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