It doesn't take much to create a ruckus in Pakistan, it seems. The latest example involved a journalist inquiring about the travails of the national T20 team and being derisively put down by Shahid Afridi
, the recipient of the question, owing to one of the stories the journalist had done about him in the recent past. Thus ensued a protest from the assembled press corps and then a media storm - to do with ethics, respect and decorum, on the relationship between those covering the games and those playing it, and the manner in which they are discussed.
Within a couple of days Afridi had received support from Waqar Younis and Misbah-ul-Haq, and the general thinking was that it was the irresponsible media that was to be blamed. Through it all, you wondered if it was a mountain or a molehill, and how the involved parties would have reacted if anyone in Pakistan were to ever do a Trapattoni
Everything was discussed but the subject of the question itself - which had more substance than any of the conversations that followed.
The year ended with Pakistan losing the T20 series to England, confirming Afridi's record as the worst
among national captains in the format.
Pakistanis have a tendency to ignore reality for the sake of seeking scapegoats: surely the answer lies in the failings of an individual rather than a systemic failure, they assure you. Thus Azhar Ali and his "weak" body language are to be blamed for the problems of the ODI team right now - even though 2015 was the 11th year in the last 14 when Pakistan failed to win more ODIs against the top eight nations than they lost (and if you were to remove the ever-compliant West Indies from the top eight then Pakistan would have had a positive win-loss record
in only one of those 14 years).
Even as T20 batting numbers have improved worldwide, Pakistan's batting has stagnated. In fact, their 2007 stats are not that dissimilar from their 2015 numbers
But it's far easier to blame the man in charge right now, for perhaps there might be a messiah who replaces him and takes the team back to the mountaintop.
The Pakistan T20 team, similarly, has gone through a transition that has been ignored in all the discussion of leadership and intangibles. The problem with Afridi's record is that he presided over that change in his first tenure, which ended with Pakistan losing seven
of the eight matches they played under him after the spot-fixing saga.
In fact, the history of Pakistan's T20I cricket can be pretty much divided into two eras either side of the summer of 2010 - perhaps the most significant in modern Pakistani cricket history. In particular, though, it's the 2010 World T20 that is its Rubicon.
Prior to that tournament Pakistan could lay claim to being the best team in the game: their overall T20 record
(22 wins and only seven losses; 13-7
against other top-eight nations) was by far the best in the world, and they would have reached the final of each of the first three World T20s were it not for Michael Hussey mistaking the ground in St Lucia
for the final scene of his biopic.
The reasons for these successes were manifold - not only did Pakistan have a generation of cricketers ready-built for the new format, they also had years of experience of playing short-format cricket, which provided them with an advantage over the rest of the field, as Rashid Latif
elaborated on this site around that time. But the major reason for their success was the bowling - led by Afridi and Umar Gul, who both found their true calling in the T20 format. And with the emergence of Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Amir, Pakistan had the rarest of things in the T20 game - a world-class bowling unit.
Of course, this being Pakistan, all this success was taken for granted, even downplayed. Commentators used the T20 triumphs as a stick with which to beat Pakistan with over their performances in the other formats: the youngsters just weren't serious enough about the longer formats, which required discipline and hard work; the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am of the T20 game was the only thing they could succeed at, and so on and so forth. This is a narrative still peddled in 2016 (the Mohammad Yousuf doctrine, if you will) even as the world has realised the fruits of the T20 game and left Pakistan behind.
From that tournament onwards, Pakistan's record speaks for itself - six more losses
than wins against other teams in the top eight, and a position in the lower mid-table, much like their status in the ODI game. They have been consistent too: with the exception of 2013 (when they had five wins, four losses against the top eight) they have failed to return with a positive record
in any of the last six years.
Again, the reasons for this aren't hard to find. Even as T20 batting numbers worldwide
have generally improved over the past decade, owing to a greater familiarity with the resources at hand, and experience of playing in T20 leagues, Pakistan's batting has stagnated. In fact, their 2007 stats (average 22.9, strike rate 125.4) are really not that dissimilar
to their 2015 numbers (average 21.2, strike rate 126.2).
The major reason for their success was the bowling - led by Afridi and Umar Gul. And with the emergence of Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Amir, Pakistan had the rarest of things in the T20 game - a world-class bowling unit
But blaming the batting for any of Pakistan's failures has never been a satisfactory solution. Pakistani batsmen just aren't supposed to succeed. The worrying change for Pakistan, one that shows the divide between the two eras, is in their bowling numbers. Until the 2010 World T20, the bowlers had an overall economy rate of only 6.61 in T20Is. Since then, that number has consistently been north of 7
. No one better encapsulates this than the captain himself, who in the years leading up to the 2010 World T20 established himself as the finest limited-overs leggie in the game (T20I average of 16.3
, economy 5.8) before losing his way in this decade (from the 2010 World T20 to December 2015 his T20I numbers were 27.6
There are signs of recovery though, for both him and the team. No longer required to play the 50-over game, Afridi's ageing body has been allowed some rest, and with it there has been the return of the drift that was the key to his success in the late noughties. He followed up being the outstanding Pakistani bowler in the England series
with a Man-of-the-Match award in the first T20 against New Zealand
- and suddenly it was 2009 again.
Given that, the emergence of Imad Wasim (finally someone capable of taking on the role Mohammad Hafeez shouldered with the ball for most of the last decade), and the return of two oft-remembered pacers, Pakistan almost seem like their team from the last decade.
But will that be enough in this new era of T20 cricket? The next three months will provide the answers.