Pakistan went into their game against the West Indies, near the start of the World Cup, having lost 10 of their previous 12 ODIs. After all those losses to supposedly better teams, this match was seen as a chance for Pakistan – against a team of similar quality – to turn their fortunes around. A quarter of the way into their innings the match was over – the Pakistani batsmen had completely failed to deal with the West Indies pace attack, and had thus been blown out of the game. That was 2015, though. A different time. Pakistan would surely learn from that.
Not only that, Pakistan entered their opening match against the West Indies, having won only two of their previous 10 ODIs outside of Pakistan. After that rut against supposedly better teams, this match was seen as a chance for Pakistan to start their World Cup on a better note. Halfway through their innings, Pakistan were pretty much out of the game. That was 2007, though. And surely it will never get as bad as it did then.
Pakistan came into the World Cup having lost seven of their previous nine ODIs outside of Pakistan, but now they had their hopes up. But they couldn’t deal with the pace of the West Indian bowling unit, and set up too small a score for their bowlers to defend. That was 1983 though, and the golden era was still to come.
Pakistanis are fond of referencing the 1992 World Cup (where, you’ll no doubt hear, Pakistan also lost their first game of the tournament to the West Indies), yet the World Cup domination by the West Indies is nothing new. Friday in Nottingham was the West Indies’ eighth win in 11 World Cup matches against Pakistan. In the last century, Pakistan could at least point to the difference in quality between the two sides, but three losses in four during what is seen as the nadir of the team from the Caribbean ought to make Pakistan ponder. And perhaps there are now enough instances for Pakistan to look back and learn from.
The obvious one is the latest one. That loss in Christchurch in 2015. When Fakhar Zaman drove Jason Holder’s first ball down the ground on Friday, this innings was already a vast improvement on 2015. After all, they were now 4-without-loss, compared to being 1 run for the loss of 4 wickets as was the case four years ago. That’s the sort of double-take scorecard that Pakistan specialise in: the sort of numbers that if you were to see them without context (say, if the electricity had just returned to your house and you turned the TV on without knowing Pakistan's score). From 1-for-4 in 2015 to 83-for-9 (on, statistically, the most batting friendly pitch in the world no less) in 2019, the score that makes the fan go “wait, what!?” is still in Pakistan’s repertoire.
Yet that 2015 game, like on Friday, was one Pakistan had lost long before they came out to bat. Back then, Pakistan – afraid of the quality of their batting reserves – had decided that they would go in with just four bowlers; Sohaib Maqsood and Haris Sohail would combine to bowl the fifth bowlers’ quota. By the time they were introduced to bowl, the West Indies were going at under 4.3 an over. Over the course of their spells, Pakistan would lose whatever momentum they had, and end up having to chase down 300-plus.
By the end of that day Misbah-ul-Haq, who would later admit to that team selection as a mistake, had realised the error of his ways; he concluded that conservatism wasn’t the way to go, that if Pakistan were going to go down, they were going to go down on their own terms – backing their strengths. From the following game onwards Pakistan would play with five frontline bowlers, even if it meant a tail that began at No 8 and was buttressed only by the capricious stylings of Shahid Afridi. Pakistan would go on to win their next four games, before falling short against the eventual champions Australia, after giving them a scare or two. And these successes were built on that five-pronged attack – even when Mohammad Irfan went down with injury they went in with Ehsan Adil in the team rather than trying to change the balance.
It was a similar case in 1992. Pakistan began that tournament with the 33-year old Iqbal Sikandar in the playing XI instead of the 21-year-old Mushtaq Ahmed as the wrist spinner in the side. One game in Pakistan realised that conservatism doesn’t pay. Mushtaq would go on to play all the remaining games of the tournament, and end it as the second highest wicket-taker (only behind Wasim Akram).
Those were the instances I was thinking about in the lead up to Friday’s game. Pakistan had decided to drop Shaheen Afridi, the man who has been their best bowler over the past twelve months, because the trio of Amir, Wahab and Hassan had the requisite experience for the World Cup. When pushed against the wall, when put under pressure, the cornered tigers were resorting to conservatism.
Furthermore, if reports are to be believed, the Pakistan team management had to choose between Asif Ali and Imad Wasim as their No 7 – Pakistan would either go in with just four frontline bowlers, or with a batting unit that has no oomph in it beyond Fakhar Zaman. Haris Sohail was guaranteed to play apparently, even though he was originally seen as the backup to Mohammad Hafeez. But he was the safe, stable choice. He was the conservative choice. And thus Pakistan, a team built on conservative choices, ended up with the result that conservative choices tend to lead to.