June 14, 2013

Neighbour's envy

Pakistan have always looked wistfully at the batting riches produced across the border
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Pick up some Indian scorecards from the last several years, and great batting heroes flash by - Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Sourav Ganguly, MS Dhoni, Virender Sehwag. Some of these have disappeared, but their replacements - Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Shikhar Dhawan - are beginning to sound equally arresting. In Pakistan, reading these names triggers intense pangs of envy. When Pakistanis look at India's vigorous batting line-up, it leaves us disoriented and vertiginous. It is something we don't have, and we badly wish we did.

Batting greats populate the top orders of other teams too, but those names don't unleash in us anything even remotely close to envy. The reason is straightforward. When we look at people like Ricky Ponting, Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen or Chris Gayle, we can't conceive of them being in our team. There is too much otherness about them. Even in someone like Hashim Amla, this otherness persists. He may share our religion and genetic stock, but there is sufficient South African fabric in him to make his presence in the Pakistan change room socially awkward. Nor do Sri Lanka generate much feeling of this sort either. They do have terrific batsmen in Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, but culturally and temperamentally Sri Lankans too convey a certain otherness. They are family, yes, but more like distant cousins.

In the case of India's accomplished batsmen, we sense no such barriers. They feel like our brothers. They look like us and talk like us. They laugh at the same jokes, and feel irked by the same annoyances. We have similar tastes in music, cinema, and art. We use the same spices and generate the same flavours in our food. If the likes of Kohli or Dhawan were to come and hang out in Karachi or Lahore, they'd blend right in. Inside the Pakistan change room, they'd be a big hit.

The Pakistani fan's admiration for Indian batsmen occupies an emotional space that Pakistan's own batsmen have chosen to vacate. They no longer inspire or even please us. We get no joy from watching them bat, only anxiety. They give no sense of solidity at the crease, only fragility. Worst of all, their run-making ability is in unequivocal decline. Pakistan's international batting average combined across all formats over the last five years is 28.07, placing them eighth among all teams. Over the last year this figure has further eroded to 26.48, which places Pakistan ninth, behind even Bangladesh and Kenya. This recent piece by S Rajesh dissects these numbers in detail.

It wasn't always like this. Over the decades, Pakistani fans have been privileged to cheer for many outstanding batsmen, players who in their day could have walked into any other side in the world. But there are no such batsmen left in Pakistan today. The relationship between sports fans and their team is full of romance, in which the core dynamic is of the athlete wooing his supporters. The balance between the wooer and the wooed is always tenuous. Before long, the fans are bound to ask: what have you done for me lately? Pakistani batsmen today have no answer to this question.

Various theories are proffered to explain the crisis, but the matter is not that complicated. The blame, in one form or the other, must lie either with improper team selection, inadequate individual ability, or perhaps a combination of both. Selection, particularly, has become everybody's favourite punching bag, but much of it is undeserved. It isn't that new faces haven't been tried. Over the last ten years, Pakistan have blooded no less than 18 new batsmen in one or more international formats. The sad reality is that none of them has created any lasting impact. Many people complain that too many chances are given to underperforming players, or that not enough chances are provided to allow someone a settled opportunity. But even erratic selection cannot keep a lid on world-class talent for very long. Sooner or later, true calibre and merit are bound to shine through. If you don't see it, it probably isn't there.

Nobody knows why, despite being carved from the same tract of land, Pakistan became a nation of bowlers and India one of batsmen. Explanations focus on the handful of differences between the countries, but the fact is that no one really has a clue

Pakistan's supporters continue to hold the proud belief that their country's cricketers remain immensely talented, but in the case of the batsmen, the evidence is now clearly against it. You only have to extend your sights across the border with India to appreciate what authentic batting talent looks like. It isn't just about looking good when you play your strokes. It's about longevity at the crease and, ultimately, about piling on the runs. Measured against these benchmarks, there is no question that Pakistan's batting talent has dried up. The potential exists but Pakistan's cricket set-up is no longer translating it into talent and ability.

Of course Pakistan's envy of Indian batting is the mirror image of a problem that Indian fans have known for long. Starting in the mid-1970s, Pakistan have been an outstanding bowling side, and continue to be so. Imran Khan laid the foundations, and ever since, Pakistan's seam and pace battery has been regularly replenished and has remained healthy. Indians have pined and ached for these treasures. Nobody knows why, despite being carved from the same tract of land, Pakistan became a nation of bowlers and India one of batsmen. Explanations focus on the handful of differences between the countries, but the fact is that no one really has a clue.

For Pakistan, the need of the moment is to somehow get India's batting magic to rub off on their side of the fence. A comprehensive top-to-bottom examination of India's batting culture by Pakistani cricket authorities would be a good place to start. If you want to make the best product in the world, you have to go and see how the world's leading factory is doing it.

Ultimately a grassroots approach will be required, but Pakistan's mess of cricket governance - with an unaccountable PCB at the centre and personality-dominated regional associations scattered around the key cities - is a major hindrance to any such tactic. The ideal solution is to revive organised competitive cricket at the level of schools, colleges and clubs, and to simulate testing batting conditions (for example, through the use of matting wickets, which encourage sideways movement) for emerging young batsmen to develop robust skills and reflexes during their formative years. Pakistan stopped doing all this years ago, and those chickens are now coming home to roost. The modern emphasis on hiring a crackerjack batting coach for the national team, though well-intentioned, is utterly misplaced. The problem has to be attacked during adolescence, when bad habits have not yet been learned. The national team is situated too far downstream in the sequence.

Sorting out the PCB and its governance issues is a herculean task. So far, nothing has been able to shame Pakistan's cricket administrators into doing the right thing. Perhaps repeatedly and resoundingly coming up short in comparison with India will do the trick.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi. His latest book is Breath of Death, a medical thriller

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • android_user on June 17, 2013, 11:33 GMT

    no doubt he is great batsman.

  • android_user on June 16, 2013, 10:29 GMT

    pakistan has enough batting talent and has in the past. if you look at the head to head between the 2 pakistan has won more games. at the miment the difference is pakistan are not playing enough international cricket and indian batsmen are getting plenty of exposure to top bowlers in the ipl. and it doesnt help wheb your selectio comittee picks a batting b team to repersent the nation in the tournement. why did they drop 4 batsmen from the team that beat india in delhi and kolkata.

  • Desidoc on June 15, 2013, 20:14 GMT

    A batsman, famously, has to make one mistake to fail and a bowler has to bowl one good ball to succeed. What this means is that batting is about temperament and bowling is about talent. You need the temperament to keep facing ball after ball and not make a mistake, innate talent takes a backfoot. Rahul Dravid exemplifies this more than most. Chandrashekhar could bowl lousy ball after lousy ball but he bowls 6 unplayable deliveries and India win for the first time in England.

    Pakistan's batmen just dont have the opportunity to develop a temperament. The selectors dont help, the politics dont help either and the fans are often absent since they play all their international games abroad. So we have a situation where the senior players are flashy and the junior ones are sedate (and not playing their so-called 'natural game' which is what gives you confidence in your own ability at least early on in your career).

    This is not something that impacts bowlers as much, ergo the bowlers do fine

  • Evolving on June 15, 2013, 17:43 GMT

    Youngsters follow role models in respective countries. Pak produced world-class bowlers such as Imran, Waqar, Wasim, Shoaib and India in batting stalwarts like Sachin, Dravid, Gavaskar, Ganguly.

  • Sanath_Jayasurya on June 15, 2013, 16:55 GMT

    What a top notch article. But I am still trying to understand why India's bowling is being constantly under rated by so called expert in this tournament? A bowling unit who can dismiss Australia for 65 must have to be way above the average by far. I understand it was a practise game but Aussies had 9 frontline batsmen batting in their inning. The same bowling unit has dismissed us for 165 runs in this game. Currently, India's bowling unit is right up there along with their betting and fielding, and by far the best ODI team in the world..IMO

  • dummy4fb on June 15, 2013, 16:32 GMT

    Great article. However, I think that lack of a domestic infrastructure hampers the development of young Pakistani batsmen. After playing a couple of big innings in club level games, they are pitchforked into the big arena and exposed to a level of cricket they are not used to and they often find themselves all at sea.

    A couple of failures due to inexperience can dent their confidence in their ability to play at this level. A stint with an English county side or in the IPL can help them evolve as batsmen. Batting talent is there, what is missing in self-belief.

  • dummy4fb on June 15, 2013, 14:42 GMT

    While Pakistan's lack of quality batsmen is now glaringly obvious, one cannot also ignore the terrible selection for the current tournament. Why are people like Shoaib Malik, Imran Farhat and Omar Amin who are consistent non performers still in the team when just as an example impact players like Abul Razzak are sitting out? New talent should be given a chance. There is nothing left to lose.

  • dummy4fb on June 15, 2013, 12:21 GMT

    Much of the article is excellent. However, Mr. Shafqat makes a false equation when he infers that Pakistan's lack of great batsmen is matched by India's lack of great bowlers. First, as someone else here pointed out, India has had some great spinners over the years. Second, India has been within the top three ODI teams during the recent past (and is currently number 1 in the rankings and also the World Cup winner) whereas Pakistan is languishing at the bottom of the heap. So India's lack of great fast bowlers has not held them from being the best in the world whereas Pakistan's lack of great batsmen (and having fast bowlers) is contributing to their mediocre performance of late.

    Maybe India's batsmen are able to compensate for their lack of great fast bowlers but Pakistan's bowlers are not able to compensate for their lack of great batsmen.

  • atharsherwani on June 15, 2013, 11:55 GMT

    Pakistan's young players should be taken to Batting acadamies where they should be ingrained and disciplined with technical aspect of batting. Only those who assimilate these essentials should then be promoted to under 17's and under 19's sides. Those coming through successfully should then be introduced in Pak A team which should be sent abroad 2 or 3 times each year and their performance monitored and then finally introduced in National side. There are no short term magic tricks. It may take 5 years to bear any fruit. But do we have the patience! Alas, NO.

  • IAS2009 on June 15, 2013, 11:54 GMT

    pakistan not playing game at home is one factor not biggest one because they play in UAE and pitches are very similar to Pakistan, poor selection is main thing, pick players and groom them and invest time, pakistan pick players but don't groom them well and very impatient with them, Asad Shafiq is good example he has been in and out so many times, poor guy always wondering if he plays in next game, selection on Imran Farhat and many others for SA tour was poor and people incharge of these have been making same poor decision over and over, so result is not surprise, garbage in garbage out, India has been lucky with their big three for so long, there were many players available and there pool of batsmen building up for a long time with their big guns gone the backup is coming good, not proven yet they have only played very few outside India (they enjoyed last 8 months of inidan conditions). PAK, AUS, NZ, BD, WI all struggling to get decent batting. Apart from Azhar Ali Pak have no one.