June 14, 2013

Neighbour's envy

Pakistan have always looked wistfully at the batting riches produced across the border

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