when he got a leading edge.
Kamran made 8 off 10, Malik made 18 off 20, and Hafeez made 15 off 22.
The brash youngsters who got out playing poor shots played 13 dot balls out of 47. Their attacking, devil-may-care irresponsibility (which brought about their dismissals) meant that a whopping 29% of their runs came from boundaries.
In contrast, the experienced wise heads (who never broke into a sweat) played 31 dots out of 52, or two dots for every three balls they faced. Their knowledge, which they have gained from experience and cannot be taught, meant that they knew how to rotate the strike and keep the scoreboard ticking. Only 63% of their runs came in boundaries.
The beauty of numbers is that they cannot be argued against, no matter how hard you try and spin them. Take a look at the above numbers and ask yourselves, who is to blame here?
Shoaib Malik was dressed in black. His face looked freshly shaven, like in his shaving-foam advertisement, and it seemed fairer, as his whitening-cream commercial with his celebrity wife had promised.
The anchor on the state sports channel made a pointed jibe at players who fabricated their ages. Malik leaned forward, twinkled his eyes, suppressed a smirk and raised his arms as if to plead innocence, before pointing a finger to himself, wagging another with his other hand and shaking his head. Throughout all this, he didn't speak a word. The anchor laughed and said that he knew his guest was a man of integrity and had never tried such a trick. Malik was similarly charming in another evening show a few weeks later, this time chatting delightfully with a vivacious host and perfecting a coy swagger ideal for desi men. He then went and ended up as the fifth-highest scorer in the domestic T20 tournament. Soon after, the squads for the World T20 were announced and Shoaib was in Pakistan's.
The problem with Shoaib Malik is that there is always more than meets the eye. While his media appearances were masterly in their performance and timing, his domestic stats were more deceptive. In his tally of runs in the Faysal Bank T20, almost half of his runs were scored against the group minnows, and they were made at an overall strike rate of 102.
Malik's fellow senior player Kamran Akmal ended the domestic T20 tournament with fewer runs than several other wicketkeepers and yet waltzed back into the side after a year away. His tally of 58 runs had 38 from boundaries, and yet his overall strike rate was 96.6. With his younger brother having been given the gloves in the ODIs, logic could surely not have been a factor in Kamran's return to the fold as an opener and wicketkeeper. And yet here he was again.
And then there is Hafeez, whose nickname reveals far more than it should. It has often been suggested that Hafeez was given the title "Professor" as a friendly joke that poked fun at his tendency to overthink, and yet over time it seems to have been stripped of nuance and used to present him as Sargodha's answer to Mike Brearley. His recent captaincy, however, has suggested that he is not even close. But he has still retained the captaincy though he has yet to justify his long-term selection for his day job - as a top-order batsman.
The game against India exposed the charade the selectors were apparently trying to orchestrate, as Malik, Kamran and Hafeez embodied a depressingly similar approach to batting. They needlessly absorbed a large number of dot balls and then hit the occasional boundary, perhaps to convince themselves that all was not lost. Finally, despite all their supposed experience, they got out foolishly, in ways that suggested they had never quite been in control.
What's more, this has by and large been the script they have followed through their careers. It would be churlish to not admit that there have been some highs, but it would also be important to mention that they have never shown the ability to build upon those brief crests. And yet somehow they have remained almost permanent fixtures in the team.
Hours after the match ended, I had already caught the first condemnations by former players of the young men mentioned at the start of this post. They said that Shehzad and Umar Akmal needed to learn how to control their innings and play the right shots. I imagined that others would catch the highlights of the match later and see the boundaries by the seniors that would further reinforce the "reckless youngsters" theory. And then soon enough we would see one or both of the youngsters dropped: more lambs lined up for the slaughter.
What is unlikely to happen is that someone will finally call out the conmen who continue to play in the side. Kamran, Malik and Hafeez will continue to pull off innocuous, unobtrusive, match-losing performances and yet somehow never face the blame, let alone the consequences.
Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here