September 14, 2013

Pakistan's mediocrity raises questions

Does Mohammad Hafeez deserve to be in the Test side? Who after Misbah? What is Whatmore doing? Does the board have a plan to safeguard the future?

Zimbabwe have just given Pakistan an enormous surprise. This is great news for Zimbabwe, but terrible news for Pakistan. On their previous trip there, precisely two years ago - things had been far more one-sided, with Pakistan making short work of the opposition in all three ODIs and both T20s, and pocketing the one-off Test by a comfortable seven wickets.

This time Pakistan got their nose bloodied when they lost the opening ODI, and now comes the shock defeat in the second Test - the equivalent of a kick in the most sensitive parts, leaving Pakistan's cricket edifice doubled over.

Undoubtedly Zimbabwe have improved tremendously. For over a decade, they have looked terribly out of sorts, but today they have a penetrative seam attack, a nettlesome offspinner, and solid upper-order batsmen.

Meanwhile for Pakistan, several disturbing questions arise. Defeat in a limited-overs encounter can always be written off as a slip on a banana peel to which anyone can occasionally succumb. But a Test match is a far more comprehensive and probing examination. It measures your true cricketing worth far more accurately than any ODI or T20. When you have lost a Test, there are few excuses left.

In fact, the 1-1 tally for the Test series does not do justice to Zimbabwe, who nearly outplayed Pakistan in the opening Test as well. Pakistan's eventual winning margin of 221 runs may be massive, but it was almost entirely accounted for by a solitary performance in the form of Younis Khan's 200 not out in the second innings. In the first innings Pakistan's total remained modest and they conceded a lead of 78. Even during his otherwise magnificent double-hundred, Younis had a few close calls, including a convincing lbw appeal when he was on 10. Had he failed in the second innings, Zimbabwe would have been celebrating a Test whitewash.

Batting was Pakistan's most obvious failure, but the bowling proved disappointing too. On the opening day of the second Test, Pakistan reduced Zimbabwe to 187 for 6, but their bowlers failed to close the deal as the last four Zimbabwean wickets took the total to almost 300, including a tenth-wicket stand of 46. With Pakistan having to bat last, everything thereafter depended on securing a sizeable first-innings lead, but Pakistan's batting line-up more or less crumbled, and the Test turned. On the final morning Pakistan came out needing 106 runs with five wickets left and Misbah-ul-Haq still at the crease. It was a decade, almost to the day, from the memorable Multan Test against Bangladesh, when Pakistan needed 113 with four left and Inzamam-ul-Haq not out on 53. But Misbah, despite his valiant rearguard, is no Inzi, and this Zimbabwe team are a cut above that Bangladesh side of 2003.

A good bit of Pakistan's mediocrity can perhaps be explained by improper selection, of which there is no more apt an example than Mohammad Hafeez. His batting average in 14 Tests outside Asia is only 20.80, which is in the tailender range, yet he has played each of those matches as an opener. He has managed to extend his Test life by offering a competitive bowling option and by creating the posture of a captain-in-waiting, but by now his batting abilities have been thoroughly exposed and he doesn't merit Test selection on the basis of his bowling alone.

Another Pakistan batsman who appears horribly exposed is Azhar Ali, whose Test average is in steady decline since it peaked at 45 last year. The talented and technically competent Asad Shafiq has also looked sadly adrift. These players are experiencing a rough patch but they have shown enough mettle in the past to still be considered the nucleus of Pakistan's future middle order. In the case of Hafeez, however, the excuses have simply run out; interesting alternative options - Haris Sohail, Fawad Alam, and perhaps even Umar Amin or Umar Akmal - are available to replace him.

A captaincy crisis is also looming. Misbah is nearly 40 and, with Hafeez undeserving of a Test spot, there is no longer any successor in sight. Hafeez is still a sound option for limited-overs, but the Test captaincy has suddenly been flung open. After Misbah's retirement the authorities will inevitably turn to Younis, but that can't be a long-term appointment. Plus, he has refused the honour before, so there's no guarantee that he will accept. From the younger crop, Azhar projects an air of leadership potential, but he first needs to prove his value as a batsman.

The spectacle out in the middle - mistimed strokes, suicidal shot selection, wickets gifted away - is what everyone naturally focuses on, but there is scant evidence to suggest the elaborate support infrastructure is doing its job properly. What, for example, is coach Dav Whatmore's contribution to this Pakistan effort beyond relaxing in the pavilion, appearing in silly soda ads, and collecting a fat paycheck? What is being done to sort out the uncertain status of the selection committee, whose chair appointment remains in legal limbo following a court challenge? And what is the PCB doing to identify and nurture batting talent in the country? Najam Sethi, the interim PCB chief hastily appointed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has so far done little to inspire confidence among fans that their beloved game is being tended to.

There is an important silver lining here too, and we must not lose sight of it: Test cricket is in great health, and its pleasures are infinite. This series produced ten days of a highly absorbing contest, with all the twists, surprises and drama that the most evolved form of the game is known for. What a shame that the organisers lacked the foresight to schedule a third Test, and the sponsors and broadcasters lacked the gumption to support it. We really have to stop depriving audiences of Test cricket's delightful possibilities.

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