Has Rixon's departure affected Pakistan's fielding?

Fakhar Zaman puts down a chance Associated Press

We may as well be back in 2016 with this Asia Cup, with a frustrated but ultimately powerless coach looking on, a captain badly out of form, bowlers overstepping at key moments and everyone dropping catches with the profligacy of Formula One drivers spraying champagne at each other. This tournament has channelled the worst of Pakistan from days we would prefer they had left behind. And while there is no question they look a more modern one-day side, is talk of vast improvement from a fan base eager to embrace this likeable team hyperbolic?

Pakistan's overall performance deserves greater scrutiny, but the most spectacular slipping of standards has come in the fielding department. In this Asia Cup, the first since new fielding coach Grant Bradburn was appointed, Pakistan have caught four and dropped nine outfield catches, barely a 30% success rate. All of the sloppiness came in the last two games, when Pakistan took just one of ten such catches. It doesn't take a mathematician to work out that catching percentage, nor a fielding coach to conclude it isn't good enough.

Steve Rixon left following Pakistan's series in the United Kingdom for reasons that were never satisfactorily explained, and Darren Berry, the replacement the PCB wanted, didn't join for similarly mysterious reasons. From February 2017 to Rixon's departure, Pakistan's catching in front of the stumps improved from 77% to 85%, with palpable rise in the ground fielding standards, too. On the Zimbabwe tour, the first after he departed, the catching percentage (excluding the wicketkeeper) was back down to 78%. While that might have been an insignificant drop over a small sample size, the cause for concern may now be more legitimate with those percentages falling off a cliff.

A couple of months ago, Rixon, talking to ESPNcricinfo about the implications his departure could have on the team, said he was "horrified" at the prospect of Pakistan slipping back into old habits.

"They need a fielding coach that is going to continue with the same ruthless approach that I took and take no prisoners and continue to keep pushing these boys. They need to be pushed. They've got to understand these standards come with hard work, not just turning up and hoping it works out. In short, if you've prepared well, you can trust your preparation and go in there trusting you'll do it well. If you've prepared badly, you turn up hoping you'll go well."

Following the loss to India, head coach Mickey Arthur insisted he couldn't complain about the way his players were training and instead put it down to a "crisis of confidence".

"The only thing I can think of is pressure. The work some of these guys put in, it's second to none. These guys work every day on their catching, and the minute one of them goes down, it's like a disease. One good catch will turn it around and then we'll get the confidence rushing back. We've got to trust the skills to come out in the end, we've banked the work."

There is no doubt the players continue to put in the work Arthur has always demanded of them, and it might just be an inconvenient coincidence the fielding lapses have come when the fielding coach departed. But there's obviously a reason Arthur was so effusive recently when speaking about Rixon's contribution to Pakistan's fielding improvement, and why the Australian was the first person he wanted on board to dismantle Pakistan's inveterately blasé attitude to fielding. He didn't want Rixon to leave less than a year out from the World Cup, no matter how suitable the replacement.

"Steve and I had an unbelievably close relationship through Australia, through almost 7 years of coaching together now," Arthur told ESPNcricinfo recently. "The role he played in getting our fielding up to standard was very significant so he deserves a lot of credit for that."

A win against Bangladesh, and talks of crisis take a back seat. Another win - no matter how outrageously unlikely it seems right now - in the final against India - and you would have to trawl through encyclopaedias of Pakistan cricket history before you ever saw any mention of the dropped catches of the past two games.

It is, after all, just two matches, but it seems it hasn't taken long for everyone to have caught the bug. It remains to be seen whether this disease, as Arthur puts it, of dropping catches, becomes an epidemic.

Until now, Pakistan have done what Arthur demanded of them, but as he looks to avert disaster against Bangladesh, he could learn something off his side too. Win the next two matches, and the criticisms won't just fade, they may never have existed. Two games from a Champions Trophy title last year that seemed nothing more than a pipe dream, Arthur got this team to strike gold, and all cracks were papered over. As they begin to denude once more, Arthur can channel the memories of that magical English summer again. 2017 was truly a vintage year, but Pakistan can still ensure 2018 isn't the annus horribilis it is threatening to become.