December 27, 2011

What, no nightmares?

After five years of increasing horror, Pakistan spent 2011 triumphing on the field and cleaning the stables off it

Pakistan found much reason to rejoice in 2011. There was success on the field, a welcome change of guard at the PCB, and the criminal conviction of corrupt players. Judged on performance, they are hardly recognisable as the same team that had been muddling through for the last few years.

In Test cricket, Pakistan won series against New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Their only defeat came in a match against West Indies, and that too was in a drawn series. In ODIs, Pakistan won 24 of their 32 matches, a new national record that incorporates seven series wins and a courageous semi-final showing in the 2011 World Cup. In T20 matches, Pakistan won four out of five, the only defeat coming against West Indies in April. In all three formats, Pakistan went through the year with a win-loss ratio at or near the top in world cricket.

Granted they did not play the toughest of opponents, but their ranking still improved, from sixth to fifth in both Tests and ODIs, and from seventh to sixth in T20s. Towards the end of the year, several Pakistani names were spotted among the top tens: Younis Khan in Test batting; Umar Akmal in ODI batting; Saeed Ajmal in Test, ODI, and T20 bowling; Mohammad Hafeez in ODI bowling and ODI and T20 all-round performance; and Shahid Afridi in bowling and all-round performance in both ODIs and T20s. Compared with last year, the turnaround is dramatic, and surely cause for celebration no matter what.

New kid on the block
The most notable debutant this year was Junaid Khan. Although newcomer and fellow seamer Aizaz Cheema ended the year with more wickets, Junaid missed the Bangladesh series with a muscle tear and his tally must be judged accordingly. He was most impressive during the Test series against Sri Lanka, picking up 12 wickets from three matches, including a five-for, and dismissing the best Sri Lankan batsmen at key moments. Junaid possesses seam movement, lively pace, the skill to reverse, and the left-armer's ability to angle the ball across. He has the potential to fill the spot vacated by Mohammad Amir.

Although Hafeez isn't exactly a new kid on the block, he is living a recently acquired second life in Pakistan cricket, which effectively makes him so. His tally of ten international match awards in 2011 is the team's best (Afridi is next with five, followed by Umar Akmal with four and Misbah with three). Re-entering the side after a nearly three-year gap at the 2010 World Twenty20, Hafeez has become one of its pillars, as valuable to his team as Shane Watson is to Australia.

High point
The series against Sri Lanka was approached with trepidation, but it ended up being the most remarkable success of the year. Most of the traditional departments came good as Pakistan knocked over an opponent placed above them in the ICC rankings. Fielding was the only real letdown; had some critical catches been held in the opening match in Abu Dhabi, the margin of victory in the Tests could easily have been 2-0 instead of 1-0.

Another high point - no less enjoyable and possibly of greater significance - came off the field, when Ijaz Butt's damaging tenure as PCB chief finally came to an end. His replacement, Zaka Ashraf, has so far displayed a settled and professional approach, outlining a set of key strategic objectives, showing willingness to back his players and reward performance, and appearing keen to heed the advice of noted ex-cricketers. Compared with the ruinous Butt, he seems a godsend.

Low point
You would think that losing to India in a World Cup semi-final would top everybody's list of disappointments, but strangely it doesn't. Coming soon after the spot-fixing upheaval, and against an Indian juggernaut brimming with momentum, Pakistan's semi-final defeat was received with a kind of proud resignation mixed with relief.

Instead, the regret of the year was fluffing the opportunity to secure a maiden Test series win in West Indies - something Pakistan have come tantalisingly close to on previous tours though never quite managed. Set a relatively modest fourth-innings target of 219 in the opening game, Pakistan collapsed to the pace of Ravi Rampaul and the seam movement of Darren Sammy. With only two Tests to play, the possibility of an inaugural series triumph was eliminated.

Still, this was a year with few low moments for Pakistan. Even the spectacle of convicted spot-fixers being carted away to prison did not resonate with the shame and humiliation that was felt last year. If anything, it felt like a cleansing that brought closure.

What 2012 holds
Pakistan are a happy and motivated bunch, putting in an honest effort and clicking well. Yet two loose ends stand out as one looks ahead to 2012.

There were a number of impressive batting performances this year, including two double-centuries, but batting inconsistency continues to be a problem. Hafeez has secured himself as one half of the opening pair, but his limited-overs partner is still rotational. In Tests, Taufeeq Umar excelled as an opener with three tons and three fifties, but he was dismissed in nearly half his innings for single digits. After ten fifties, one-down batsman Azhar Ali finally got a Test hundred, but it is the senior duo of Younis and Misbah who are carrying the middle order. And while Umar Akmal and Asad Shafiq are technically adept, they haven't yet acquired the habit of scoring big.

Another loose end is the position of the coach, still occupied by Mohsin Khan in an interim capacity. Pakistan have never been a team for too much method or formality, and with a mature captain like Misbah and accomplished senior players like Afridi and Younis in the side, a supportive older-brother figure like Mohsin may be all that is needed. There is talk of his ego issues, but the core need is to provide a mentoring presence that ensures harmony and chemistry among the boys, on which Mohsin is clearly delivering. There is a feeling in some circles for a foreign coach - Australian Dav Whatmore is the front-runner - but why try to fix something that shows with each passing day it's not broken?

The larger question is: will 2011 prove to be the year when Pakistan cricket finally caught a break? Ever since the Oval forfeit of 2006, the team has been living a nightmare, as each passing year has brought something previously considered unthinkable. The spot-fixing catharsis might have finally bookended this dark chapter.

Stern challenges lie ahead, starting with a full series against top-ranked England in January. There is even the possibility of hosting international cricket on home soil, for which Bangladesh have given provisional consent. It did not attract much notice outside Pakistan, but in fact the terrorists behind the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan team were also caught and killed this year. The bad guys are losing. That is a hopeful sign.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • zia on December 28, 2011, 17:13 GMT

    Very well Green Shirts. Finally Pakistani Players have got their winning track in 2011 and they have shown the world that still they can play Good fighting cricket. Hope 2012 will be same as 2011 for Pakistani Cricket. Many Big series are coming ahead in 2012 like England Series, Asia Cup, Australia Series, Sri Lanka Series, Champions trophy & T20 World Cup. Pakistani Nation will only want Good Fighting Cricket frome players whether you win or lose!!! I Think Pakistani Team also got Good Combination in Test, ODI & T20 in 2011.

  • Hanzaq on December 28, 2011, 16:42 GMT

    I think they have turned a massive corner as a team and as a unit...with Imran Khan making big moves in the political world...there's definitely a feeling of a feel good atmosphere in Pakistan, as a nation, not just a team, that we are ready for big change, we can stand toe to toe with any country in the world, it's this instilled belief which will benefit us, 2012 with England ("home"), Asia Cup and South Africa (away) should reaffirm Pakistan's position as a big gun of world cricket again...I cant believe people think beating NZ in NZ and Sri Lanka in Subcontinent conditions was EASY....just look at what both teams have done recently against Australia and South Africa (currently) respectively! Pakistan have done really well to beat both of them in those conditions...personally I think Sri Lanka in the UAE are much more dangerous then England in the UAE, so that series should be fine for Pakistan! Jeevay Jeevay Pakistan...Pakistan Zindabad!

  • Dummy4 on December 28, 2011, 15:30 GMT

    Good to see Pakistan coming into light. We should really appreciate them for turning up such performances in this year. Agreed that they played against weaker opponents, but all that matters is that they are back to their winning ways. However, it takes tremendous amount of courage and mettle to reach the spot they are in now after all the mis-haps in the last 3 years. All they need now is consistency. All the best Pakistan.

  • Krishnaswami on December 28, 2011, 15:29 GMT

    Good to see Pakistan playing more and doing well. Pakistan always had a very good bowling attack. You seem to be having a assembly line of fast bowlers. If fielding/catching is improved definitely the WIN column will increase. If other teams had bowlers like yours, they would be in No 1 in test matches for a long time. Although batting is still weak, if you can extract 100% advantage from your strength, will it not be great?

  • Dummy4 on December 28, 2011, 11:25 GMT

    this may be the beginning of a new era of Pakistan cricket. lets hope for the best in up coming series against the best test team

  • Premanand on December 28, 2011, 11:20 GMT

    Well done Pakistan Team. I think the influence of Misbah, Younis and to some extent Moshin & Afridi is showig very well on their performances. PAK showed their quality especially against a top side like SL. Way to go guys. You are going to rock ENG and that will be the confirmation that PAK team is maturing well. Good luck to PAK team for a great series against ENG and a greater 2012. We want PAK team to be at its best for making the ICC rankings really interesting with AUS, IND, SA, SL along with PAK challenging ENG. Good luck

  • Dummy4 on December 27, 2011, 22:39 GMT

    Pakistan have achieved what they should have planned before 2011 but biggest test lay ahead against England. If they are able to test and even draw against England in Test, they would think it as a win. Hoping for a good contest.

  • raja on December 27, 2011, 18:46 GMT

    Praise Misbah for all these. He is doing the job. He is not at fore front of things. He is defensive but then calm headed. No controversies and no problems this year. He took up when no one else wanted to and mind you, there was infighting.Now the success has come even though no challenging tours yet but no controversies !. Pakistan. Respect. Atlast I see Integrity in the team ! But find someone soon who will fit in like Younis khan or a Misbah in character ! ---- Indian !

  • Dummy4 on December 27, 2011, 18:22 GMT

    @CricIndia208 typical uneducated response from a glory hunter who only sings when they are winning. mate the article is about on and off the field the greater changes being off the field i.e no contrevercies and changes in coaching and pcb. the return of senior players. i can see your a half glass empty type of guy but in my eyes no one beat pakistan in 2011...not SA, SL, WI or BD... unfortunately fans like you give your fellow supporters a bad name. as other fans are on here realising the changes! please publish

  • Atif on December 27, 2011, 15:08 GMT

    It will be an amazing achievement for pakistan cricket if Mr. Shafqat can write a similar article next year, playing against England, Australia and South Africa.

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