July 19, 2010

Don't blame Afridi

What was the board thinking by appointing as captain a player who hadn't played a Test in four years, to lead one of Pakistan's most inexperienced sides?

Shahid Afridi did not appoint himself captain of Pakistan's Test side. He was asked to take over by the PCB. At the time, there were suggestions that the Test comeback was a prerequisite to him retaining the captaincy of the ODI and Twenty20 sides - the implication being that he was pressured into it. Subsequently, Afridi, a straightish talker when he wants to be, hardly hid his reluctance over the task at hand.

So the first questions flung after this latest inevitable, but thankfully brief, self-defeat must be at the board. In pushing a man who had not played Tests for four years, a man who wasn't really ever a Test cricketer, a man whose place in the Test XI wasn't guaranteed, to lead a side with 249 Tests worth of experience between them, against two of the strongest teams around, in alien conditions, what was the thinking?

Maybe they looked at his Test average (before the Lord's Test) and concluded that as it was higher than Nasser Hussain's and Hansie Cronje's and fractionally lower than Michael Atherton's, he must be all right. Maybe they really are as simple as that, even if that is to credit at least one among them with the knowhow to use Statsguru.

The only conclusion that can be reached from their choice is that they have no clue of the game they purport to govern. They have the vision of bats; the thinking, of how to develop a side, how to nurture a game, how to identify talent, how to run a business, is remarkably empty. Afridi should never have been approached to lead the Test side. Malcolm Speed was blunt about the PCB, but that was his only fault.

The board line was that there was no other option. That was, in any case, arguable; if it was true, it was only because the PCB had engineered the situation such. Since 2009, in fact, the one thing the board has done consistently is to not show any spine in standing by their captains. If, as the administration, you oversee one change in captaincy, you can be forgiven. Two looks careless. Beyond that - and Ijaz Butt's men have now overseen four in less than 18 months - clearly no one has the slightest clue. They don't seem to care much either.

So to blame Afridi for taking it on - and now leaving it - is to misplace frustration. Few turn down the captaincy, and he did it with good intentions. It was, in one sense, a brave decision, to take on such a shattered, divisive group of individuals, after such a beating, in a format you're not familiar with. The bravest move might have been to recognise your limitations and turn it down, but that is to be expected only from the biggest men.

If, as the administration, you oversee one change in captaincy, you can be forgiven. Two looks careless. Beyond that - and Ijaz Butt's men have now overseen four in less than 18 months - and clearly no one has the slightest clue

And over four days in the field, he didn't look that bad as captain. He attacked, handled his bowlers mostly well, got his fields mostly right, and oversaw Pakistan's safest fielding performance in years. He is not the first Pakistan captain to lose a Test to Australia.

He batted irresponsibly? Much better batting captains of Pakistan have done worse, most recently Mohammad Yousuf in the Sydney run-chase. Afridi's batting, of course, was a problem and its true effectiveness in this format lay long ago, in the type of innings Bob Woolmer squeezed out of him: the madcap opening bursts in Bangalore and Kolkata in 2004-05, which were potential game-breakers. And even those were controlled circumstances, where the surfaces weren't spicy, and he batted with the luxury of knowing Yousuf, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Younis Khan could clean up most messes behind him.

But Afridi was honest about it, even if the affair retained the calculated charm of the brand Afridi: "Me? I only know how to hit sixes and I can't do that for five days." He knew he was a weak link in the side and he moved on. Wanting to ensure that his limited-overs leadership is not sullied by five-day misery will also have been a less than selfless calculation. He could have handled it far better: resigning and retiring minutes after one Test defeat smacks of panicked, chaotic defeatism. But typically, in the contrary ways Pakistan cricket works, his absence should strengthen the side.

Now, Salman Butt. His name has come up before in this kind of talk, which doesn't say much in Pakistan other than that he has been around long enough (seven years nearly) and been dropped often enough (seven times in 28 Tests). The immediate fear is that he is being burdened just when he is finally becoming the opening batsman that Pakistan have needed more than anything. Another is of the momentary lapses in concentration, evident in soft dismissals when set, or poor catching or bad running. He is also his country's fifth youngest captain and young captains have never had it good in Pakistan, though that he has mostly young men around him might help.

But there are good things. To make eight comebacks and not be broken suggests some resilience. It is also something that he does best against the two toughest opponents a Pakistani batsman can come across: Australia and India. Above all has been his reconfiguration for the Twenty20 format, among the most significant acts of self-improvement by any Pakistani batsman since Yousuf's 2006 transformation.

And on the field, he has materials and men to work with. Off it he has nothing.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo