There’s a lot wrong with the methodology of ICC’s ranking system but sometimes they illustrate a situation perfectly. Consider Pakistan’s ODI ranking for instance.
Sixteen points separate England at the top from Australia in fifth, which is followed by a 15-point gap to Pakistan in sixth. And yet Pakistan are still four points clear of Bangladesh in seventh and 17 clear of Sri Lanka and the West Indies below them. Pakistan – and to an extent Bangladesh – are the middle class of the international game: big/populous enough to not fall completely by the wayside, but systematically too inefficient to compete with the 'Big Three' and the machines of South Africa and New Zealand. And like with all middle classes Pakistan are torn between an insufficient ambition to reach the elite and the constant fear of dropping down and joining the proletariat of the cricket world.
Pakistan have lived up to their ranking too. Since beating four higher-ranked teams on the trot to win the 2017 Champions Trophy, Pakistan have settled on mediocrity: taking advantage of those below them, and bowing down to those above. Against the five teams ranked higher than them since the Champions Trophy triumph Pakistan have lost 20 of their last 25 ODIs with the completion of the bilateral series against England. Against teams ranked lower than them they’ve won 12 of 13 ODIs in that same time period.
This isn’t new either. Since 2001, against the five highest-ranked teams, Pakistan have had only two years in the last 17 where they won more matches than they lost. That’s 17 years of being satisfied as being middle class; 17 years of being stuck in the same place; 17 years of changing faces and personnel but not the overall fortunes. There is a generation who has only ever seen a mediocre Pakistani ODI side. By comparison, since the start of this decade, Pakistan’s record against teams that are currently ranked below them reads: 67 wins, 24 losses – a better record than what three of the top five (Australia, New Zealand or England). Simply put, Pakistan in ODI cricket are elite against mediocrity and mediocre against the elites.
While ex-players harp on about a question of mentality, it’s obvious that that isn’t the problem. Just in this decade, Pakistan saw the ‘MisYou’ era in the longest format, and a T20 side that may be (statistically at least) the greatest bilateral team in the format’s short history (although there will always be questions over them until they perform in a World T20).
In two out of three formats they’ve shown that they can compete with, and often conquer, the very best; but in the third, it’s been nearly two decades of being stuck in the mid-table. It quite obviously isn’t a question of mentality – if it was then Pakistan would be as out of their depth against the elite in the other two formats as they are in the 50-over game.
In reality, it’s a question of skill. Over the past quarter century, the one day game has shifted inexorably in favour of batsmen, while the other two formats, even now, are determined by the strength of the bowling units. Pakistan forever producing (and often wasting) bowlers as they fall from trees, and in search of quality batsmen like it is their Ithaca, are stuck in this cycle. In a World Cup where five of their nine matches will be against teams ranked higher than them Pakistan’s fortunes don’t look too bright.
And yet there is still optimism.
It is an optimism a realist might consider delusional, where it’s not for the evidence at hand. Over the past decade Pakistan have never really flirted with even the number 3 in the ICC rankings, and yet have played in the semi-finals of three of the last five ICC ODI events. Add that to the 2015 World Cup and it would be fair to say that Pakistan have over-achieved in all but one (2013 Champions Trophy) of these tournaments since the 2007 World Cup. For those old enough to remember the decade prior this is a state of being that has still not sunk in. After all, prior to the 2009 Champions Trophy Pakistan had gone to one ICC tournament semi-final in five.
From the aging wonder-team of 2003 to the revived team of 2007 what Pakistanis had grown to expect was high expectations followed by failure at the highest stage. Nobody better illustrates that then the three men who defined the first decade of this millennium: Inzamam-ul-Haq averaged 23.9 in the five World Cups he played; Mohammad Yousuf averaged 32.1 in the three World Cups that he played, and Shoaib Akhtar missed over half the matches Pakistan played in the six ICC tournaments between the 1999 and 2011 World Cups.
Pakistan’s ICC ODI Ranking vs their finishes in ICC 50-over events
It’s not mere coincidence that Pakistan’s tournament fortunes have turned around as they have. Removed from the familiarity of conditions or homogenous pitches that populate the world of bilateral series, Pakistan emerge as surprise candidates in every tournament. Each team ends up having just one (at most two) looks at their team – a team that succeeds due to its unfamiliarity. And that unfamiliarity leads to Pakistani bowlers shining.
The real reason behind Pakistan’s tournament successes over the past decade has to do with one or two bowlers stepping up far beyond what their career numbers would suggest: Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Amir in 2009, Shahid Afridi and Umar Gul in 2011, Wahab Riaz and Mohammad Irfan in 2015, and Junaid Khan and Hasan Ali in 2017. (It is often forgotten that prior to the final in 2017 Amir had taken only two wickets in three matches in the tournament. By comparison, Junaid and Hasan finished with 21 combined wickets in 5 matches – finishing as two of the three highest wicket-takers in the tournament). So, all Pakistan need is a couple of their bowlers to turn world class for a month, and Pakistan can overachieve once again.
But a look at Pakistan’s fast bowling resources evaporates much of that belief. While Hasan Ali has continued to shine, not much else has gone right for Pakistan since the victory at the Oval. Amir’s numbers over the past two years are worthy of memes, Faheem Ashraf and Junaid have played themselves out of contention, England have done much to burst the Shaheen bubble and Hasnain Khan is well behind the ears even by Pakistani debutant standards, and Junaid Khan – who has played only 8 of Pakistan’s last 30 ODIs – quite clearly does not have the faith required from the selectors or the team management. The situation has been so dire that a campaign for Riaz – a 33-year old who has averaged over 47 in 25 ODIs since the last World Cup – gathered steam in Pakistan and came to fruition with his late selection for the World Cup. Those that argued vociferously against the idea that PSL should be used to select players for the national team are now left with pointing at Wahab’s PSL record to defend his selection. Regardless of who is there, all Pakistan need is two bowlers to stand up like they haven’t over the past two years.
Or perhaps all this is a pipe dream, a recipe for success that is quite frankly unsustainable. At some point, the batsmen ought to stand up in the most batsman-friendly format for Pakistan to overachieve. Not that anyone doubts that can happen though. Pakistan and the West Indies are perhaps the only two teams in this tournament who could both win the whole damn thing or finish bottom of the table, and neither of those scenarios would be considered unrealistic. But in both cases, the latter scenario seems far more likely than the former. Regardless of what happens in the tournament, Pakistan can at least be assured that once it is over they can finally go back to their world for mid-table mediocrity that they seem so comfortable in.
Strengths: In Babar Azam Pakistan have their best 50-over batsman since Mohammad Yousuf in his prime, but as always, their fortunes rely on their fast bowling. In the 1999 World Cup Pakistani pacers took 59 wickets, 5 more than the next best (South Africa). In the 2017 Champions Trophy, Pakistani pacers took 30 wickets, England were second with 20. It’s obvious what works for Pakistan in tournaments, especially in the English Summer.
Weaknesses: Since the 2015 World Cup Pakistan have crossed 300 only five times against the teams ranked higher than them, and have won only two of those matches. In the same time period, England, India and Australia all have a dozen or more 300+ scores against the elite. Only Bangladesh and Afghanistan among the teams in this tournament have fewer 300+ scores against the top-five, and no team has a losing record in such matches apart from Pakistan. On flat, high scoring wickets, Pakistan cannot compete with the best.
Key players: While all eyes will be on Babar to announce himself to the world, or Hasan to repeat his heroics from two years ago, neither of them are as important to Pakistan's fortunes as Fakhar Zaman. Prior to the England series, in the 12 ODIs where Fakhar had scored 50+ Pakistan's run rate was 5.97; in the 20 ODIs when he had gotten out before that first landmark Pakistan's run rate was 4.85. And unlike everyone else in the team, barring perhaps Shadab Khan, Fakhar really doesn't have any alternative to him in, or outside, the Pakistan squad.