They were just feet apart from each other, KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma. They had given India a steady start, but now, off the first ball of the tenth, Rohit charged towards the non-striker's end for a second run like a man scared of missing the last bus home. He looked up and, to his horror, saw that Rahul had barely moved; he should have been out of Rohit's line of sight by then.

But Rohit wasn't the only man not to have lifted his head up. Fakhar Zaman, charging in from deep midwicket, was similarly oblivious to the bedlam 30 metres away. As the Pakistan fans' eyes bulged in anticipation, awaiting Fakhar's lob to Sarfaraz Ahmed, the wicketkeeper, they watched on as he threw the ball to Wahab Riaz at the bowler's end. The moment was lost, Rohit scrambled back. He was on 32 then; he would add a further 108. Pakistan would lose by 89 runs.

Against Australia, it was Asif Ali's dropped catches that cost Pakistan dear, one in the slips (where he should never have been if Pakistan had their selection right) and one at third man, one for each opener. Aaron Finch and David Warner would go on to put together a partnership of 146. Pakistan would lose by 41 runs.

Pakistan had ninety-nine problems coming into this World Cup, but the fielding wasn't supposed to be one.


Pakistan had just finished playing a series in Zimbabwe, and thumped the hosts 5-0. Fakhar scored a double-century, Imam-ul-Haq got three hundreds in five games, and there wasn't a competitive contest in sight. One year on from the Champions Trophy and one year out from the World Cup, the side finally possessed a settled top three, with Babar Azam following the openers. They had preceded the clean sweep with a T20 tri-series win, beating Australia in the final. Earlier that year, an away series victory in New Zealand saw them rise to the top of the T20I rankings. Previously, a home whitewash of Sri Lanka had extended an ODI win streak to nine games.

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It all looked hunky dory, but watching from his home in Australia, Steve Rixon was a worried man.

A few weeks before Pakistan left for Zimbabwe, it was announced that the PCB and Rixon, who had served as Pakistan's fielding coach for the preceding 15 months, were parting ways. It was a surprise, not least because his spell had seen Pakistan overhaul their approach to fielding, upgrading its importance from an inconvenient necessity to a weapon to win cricket matches. According to ESPNcricinfo's records, in the two years prior when Grant Luden was fielding coach, Pakistan took 77.4% of their outfield catches; in Rixon's time, that shot up to 85%, better than what Australia or South Africa could boast of during the period.

The reason for the separation, it emerged, was financial and contractual; Rixon said he was never paid on time and had become disillusioned with the PCB vacillating on whether to offer him a new deal, which he perceived as an insult. Despite all that, he had been following Pakistan's progress, and he didn't like what he saw.

"I watched Pakistan in Zimbabwe and Australia, and while some good things happened, there was also some laziness in the field which I don't take too kindly to," he told ESPNcricinfo last year. "The difference is I don't have a problem telling a senior player or a junior player the same thing. I'm not there to pump up everybody's ego, I'm just there to get the job done. When they don't have a similar sort of coach, they do tend to fall off the pedal a little bit and start to go into cruise mode, and that worries me more than anything else about the Pakistan boys.

In terms of why the fielding's dropped off, it's something I scratch my head with every day to try and work out

"They need to be pushed. They got to understand these standards come with hard work, not just turning up and hoping it works out. In short, if you've prepared well, you can trust your preparation and go in there trusting you'll do it well. If you've prepared badly, you turn up hoping you'll go well. And I would hate to go into a World Cup hoping to be the fielding side I know they can be."

Pakistan's fielding levels dropped immediately after Rixon left, the catching rate dipping to pre-Rixon levels in Zimbabwe, and at one stage during the Asia Cup that followed, collapsed to 30%. In the overall period post-Rixon, the catching rate - excluding the wicketkeeper - is 71%, meaning it has plateaued at a level well below the one before Rixon got involved.

According to ESPNcricinfo's Statsguru, following Rixon's ouster, there have been 227 deliveries across formats where there has been a lapse on the field, resulting in 366 extra runs conceded, comfortably the highest, or worst, on both metrics. Across four completed games at the World Cup now, 25 balls produced fielding misadventures, and have yielded 47 extra runs to the opposition. Only Afghanistan, Bangladesh and South Africa have been worse. They have put down seven catches, second worst among the ten teams (England have put down eight). Pakistan's fielding hasn't just "slipped back into old ways", as Rixon said, it has become significantly poorer.

What is harder to pin down is why that happened. Head coach Mickey Arthur admitted that it was a head-scratcher, but was adamant that there had been no let-up in the standards that applied during Rixon's time.

"The guys still do exactly the same amount of work," he told ESPNcricinfo. "We put exactly the same importance on it. They train as hard as they've ever done, but it just hasn't clicked. Fielding's attitude, fielding's energy; everything we've done preparation-wise and there's absolutely no compromise on it.

"In terms of why the fielding's dropped off, it's something I scratch my head with every day to try and work out. The commitment of the boys is still outstanding. The boys are working 100%. We have not prepped better, ever, for what's come up over the last six months."

Rixon's replacement Grant Bradburn - the coaching staff initially wanted Darren Berry, before that move fell through for reasons never quite made clear - had a template to follow, but to build on the stellar body of work Rixon had left behind was always going to be difficult. It's important to remember while Rixon may have officially only been fielding coach, his experience in the game extended to other areas.

In his time with the Australian national side, he was spin bowling coach, assistant coach, and fielding coach at varying times, and even stood in for Darren Lehmann as head coach for an ODI series against India in 2013. As fielding coach with Pakistan, he spoke earnestly of the importance of a fielding coach needing to understand the mindset and skillset of his bowlers and the right communication between the bowler and his fielders. Rixon was, crucially, disappointed when the PCB failed to bring Berry in, calling him "a hard-nosed guy like me who would have done a very good job".

Arthur, however, maintained he was fully behind Bradburn, saying he had helped the New Zealander settle into the same template that had been successful in the past. "I led him into almost following exactly the same template," Arthur said. "Yes, he's come up with his own drills, and that has been very good. But, by and large, the amount of time he's given to every training session, the amount of one on one he does with the players, is almost exactly the same.

"It's never going to be an easy ride, but I continue to push the guys and drive the guys to get the best out of them. I'll never make any apologies for that, because I know if the guys aren't pushed and aren't driven to be the best they can be, we're going to go back to exactly what we had, and that's mediocrity. And I'll never have mediocrity under my watch."

It's tempting to draw a straight, inevitable line from Rixon's departure to the fall in standards, but it didn't quite appear that way at the backend of 2018. Following the Asia Cup, Pakistan played home series against Australia and New Zealand, with the T20I leg of the Australia series memorable for the spectacular ruthlessness Pakistan showcased in the field.

Fakhar, who against India couldn't quite make up his mind whether to throw to the end with two batsmen within hand-shaking distance or the one with none, effected perhaps the best run out of 2018, diving forward while flicking the ball backwards without looking at the stumps and hitting middle to run Ben McDermott out. Shoaib Malik, who couldn't find it in him to bend his knees enough to stop a routine ball at mid-off against Australia, was haring 30 yards at the boundary, completing such sprightly diving catches you chided yourself for doubting the authenticity of Pakistan cricketers' birth certificates. Fielding had become part of this side's identity, whether or not Rixon was present in the dressing room.

Cut to the present, and Rohit was back in his crease, while Warner and Finch were back at theirs taking guard once more. Pakistan were back to making the old mistakes that a flickering new dawn had promised to extinguish for good, while at home, the critics are back to sharpening their knives, looking to stick them into the fresh wounds this World Cup looks set to inflict. The thought that once Pakistan are back home they may also be back to square one is getting harder to repel.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000