Hassan Cheema

Why Pakistan cricket is stagnating

Looking at their "home" record brings to light a number of reasons why their one-day game, particularly, is leagues behind that of other teams

Hassan Cheema
Hassan Cheema
Sharjeel Khan is one of only two Pakistan batsmen in the 444 ODI with a strike rate of over 125, which raises the question of how effective Pakistan's batting would be if they adopted all-out attack as standard operating mode  •  Getty Images

Sharjeel Khan is one of only two Pakistan batsmen in the 444 ODI with a strike rate of over 125, which raises the question of how effective Pakistan's batting would be if they adopted all-out attack as standard operating mode  •  Getty Images

It doesn't take much to set off a Pakistani fan. The recent movements on the Test-rankings table have provided plenty of fodder for discourse, to say the least. The irony of it is that in trying to discredit others, Pakistanis often fall back upon the same tropes that have been used against them, talking about discrepancies between teams' home and away records, and the quality of opposition faced.
Yet for those within the dressing room, that equivalence is considered false, particularly the notion that Pakistan playing in the UAE is like any other team playing at home. According to one Pakistani player, you can consider it the same the day a Pakistani team gets the crowd and control over the pitches that other Asian nations do. According to another, you can consider it truly Pakistan's home the day another team can't put out their best XI for a home Test because of visa issues. There have even, finally, been some public utterances about the difficulty of being nomads.
But if Pakistan really want to prove their point, all they have to do is point towards their "home" ODI record. Of course that's not exactly likely to happen since many of those complaining were responsible for that record.
If you leave out the current series against West Indies, since moving to the Emirates in 2009, Pakistan have played 12 bilateral ODI series there (against nations from among the top nine), winning three. Outside of the Emirates the record reads: won seven, lost ten. The most obvious divergence was under Misbah-ul-Haq, when Pakistan won just two of their seven "home" series and four of the eight series away from home against teams in the top nine, including historic wins in India and South Africa. While the rest of the world uses home ODIs to induct new players and pad up their records, Pakistanis have struggled to even compete in them.
In a way, the recently concluded series against West Indies was a window into an alternative world, where Pakistan are like any other team in the world, stronger at home. Of course, if the ICC rankings did weigh home and away results differently from each other, as they ought to, maybe Pakistan wouldn't be struggling to qualify for the World Cup right now.
The reasons for Pakistan's record are pretty obvious. Their wins were led by their bowling attack. From the 2011 World Cup through the 2015 one, no team had a better economy rate than Pakistan, and their collective bowling average was in the top tier too. This was due to the efforts of Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Hafeez, and to a lesser extent Shahid Afridi. But spin wasn't the only reason for it. In 2013, when Pakistan played more ODIs outside Asia than they did in it, both Junaid Khan and Mohammad Irfan averaged under 23 with the ball. (Note: all these stats are against the top nine ODI nations only.)
But now, devoid of pace bowlers of that level (the occasional Wahab Riaz or Mohammad Amir spell aside), bereft of the spin trio, and without Misbah to handle it all, Pakistan's bowling has fallen off a cliff. Whatever they have gained on the batting front has failed to compensate for their bowling deficiencies.
The ODI game in general has, over the past decade and a bit, gone from treating bowlers as equal citizens to considering them glorified bowling machines. And it is here that Pakistan won't be able to catch up, regardless of whether Babar Azam becomes the most complete batsman Pakistan have had in 20 years or whether Umar Akmal reaches his destiny.
The reductionist viewpoint would blame it on individuals or selection matters, because trying to scratch the surface requires too much effort. The most common prescription heard is that Pakistan's batting needs to attack relentlessly, like other teams' batting line-ups do. This, of course, is followed by a smug look from the deliverer of that insight, as if no one else had thought of it before. In response to this wisdom, all one has to do is point to a simple stat: in the third ODI in England, the one with more broken records than a vintage vinyl shop, each of the English top eight had T20 strike rates in excess of 125, while only two of the Pakistanis (Sharjeel Khan and Sarfraz Ahmed) did by contrast. So even if Pakistan attack relentlessly, will it change much?
In the last two years of the Royal London One Day Cup, over 13% of all completed matches had first-innings scores in excess of 325. In the premier 50-overs competition in Australia last season, that number was 13% as well. In Pakistan's national one-day competition in 2015-16 it was under 6%.
If the ICC rankings weighed home and away results differently from each other, as they ought to, maybe Pakistan wouldn't be struggling to qualify for the World Cup right now.
Pakistan are stuck in an era the world has moved on from. Without any scrutiny, thanks to the absence of international cricket at home, cricket in Pakistan has been damaged on a level that is evident only now. And that really is the true cost of Pakistan's exile. The ecosystem of cricket - and this includes everything from the sponsors the board attracts to the understanding of the game among the cricket-following fraternity - has stagnated as cricket has been outsourced. (That's why former commentators take offence to the standard of local broadcasting being compared to the 1980s, saying, "It was so much better than this in the '80s.") Nowhere is this more obvious than in the tools the players use.
Much has been made in recent months of modern bats, but it's a discussion Pakistanis can't even participate in. In a TV show last year Saqlain Mushtaq spoke of how the finances available to Pakistani cricketers do not even suffice for them to have the diet and nutrition that athletes needs, let alone extend to enabling them to buy the equipment they require. Current Pakistani players tell of using bats made in England or India and then realising they have to change their games - because it's the first time they can actually time the ball for boundaries, thanks to these bats, rather than having to thrash at everything. One player said he had to learn the art of batting afresh this year just because he finally has bats similar (but not the same, it is pointed out) to those used by players from the richer boards. Long gone are the days when Sachin Tendulkar would ask Wasim Akram for bats from Sialkot.
And when asked how many players from outside the national team use such bats, the answer is: never more than a handful. Big bats are just not available to Pakistanis, and even if they were, they would struggle to afford them. And then we wonder where all the big hitters went.
There is a living embodiment of the stagnation of Pakistan cricket. Located at one end of the Gaddafi Stadium are the offices of the PCB; at the other end is a stand that has been under construction since 2008. Or to put it another way, since construction on that stand began, Rio de Janeiro bid for the Olympic Games, won the bid, invested close to US$30 billion in infrastructure and stadiums, dealt with the public fallout from that spending, had multiple changes in government, hosted the Games and the Paralympics, and now doesn't know what to do with its white elephants. In all that time, construction on that stand at the Gaddafi Stadium has still not been completed. And this, you have to remember, is in the city and the stadium seen by the rest of Pakistan as the one that is given preferential treatment.
The base salary of a player in Pakistan's national team is barely a third of what their New Zealand or Sri Lankan counterparts earn, let alone what the Big Three offer. And that base salary in turn is extravagant compared to what Pakistani domestic players earn.
Thus the achievements of Pakistan, particularly the Test team, need to be seen in another light. Maybe comparing them to Leicester would be unfair on both parties, but there is some equivalence to be drawn with Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid - another team with far fewer resources and much less talent than their rivals; one that momentarily reached the top before that was taken away from them by those with far deeper pockets.
But even Atletico had the Calderon. Even they were no nomads.

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