May 19, 2011

The problem is Butt

He has been in charge for just under three years and Shahid Afridi's axing represents the ninth change in captaincy in his time

In a way this isn't even about Shahid Afridi or Misbah-ul-Haq. Both have their advantages and faults. This writer personally considered Afridi to have done as good a job as was manageable in the circumstances that were thrust upon him.

Few can realistically argue that they weren't surprised by his performances as leader, given how unsuitable a candidate he has looked for most of his career. But over 32 ODIs (two, against West Indies and Australia, came as stand-in) he left a bit of himself on the team: unpredictable, occasionally brilliant, occasionally hopeless; that Pakistan's four ODI series under Afridi all ended in 3-2 scorelines is quite fitting really.

But mostly they were up for a good fight. In particular, Pakistan showed some spine under him against England and South Africa last year, contests in which what was happening around them could easily have blown them away entirely.

On results, he just about wins. Any captain will take more wins than losses, particularly as few of his opponents were genuinely weak. The World Cup run cannot be belittled, and two series wins did come against weaker sides, but they are two more than a few of the last couple of captains managed: Pakistan, remember, hadn't won an ODI series against a full member side since November 2008 until they beat New Zealand earlier this year. So credit is due.

Misbah might be a decent captain. His form since his return to all formats last year has been outstanding, even if it takes in the much-pilloried World Cup semi-final half-century against India. But turning to a man who turns 37 on the day he leads Pakistan against Ireland in the first ODI isn't a long-term solution.

But the problem isn't either of these two. The problem, not for the first or last time in the tenure of Ijaz Butt, lies with the board, with Butt himself. So far nobody has said why Afridi has been removed, and they might not say anything anytime soon; the board does, after all, retain the right to change captains per assignment.

Only two things could have led to this, however. One is Afridi's keenness in airing private matters publicly, which is admittedly an uneasy trait to possess as Pakistan captain. The other is the differences he has with coach Waqar Younis, differences that have grown considerably over the last few months. Both are issues that can be resolved without sacking someone, a suggestion so obvious that it feels foolish to write it out.

If he does speak out regularly - and it is a breach of the code of conduct - can he not be disciplined in another way? And, given what Pakistani captains of pretty recent vintage have gotten up to, is it that grave an offence? Perhaps Afridi's general disciplinary record went against him: the ball-biting last year, or his abrupt relinquishing of the Test captaincy. In that case, they should have axed him then, when it might have made sense, not now, when it makes less.

The chairman has been quiet for a few months and it has been bliss. Now he has stirred again, underlining once again as if it was needed, that he might struggle to run a chalkboard, let alone a cricket board

If there were problems with Waqar, could not the two of them - with PCB officials involved - have had a pow-wow to sort matters out? Intikhab Alam, the team manager, tried to bring the two together during the ODI series in the Caribbean, but the matter is delicate enough to be handled away from an ongoing series.

Maybe - a radical suggestion this - the board could have sat down and worked out a better, more streamlined selection policy, over which the pair have fallen out. The parameters are not defined very well, but mostly selection in Pakistan is not so different from that in other countries. The selection committee picks a squad, with inputs from coach and captain. The on-tour management, which includes coach and captain, picks the XI. If, as happens often, a Test squad is announced after the ODI leg of the series, then the on-tour management inevitably wants input in that. The final say, in all matters, is with the chairman, for some reason.

As Pakistan's experiments with democracy amply demonstrate, there are probably too many different people involved for this to work smoothly: five in the selection committee, three or more on tour (if the advice of senior players is taken). In any case, the problems that regularly arise in selection matters here likely do elsewhere; the point is you don't solve them simply by sacking people, unless all other options have been exhausted.

Butt has been in charge for just under three years and this now represents the ninth change in captaincy in his time, in Tests and ODIs. Nine: it takes some countries decades to go through that kind of change. Add to it three coaches and five selection chiefs. Does it need to be written out what kind of effect this instability has on the performances of a team? How do you build anything if the materials keep changing? And can we expect Afridi, whether he says it publicly or not, as a key member of the ODI side still, to take this without any issues?

Long ago the number of changes began to say nothing of the men who came and went and everything of the man who made the changes: that is, he is clueless. How much longer before he decides to kick out Misbah? Or Mohsin Khan? Or Waqar Younis?

The chairman had been quiet for a few months and it had been bliss. Now he has stirred again, underlining once again as if it was needed, that he might struggle to run a chalkboard, let alone a cricket board.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of ESPNcricinfo