As India romped home to another convincing win over Pakistan at Edgbaston, one wondered if we were a long time away from these sides matching up to each other again. Pakistan never really turned up on Sunday, even though the media machinery had made us believe that would not be the case.
The build-up to this match had been the usual and not. News channels and cricket experts told us that this would be the most important contest, one that would define the campaign of both teams. Some channels were so offended by the prospect of an India-Pakistan encounter that they chose not to cover it. Yet, they were aware that significant hype had been generated before the game.
In fact, an India-Pakistan clash is so special to the International Cricket Council (ICC) that it tries its best to ensure the fixture list can accommodate the matchup. It is supposed to add colour to the group stages. A match we will remember even when the tournament is long done.
The problem is that one can sell the myth for only so long. For a while now, India’s meetings with Pakistan have failed to produce a contest. The superiority of the Indian side is such that their counterparts turn up overawed. Cricketers from both teams often stress that it is a normal game but they do not seem to treat it like one. Pakistan’s coach Mickey Arthur alluded to the pre-game tension after the defeat.
“We talk about setting the tone up front. But we didn't set tone up front. We had a couple of guys who were in the clouds at the start and that sets tone. For us to have a performance as tentative as that right from the start is a worry. The only thing I can think of is the magnitude of the occasion got to them.”
Certainly, there was some of that. The players do not live in a hermetically sealed chamber. After all, the narrative which engulfs an India-Pakistan match makes one believe that it matters.
Furthermore, these matches are wound up in the social and political life of the two countries. But can it thrive when one team is so comprehensively beaten on repeated occasions?
One could point to the 8-2 figure in favour of India when it comes to ICC ODI tournaments. But it could be argued that it is not just about the result. There have been phases where Pakistan has been utterly dominant too. Moreover, one-off contests played over 25 years are not the fairest reflection of where a rivalry stands.
It is the despair that Pakistan’s performances leave you with, nowadays. It is not just a poor team but one which cannot seem to get the basics right. One could make a long list of what went wrong on Sunday but Mickey Arthur summed it perfectly.
“We were below par. It's as simple as that. And it's a reality check of where we are in our one-day cricket at the moment. The worrying thing for me — and it has been for a period of time — is we just do the basics wrong. We do the simple things wrong. We drop simple catches. We don't run well enough between wickets. We don't hit the keeper with our throws and we don't understand when to bowl our variations. We bowled a really good over and then we bowled a variation with our sixth ball and that's the ball that ended up going for a boundary. So it's the simplicity of those things that are worrying me at the moment.”
We are talking about an international side here. For a team to repeat such mistakes over a period of time means that there needs to be a sea change in the way it perceives limited overs cricket. Watching Pakistan is like watching a repeat of one-day matches from the ‘90s. Cricket has moved so much forward that the anachronism is insufferable now.
The flaws become particularly obvious when Pakistan bat. Since the 2015 World Cup, no side participating in the ongoing Champions Trophy has taken more balls (10.11) to hit a boundary against pace bowling. The problem begins at the top order for Pakistan. Three of their first four batsmen on Sunday — Ahmed Shehzad, Azhar Ali and Mohammad Hafeez — have had a sub-five scoring rate in the last two years. Contrast this with that of other sides (5.48 per over).
Too many dot balls, too few singles and rare boundaries ensure that Pakistan cannot build up pressure. While their bowling has fewer flaws, it often finds itself under the pump and error-prone because the team is aware of its limitations. After the opposition achieves a certain score, it becomes highly unlikely that Pakistan will even get close to it.
Of course, the situation is exacerbated by the country’s isolated position in international cricket. The Twenty20 revolution has largely bypassed Pakistan. While cricketers, young and old, have been progressing and learning the freshest ideas in the game, their Pakistani counterparts have been playing catch-up. It does not help that no foreign sides visit Pakistan either. This has had unintended consequences for the country’s domestic setup. Talented young players come through only sporadically.
Indeed, it must be said that Pakistan arrived in England with its best available squad. This is the best the side has to offer. No wonder then that it is the lowest ranked team in this Champions Trophy. One can now only hark back to the times when Pakistan thrived on its unpredictability; the current side is nothing but predictable.
So, what remains of the rivalry then? It can certainly be rejuvenated if India agrees to play its arch-rival in a bilateral series. Pakistan is a much better side in Tests and it could harbour genuine aspirations of winning before the retirement of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan.
Furthermore, one-off matches in locations far away, which provide a sanitised atmosphere in times of hyper-nationalism do not add any romance. They seem like a compromise with the idea of this rivalry. For India-Pakistan matches to be great again, it is not just Pakistan which has to improve. There also needs to be a will to return it to the conditions in which its aura was once burnished.