India v Pakistan, 4th ODI, Gwalior November 15, 2007

A series lost and nothing gained

Pakistan lost the series today, to Tendulkar's majesty, but for all intents and purposes, it was the uncertainty and instability around the team since Shoaib Malik's captaincy began, that lost it for them



As a batting side, only two positions are fixed in Pakistan's line-up: Younis Khan at one down and Mohammad Yousuf behind him © AFP

Behaving like a twenty-something when you're actually 34 is frowned upon in the real world. In sport, of course, it is craved, especially if Sachin Tendulkar insists on playing the burden-bearing, pressure-free behemoth of his youth. In which case very little can be done about it.

There shouldn't be any shame in being eclipsed by such an innings, even if it is the losing of a series. Pakistan lost the series today, to Tendulkar's majesty, but for all intents and purposes, it was the uncertainty and instability around the team since Shoaib Malik's captaincy began, that lost it for them.

Replace the shame with real worry and concern instead for Pakistan's march in to a new era has now officially become a stumble. The worry is not over losing a series or two, for that would've been acceptable had something even a little solid, something a tiny bit concrete emerged from those losses about how this Pakistan team will shape up in this new age.

But since May, over the course of 12 matches, what has emerged? No clear vision, no sense of planning. Captains are expected to impose a way, a personality when they begin: how does Malik want his team to play, what does he expect from his seniors, how does he fit into those plans? None of those questions seems to have been answered since he took over.

As a batting side, only two positions are fixed in Pakistan's line-up: Younis Khan at one down and Mohammad Yousuf behind him. Above and below those nothing is set. In those 12 matches, Pakistan have shown only haste as tasteless as OJ Simpson's last book, already using eight different opening pairs and seven different players.

Considering the troubles they have had in recent years, one of the first priorities you would've thought would be to bed in one pair and give them an extended run. Three pairs have been tried in this series alone. So to no great surprise, there has been only one fifty partnership in those 12 matches - the one between Imran Nazir and Salman Butt in Abu Dhabi against Sri Lanka - in the very first match under Malik.

Pakistan are fortunate the two Ys are in such touch for without them, as Graeme Smith observed last month, they are regularly up a creek without a paddle. Shahid Afridi has batted in three different positions in India, Kamran Akmal has opened and played No. 8: flexibility, as Malik wants, is fine but there is a difference between that and simply not knowing what your best batting order is, as appears the case presently.

Injuries and absences to bowlers have been out of his control admittedly but it hasn't helped Malik and Pakistan that they haven't been able to bring Shoaib Akhtar, Umar Gul and Mohammad Asif together for even a Twenty20 game. Even in matters in his control, like giving Rao Iftikhar Anjum an extended run, Malik has fluffed. Anjum was Pakistan's best bowler over five matches against South Africa as well as today, yet he sat out the last game after just two poor performances.

The uncertainty is everywhere. Vice-captaincy is often lambasted as a dud role, but most sides are happy with sticking to one, no matter how nominal the role. Pakistan have had three in those 12 ODIs. Akmal didn't drop a catch today, a source of pleasant surprise given he had dropped at least one in each of his last five matches. His form has been poor before too, but instead of trying out another keeper, Pakistan bizarrely and blindly insist that Akmal is second only to Adam Gilchrist.

But the most vivid impression they have left through this series is of a disparate bunch of individuals, not fractious, but just not glued together. Occasionally players have sparked something fantastic, but there doesn't appear to be a direction. That fizz, that unique Pakistani mirch (spice) has been absent, leaving a very bland taste in the mouth. An appalling over-rate has showed up their sluggishness.

The situation isn't by any means unsalvageable. Even his predecessor, that most inert of leaders, Inzamam-ul-Haq, brought this team together. However he did it, it worked for a brief period, so there must be hope with Malik. Young leaders of Pakistan have rarely been given the time and crucially the support they require. Malik seems to have both these precious, rare gifts. But in that time, he has to announce himself, take his team by the collar, give it a kick up the backside and give it some semblance of shape and direction.

Osman Samiuddin is the Pakistan editor of Cricinfo

Comments