One of the unfortunate realities of growing up is that at a certain stage in life, people start re-evaluating friendships and relationships they have nurtured over a lifetime. It takes perhaps a succession of endured disappointments or heartbreaks for the flame of unconditional loyalty to get extinguished. For a lot of Pakistani cricket fans, we are at the crossroads of our relationship with ODI cricket.
How did we get here then? How is it that a team, once the darlings of modern cricket now resemble the sad, ailing grandparents of a new generation? It would be pertinent perhaps to retrace our steps.
Drawing from a Back to the Future reference, somewhere in the space time continuum of cricket, the timeline skewed into a tangent, creating this alternate reality. Putting our Doc Brown glasses on, it is conceivable that year for Pakistan cricket was 1999. We were an ODI team at the peak of its powers, gifted with quality all-rounders, aggressive batsmen, wily spinners, spunky wicket-keepers and pace bowlers with both extreme pace and nous. And then something terrible happened. On a sleepy London afternoon, a Pakistani team abjectly relinquished its claim to the throne. A World Cup final was lost, but more importantly a swagger was surrendered.
Since 1999, much like Doc Brown and Marty McFly, we have since witnessed the cricketing world alter radically around us, with the new world order now real to everyone else, but abnormal for us. The last 18 years of the ODI game have seen thicker bats, smaller boundaries, lesser reverse swing, bulkier batsmen, more power play restrictions, and often outrageous stroke-play. In a tragic sort of way, a lot of the modern rules have conspired against the style of cricket Pakistan was so adept at playing in the 1990s, leaving it a mere shadow of the fun-filled, aggressive team it once used to be.
To continue to explore Pakistan’s unfortunate version of Back to the Future, the role of the villain Biff Tannen would have to be played by the Indian cricket team. Sometime between 1999 and 2003, when Pakistan lost its ODI mojo, India discovered fire in cricketers like Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan and Virender Sehwag. Barring a blip in 2007 where our fates were shared, India has made a semi-final, a final and won a World Cup. They have shed the conservatism of the 1990s and embraced the modern game. They even hold the current Champions trophy title, a trophy won on the back of attacking bowling and solid batting.
This brings us to the upcoming Champions trophy encounter between Pakistan and India on 4 June, a mismatch now so depressingly stark, it almost feels like the 1990s but with the boot decisively on the other foot. Just the sheer disparity in rankings promises a damp squib; India are number 3 in the world, Pakistan a miserable number 8. Pakistan are stuck playing a brand of cricket that will get them 250 runs on a good day, India are currently making 290 runs on a bad day. Pakistan’s batting order is depressing enough to suck the life out of even the most optimistic cricket fan; Ahmed Shehzad, Mohammad Hafeez and Azhar Ali are the very anti-thesis to a modern batsman. It is almost as if Pakistan cricket is stubbornly fighting a lone cause for old-fashioned cricket. This is perhaps the only logical explanation for building a top-order around three batsmen, who carry strike rates of 72, 75 and 75 respectively.
Putting aside the wizened pessimist in me, my only glimmer of hope from our batting is provided by Babar Azam, Shoaib Malik and Sarfraz Ahmed, three cricketers who in the very least have a lower dot-ball percentage and a greater degree of consistency than their companions. It is inexplicable why Safraz Ahmed refuses to bat in the top order that cries out for his style of aggression. It was only two years ago during the 2015 World Cup, when many of us were baying for Waqar Younis’s blood after he so stubbornly refused to bat Safraz at the top of the order and continued experimenting with the disastrous Nasir Jamshed. When Sarfraz was finally inducted into the opening slot, he responded with match winning knocks of 49 and 101. Logic though does not seem to prevail in Pakistan cricket. Even as captain, Sarfraz continues to hide at number 6, where his lack of big hitting ability has been exposed. Most disappointingly perhaps, it has also revealed a lack of the courage and initiative that Pakistani cricket so desperately needed from Sarfraz.
It is in bowling as usual that Pakistan will place most of its hopes. The fast improving Hasan Ali has emerged as a real wicket-taker in the bowling lineup. Mohammad Amir has been solid, albeit unspectacular, since his return to ODI cricket. Imad Wasim’s accuracy will be challenged by an Indian batting lineup that can feast on his style of non-spinning darts. If selected, the irresistible Shadab Khan will be the real wild card in this bowling lineup. His performances in the ODIs and Test matches in the Caribbean showed that he still has some learning to do in the longer formats of the game. His undeniable talent though, provides a rare reason to continue sitting through the mundane extremes of our ODI cricket.
Pakistan’s real challenge in ODI bowling has been that in the absence of reverse swing, its fast bowlers are rendered completely ineffective, especially during the death overs. As was seen during the Australia tour, even if Junaid Khan and Amir picked up early wickets, Australia’s long batting lineups were still able to effectively counter-attack during the later stages of the innings. It does not help that the Pakistani attack is returning to the country of its biggest-ever meltdown — conceding 444 in an ODI innings to England.
So on 4 June, we approach the game with a sense of foreboding and depressing inevitability. The optimism and swagger of the 1990s has faded. It seems into a different lifetime. There are few logical reasons for us to expect anything other than a resounding thrashing and a continued walk along this path of indifference. It is time perhaps for the space time continuum to explode one more time, taking us away from this alternate reality and back to the comforts of a glorious past.