March 24, 2016

Have Pakistan given up?

It looks like their batsmen and bowlers have, while their captain relies on solo efforts

Shahid Afridi hasn't taken on the role of the lead spinner, as the squad selection for the World T20 demanded © AFP

There is something intriguing, and perhaps tragic, about things that come in the middle. Be it a middle child, or middle age, or the middle class, they all share the fact that they are what's left behind once the top and bottom, or right and left, or whatever, have been sorted. We care about what's first and what's last, and are slightly oblivious about the rest.

Inevitably, those in the middle have to pretend harder. Take the middle class, who might not have the goods the rich do, so they pretend to have the taste for them. Or the middle child, who pretends to get the jokes the elders crack to avoid being grouped with the baby. Or middle age, where you hope that the trendy, expensive haircut you just got will allow you to fit in when you go out on weekends.

The tragedy of being in the middle is that you struggle to define yourself on your own terms, and if you fail to do so, then there comes a point when you just start giving up on all the pretence.

Pakistan's limited-overs sides have been middle tier for quite some time now - not anywhere as good as the top sides but ahead of the Associates, who have closed the gap remarkably in the last few years. The general lack of any one outstanding team in this era has meant that Pakistan (like most sides nowadays) retain the ability to surprise top-ranked sides, which has meant that those who write and speak on the sport continue to imagine them in the same identity they wore in the '80s and '90s: the eternal dark horses.

In reality, Pakistan have barely been keeping afloat in white-ball cricket for almost a decade now. While boards and batsmen and captains and tactics all haven't helped, this decline is almost directly correlated with terrorism-related exile and isolation for the team. Regardless, the fact is that even though Pakistan have been consistently mediocre, everyone seems to indulge the pretence that they are just about top class.

At the current World T20, though, it has looked like everyone in Pakistani cricket is just about giving up. At various points, the comments by the PCB chairman have been quite outrageous. While that is generally expected of PCB chairmen, Shaharyar Khan - a career diplomat and generally very tactful - has never been so blunt.

After the game against New Zealand, coach Waqar Younis joined in as well, essentially subtweeting his own players in the press conference. The issue isn't with what they both said but rather that even when a tournament is going badly for your team, you're still supposed to pretend it's not when you still have a chance to qualify.

In the crucial games against India and New Zealand, Afridi batted up the order, like the guest who arrives before the food is ready, and bowled late, like the same guest lingering on after everyone has left

The fast bowlers, who had been the source of much hope and hype, seemed to give up in the game against India, choosing to ignore a pitch made to nullify them and refusing to adapt to it. The batting performed better than was perhaps expected, but it was never quite enough, and against New Zealand the two prospects for the future seemed to have completely given up. Watching Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad bat was like scrolling Twitter on a poor internet connection - there was no colour or imagery, just two-toned desolation.

Perhaps most damningly, it was the captain who gave up on captaincy. Given how much time Shahid Afridi appears to spend politicking for the post, it often seems like he resents the responsibility on the field. In both the crucial games, against India and New Zealand, Afridi batted up the order, like the guest who arrives before the food is ready, and bowled late, like the same guest lingering on after everyone has left.

In both matches he came in to bat at the wrong time, failing to nullify the threat of spin in the middle overs. The bigger problem, however, was with his bowling - the squad selection meant that he was the lead spinner, which is a role he has never excelled in and didn't take seriously here. The failure to utilise the pitch in Kolkata fell most on him, where the team needed him as a bowler but could have done without as a batsman. Much like everyone else, Afridi also seemed to give up on his team, trying to make it all on his own.

It would be a cliché to turn this all around by writing, "Don't give up", so I'll let someone else say those words. In the words of my colleague, the "the sanest man in Pakistan... is not in Pakistan... nor a Pakistani". He was speaking of Kevin Pietersen, who had tweeted, "PAKISTAN - the @thePSLt20 will help & guide your national & domestic players. Give your players a season or two to figure out consistency! (prayer emoji)" His follow-up tweet was also an accurate assessment of why they can be so poor.

At the risk of sounding like a drenched man with straws in his fist, the two players who were in the squad solely due to their PSL performances did show up at the big games. Sharjeel Khan's blitz had left the chase a formality against New Zealand, while Mohammad Sami was excellent against them and India. And at the risk of continuing this wet-straw outlook, Pakistan still haven't been knocked out as I write this.

More importantly, though, perhaps there is a time for Pakistan to rethink their cricket identity, and try being honest about what is wrong. It would be a far better option than just giving up.

Ahmer Naqvi writes on cricket, music, film and pop culture. He appears on Journoeyes and Pace is Pace Yaar. @karachikhatmal