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What makes a team great? Throughout history, it has been the desire of the most ambitious of men to mould a group towards a certain idealistic perception of excellence. From Plato to the Third Reich, excellence has been a muse for mankind in pursuits virtuous or otherwise.
This quest had carried on into the endeavour of professional sport, and fortunately, with results far less gruesome - if one can overlook Buzkashi, Afghanistan's version of Silence of the Lambs.
As in all other activities, very rarely is excellence achieved in competitive sport where the individual units (players) of a combined whole (team) are comprised of an unexceptional quality. There have been few rare cases that implore us to think otherwise, but this is essentially in sports where the very nature of the game allows individual brilliance to decisively fashion the difference between two sides. Michael Jordan's six championships with the Chicago Bulls were the result of one man's paramount ability and drive over his contemporaries. Pippen was classy, Rodman was effective, but the rest of the roster was quite pedestrian.
Cricket, and especially Test cricket, is no basketball; it is a fundamentally different game in temperament and structure. In cricket, the cumulative tally of individual statistical output is much more vital here than 'team chemistry' or the dominance of one or two people. Yes, a record-breaker like Muttiah Muralitharan can single-handedly win you a Test every now and then; but Murali, and the three other world-class performers in the Sri Lankan outfit from the last decade, couldn't transform their team into consistent winners.
The schoolyard bullying of the 90s Australian era was not a work of probability. You may cast votes for hard work, team chemistry and the Australian domestic cricket structure. But more than any other factor, the reason for their success was the irrefutable fact that a majority of their players were (or went on to become) naturally gifted individuals with an array of personal glories and achievements; each capable of being marketed as a superstar of the modern game. From a similar standard, the recent rise of South Africa is no surprise.
It's an interesting exercise to look at the current Pakistan squad in this context. The fact remains that this Pakistani outfit, despite some recent success, is a tragedy in waiting. Pakistan's recent triumphs were in spin-friendly conditions where even the most undistinguished Pakistani batsmen have historically held their own. If each match in the next few years is in similar conditions, Pakistan may be fairly confident of a fair bit of success. But a very simple lesson from history could be learnt just about right now. To be a good side, you must have players that are capable of excellence in all conditions.
The first anomaly to this clause is Mohammad Hafeez, perhaps the most inflexible opener to have survived for so long. An average under 29 at a strike-rate in the low 70s would not have been acceptable even in the 90s. Not only does Hafeez score very little, he does it at a detrimental rate. Most of his centuries have been against Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and an Indian bowling unit a tad better than the one in Lagaan. Against any half-decent bowling unit, Hafeez is an eyesore. He premeditatedly defends countless deliveries, good and bad, hits a couple of solid strokes, and gets out. While it may just make a little sense to have him as a lower-order ODI allrounder, he doesn't merit automatic selection in any other format. .
Not too long ago, Pakistan's opener alongside Hafeez was Imran Nazir, the poor man's Shahid Afridi. Yes, that is a lot of batting poverty. There are great strikers of the cricket ball (think MS Dhoni) and then there are those, who like Nazir, are just strikers.
Then there is Sohail Tanvir. The most Sohail can achieve considering his erratic control over the cricket ball at this ripe old age is to round up a 33-35 Test match bowling average. Is this the statistical output for the spearhead of a bowling dynasty?
Which brings me to the fundamental question here: why surround yourself with players who have not only been unable to show sufficient talent to the naked eye (no one questions the talent of an Umar Akmal) but have persistently handed out pedestrian statistical output? Who ever raised a Rome with an army of Hun tribesmen? Or is it that we do not want to construct a Rome, and are content with our little village?
Mohammad Yousuf is perhaps classiest batsman the country has ever produced. A 52.29 average with 24 centuries in 90 Tests ranks him with the best. A player of his class being sidelined at the peak of his powers due to any reason in a team with a defenseless batting lineup is unacceptable. Unless Yousuf has a knack for stealing cricket bats in the dressing room during the tea interval, there seems to be very little in wasting such a player due to disagreements with previous board employees and players who have probably made a fraction of his contribution to the game.
Pakistan, like any team, or sporting unit, will ideally want a team that continues winning over a succession of years, perhaps the better part of a decade. That should provide reason to the method and madness employed every day by employing thousands of employees and spending billions of taxpayer rupees into the cricketing infrastructure. Additionally, Pakistan must get rid of the notion that performance against India is the sole benchmark for selection, as proven by the persistent selections of Salman Butt and Shoaib Malik over the years.
Pakistan certainly is not without talent. Nasir Jamshed and Ahmed Shahzad are ample proof of this. They are extremely talented individuals who often fail to make the team due to the opener's spot being reserved for the likes of Imran Farhat and Hafeez.
My query to those who question selection based on pure statistics and the visual aura of a player is: what else is to be the criterion? Is it an innate talent in chewing gum? Or the subtlety with which a player enters the good books of Misbah-Ul-Haq?
Cricket is a team sport where success lies more on the sum of individual productivity in comparison to harmony in operation. When a batsman goes out to the crease, he must face the delivery and perform alone. It is time the country's cricket board looks at the composition of the team from a long-term point of view. Are we just looking towards chance and Saeed Ajmal to help us win the next series or are we looking to mould a team of extremely talented individuals, each capable of turning the game on its head?
Pakistan just might win a few more series, or they might not; either way, Dale Steyn on a Johannesburg pitch would almost always dismiss Hafeez for very little. In the long run, and in formats where a couple of talented players cannot always win you an entire match, we might be headed towards a big disappointment.
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