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Hassan Cheema

Blame domestic cricket for Pakistan's losses

The pitches don't encourage the development of world-class talent, so what can the captain, or anyone else, do?

Hassan Cheema
Hassan Cheema
The Pakistan system is so lacking that a lot of the player development only takes place at the international level  •  AFP

The Pakistan system is so lacking that a lot of the player development only takes place at the international level  •  AFP

Misbah-ul-Haq wanted to retire as early as the autumn of 2014. In hindsight that would have been a mistake. He'll probably end up retiring after this Australia tour, or at the most after the West Indies tour later this year, and most people will feel like he ended up staying on too long.
Perhaps he should have retired with the mace in hand, having just completed a famous series in England. But drunk on his team's successes, and on the belief that they could win down under, Misbah has ended up harming his legacy over the last few months of his tenure. He'll still leave with the second most number of wins for an Asian captain (behind MS Dhoni) and the most wins outside Asia for an Asian captain (tied for the top, with or without Zimbabwe). And he'll still leave having placed himself on Pakistan's Rushmore. But he'll now leave with a bad taste in the mouth.
The captain whose bowling plans have inspired tomes of writing had his opposite number questioning whether he had any plan whatsoever. Through it all, the man who could have - and has - helped Misbah the most in this regard was up in the commentary box.
Much was made of Waqar Younis' supposedly exorbitant salary in his second tenure as the head coach of the Pakistan team. But with each passing day, as his value to the whole project becomes more evident, that seems like a bargain.
Pakistan Test bowling since Feb 2010 (when Waqar was first appointed as head coach)
  Tests Wickets Average Economy Percentage of Tests in Asia
With Waqar 28 218 31.7 3.24 61%
Without Waqar 33 262 35.8 3.28 58%
Despite having played in friendlier conditions since Waqar's departure, Pakistan's fast bowlers have shown significant deterioration - which makes sense considering the attack is still inexperienced and somewhat leaderless. The only active fast bowlers with over 25 Tests for Pakistan are Umar Gul and Mohammad Sami, neither of whom has played a Test for four years now.
Pakistan now have to face the question they have been dreading and avoiding since Younis Khan and Misbah first saved a Test in the autumn of 2010: what happens when they are gone?
The answer to that lies in the domestic game. But as with everything related to domestic cricket in Pakistan, there are more questions than answers. There are myriad reasons why Pakistan isn't producing the players it once did, why the limited-overs teams are years behind the rest of the world, and why the Test team's successes have to do with non-Pakistani virtues like teamwork, planning and patience.
There's the small matter of finances, which leads to a lower standard of professionalism than is required at the highest level. That's why Pakistan remains perhaps the only team where a lot of player development, especially in fielding, has to take place with the national side.
Then there's the state of the pitches (more on that in a bit), which leads to complacency towards collapses, and produces bowlers who rely on the ball and the conditions to do the work for them.
The average Pakistani's solution for such a malaise is either the intervention of the military or to give more power to cricketers as administrators, which is odd considering the changes that led to the current state of Pakistan cricket were initiated by a former player under a military officer in charge of the PCB. That former player is, of course, now most vociferous in the commentary box when it comes to longing for the Pakistan of bygone years.
The numbers from this season's Quaid-e-Azam Trophy perhaps provide an obvious illustration of the problem the domestic game is facing.
Percentage of first-innings scores for both teams in Quaid-e-Azam Trophy 2016-17
City* Under 250 250-400 400+ Average score
Karachi 53 34 13 250
Lahore 29 38 33 352
Sialkot 33 42 25 337
Faisalabad 50 50 0 224
Rawalpindi 75 8 17 228
Islamabad 40 50 10 261
Peshawar 42 42 16 289
TOTAL% 45% 38% 17% 279
*Cities with at least five matches
In comparison, the average first-innings score in the 2016 County Championship Division 1 in England was 334, with only 28% of scores falling under 250; in the 2015-2016 Sheffield Shield in Australia, the average score was 300 (32% under 250). And if you dial back to the 1992-93 Patron's Trophy in Pakistan, the average score was 294 (34% under 250).
From this season's Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, an average first-innings score of 279 across the season might suggest an equal battle between bat and ball, but a breakdown of the numbers indicates otherwise. Nearly half of the first and second innings of matches ended with scores under 250, even as commentators keep saying that the pitches and conditions in the UAE are just like those at home. The low-scoring game is the norm in Pakistan, and until that is sorted out, the national team will continue the need to punch above its weight to compete.
Take the Quaid-e-Azam final. Played under lights, the match was a competitive affair as long as there was something in the pitch and the pink ball was moving around. But once the pitch flattened out and the ball stopped swinging, the conditions were very much like those the Pakistan bowlers had to face in Australia.
Over a decade of this system has produced fast bowlers who rely on accuracy and conditions rather than speed, batsmen who succeed by gutsing it out and reining in their strokes, and spinners who are used for containment more often than not. Among the top 20 wicket-takers in this season's Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, 16 will never be considered for the national team.
You could call it the Sadaf Hussain conundrum. Hussain, a left-arm fast bowler, finished with 28 wickets at 23 from seven matches this season, but the cricket fraternity believes he isn't fast or fit enough for the international level. Thus we have a system where the best performing players are discredited because the cricket they play can't be translated to the international game.
Of course, these are problems that will take years to fix. But there are short-term solutions on offer. Some, like Waqar, believe the quality of the balls is the major problem. The balls used in the domestic game move around far more than the Kookaburra and perhaps even the Dukes. And while the issues of player remuneration and the quality of balls can be solved as soon as the PCB decides to pump money into the domestic game, there won't be any real progress till the pitches are returned to their pre-2000 selves.
Until then Misbah, Younis, Waqar and the like can keep covering the cracks, and we can keep arguing about how they are the ones who are letting Pakistan cricket down.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, commentator, co-manager of the Islamabad United PSL franchise, and co-host of the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @mediagag