The ‘bloodbath’ which ensues after inexplicable losses for the Pakistan cricket team is not one for the weak-hearted. However, it does stand to reason that the many admirers of Pakistan cricket who will gladly place their heroes on pedestals after victories, will also be justified in their disappointment when their team returns home with nothing to show for in terms of wins.
Thus, Pakistan’s disappointing showing in the five-match ODI series against New Zealand, where they failed to win even one game is a shock for many who rightly had high hopes for this tour.
To understand the reasons for this disappointment, one simply needs to look at the progress of the ODI side during and after the Champions Trophy in 2017. Not many experts had given Pakistan any chances of progressing past the initial stages of the tournament last summer in England, but Sarfaraz Ahmed and his men defied the odds to lift the trophy on 18th June, 2017.
A grateful nation duly elevated the team members to demi-god status with gifts ranging from cars to plots of land being showered on the players with the expectations that the sky was truly the limit for Pakistan’s ODI team. Television appearances, politicians raving about the players were the order of the day. The honeymoon period thus began with the win in the Champions Trophy final and seemed to be taking the ODI team to newer heights.
Taking into account the four successive wins during the Champions Trophy and the subsequent 5-0 whitewash against Sri Lanka in the UAE, the Pakistan ODI side won nine consecutive matches which to many was a sure sign that the team was on its way to future greatness.
Whilst the euphoria surrounding this magical run of victories from players, PCB officials and fans was almost understandable, those who could take off their rose-tinted glasses were well aware of the gravity of the challenges that lay ahead for the team.
For a start, it was a well-known fact that Pakistan’s win record in New Zealand in the shorter format of the game was rated abysmal to put it mildly. The need, therefore, was to send in a team that had the courage, skills and the right level of preparation to succeed on pitches which offered bounce and movement, the exact opposite of what batsmen from the subcontinent were used to.
Whilst Pakistan’s top batsmen practicing for playing bounce using a marble slab brought back loving memories of yesteryear, those in the PCB with an iota of sense would have known that there was no substitute for preparing for this tour apart from arriving a few weeks earlier in New Zealand to get a measure of the local conditions. A few more warm-up games could have given the more inexperienced batsmen a chance to adjust with some real match practice, which could have proven invaluable in the ODI series but sadly that was not to be.
The problem there was that the Pakistan players, for financial reasons, were busy playing Twenty20 leagues and in some cases, a T10 tournament instead of working on their skills for the 50-over format. In fact, in the case of Mohammad Amir, who was supposedly Pakistan’s strike bowler, there was little or no preparation for this tour where the last four games he played before arriving in New Zealand were of the T10 variety. His haul of just two wickets in four ODI games as Pakistan's spearhead on a tour where the bowling was to carry the bulk of the load and for a team that has traditionally relied on its bowling fire-power for success speaks volumes about how Pakistan went about preparing for this tour.
Sarfaraz Ahmed had been lauded for his leadership which lead to his side's victory in the Champions Trophy. It was said that his aggressive attitude and ability to act as a hard task-master was exactly the sort of management a Pakistan side needed. Of course, for this style of leadership to succeed, Sarfaraz Ahmed would have to lead from the front with performances with the bat and behind the stumps. Sadly for Pakistan, their captain could not back-up his verbal aggression towards his fielders with runs or catches where he ended up with just 79 runs in five matches and more importantly dropped a crucial catch off Kane Williamson in the first ODI which more than likely cost his side the game.
The selection of Azhar Ali who many feel does not fit in with the modern style of ODI cricket where preserving wickets in the first 10-overs at the cost of low scoring rates is not an option, was a strange one. One of the younger, more aggressive batsmen that Pakistan domestic cricket could offer would have been a perfect partner for Fakhar Zaman and could well have made a difference in the final scoreline. As would have some better performances by senior players like Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik. But perhaps the biggest let-down for Pakistan was the absence of any impact by the highly talented Babar Azam who ended up with just 31 runs to his name from five games at an abysmal average of 6.2. With the Pakistan top-order failing more often than not during this series, it was left to the lower order, consisting of the likes of Shadab Khan, Faheem Ashraf and Hasan Ali to put some semblance of respect in the Pakistan scorecard. In real terms, it often appeared that Pakistan's real batting line-up started from No 7.
If there is a silver-lining to the disastrous 5-0 defeat in New Zealand, it will have come from the performance of the less experienced players like Haris Sohail who had two fine fifties in the two games that he played or from the manner of fearless cricket which was demonstrated by the batting of Aamer Yamin and Mohammad Nawaz. Shadab Khan again proved his credentials as a genuine all-rounder and Faheem Ashraf showed signs that he is more than capable of holding his own in international cricket.
Looking ahead, if Pakistan are to have a real chance of making an impact in the 2019 World Cup in England, these youngsters and a few more young top-performers from the domestic level will need to be inducted in the team without too much delay.
All said and done, Pakistan were truly outplayed by a side which under the leadership of Kane Williamson are masters of their home conditions. In addition, it is clear that Pakistan were simply outclassed and out-thought by their opposition. Mickey Arthur and Sarfaraz Ahmed must take the blame for some basic tactical mistakes, accompanied by some very strange team selections. Whilst the top-order performances were embarrassing to say the least and a few bowlers totally out of touch, the fact remains that the Pakistan management will now need to think carefully about the team structure and make some difficult and unpopular decisions, or risk more humiliation in series to come.