Two weeks after Pakistan declared that their season to build up for the World cup began, they were in crisis. And for the handful of fans with long memories, it was déjà vu all over again.
The last World Cup that Pakistan had an adequate build-up for was in the last century. Every World Cup cycle since the turn of the millennium has followed the same pattern: for three years Pakistan are in transition trying to build up a team that can do what Imran Khan’s cornered tigers did, and right when they are about to get it all right they have a year from hell and are running around trying to salvage what they can from a botched “preparation”.
The 2003 World Cup was supposed to be the swansong of the 90s generation. When Pakistan beat the world champions Australia in an off-season series in June 2002 it had appeared as if after a decade of infighting and inconsistency they were finally going to repeat the heroics of 1992. Over the following seven months though, the wheels came off the bandwagon. Pakistan failed to reach the final of a tri-series in Morocco winning just one of their three matches; they followed that up with being repeatedly humiliated by Australia in Kenya, then failed to reach the semi-final of the ICC Knockouts (later renamed the Champions Trophy) and lost 4-1 in South Africa. By the time the World Cup came around players were calling for the removal of Waqar Younis as captain, a proposal that was rebuffed by the PCB. Pakistan failed to get out off their group in the World Cup, and the most talented generation in Pakistan’s history faded away.
Over the next three years Pakistan rebuilt their team. They had a win-loss ratio in excess of 1.50, including series wins in India, Sri Lanka and West Indies, while winning over 60% of their matches in Pakistan. Then they toured England. Not only were they beaten on that tour but the pillars of their team fell away too. The captain Inzamam-ul-Haq was banned from the 2006 Champions Trophy (where they finished bottom of their group), and by the year’s end they had lost both Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif to drug bans. By the time the 2007 World Cup came around they hadn’t won an ODI series in 11 months and were devoid of all three pacers from their first-line bowling unit. Even with all those caveats, it’s fair to say their performance in that World Cup was an under-achievement.
The next two years were full of uncertainty – most of their bench strength was lost to the ICL, captains came and went with the regularity that they had in the mid-90s and home cricket was slowly becoming a rarity. Victory in the 2009 World T20 and the emergence of Mohammad Amir and the returns of Mohammad Asif and Abdul Razzaq meant that Pakistani fans could build their hopes up again. Then the summer of 2010, and Pakistan went into the World Cup with Umar Gul being partnered by an over-the-hill Shoaib Akhtar, Wahab Riaz and a suddenly-declining Abdul Razzaq. Reaching the semi-final was an overachievement, but the mind still thought of the what-ifs.
So, they rebuilt again. With most of their fast bowlers that constituted their pace strength retired or banned, Pakistan became an elite spin bowling machine. Pakistan had the third best win-loss ratio in the three years following the 2011 World Cup despite being second only to Zimbabwe in terms of lowest batting run rates. They managed to do that because Saeed Ajmal was the leading ODI wicket-taker in that period, Mohammad Hafeez had the best economy rate in the world and Junaid Khan was second only to Lasith Malinga in the pace bowling charts. By the time the World Cup came around none of those three were available for selection.
And so, we arrive at this era. After two mediocre years under Azhar Ali, the appointment of Sarfraz Ahmed turned Pakistan’s fortunes around. Much like the 2009 World T20, the 2017 Champions Trophy became a template for how Pakistan could go forward into the World Cup. At least that was the plan.
One loss to India in a dead rubber game and Pakistan abandoned their philosophy. The team management openly questioned certain players and some members of the squad complained about double standards. Pakistan who had reinvigorated their 50-over cricket around a strong and threatening bowling unit suddenly started to ignore that to beef up their batting, they're losing their soul in the process. Perhaps the Asia Cup can be a warning to Pakistan, against complacency and moving away from what’s made them tick. But for four World Cup cycles in a row Pakistan have panicked in the lead up to the ICC’s biggest event; with each failure their desperation grows stronger. With nine months left to the tournament there’s a lot of time for a lot of things to go wrong. And as the past fortnight has shown Pakistan and its countrymen aren’t built to deal calmly with that.
Pakistan still have 13 ODIs left before the World Cup,and that’s the good news. The bad news is that all of those are against New Zealand, Australia and England. Thus, Pakistan will know where they stand by the time the World Cup comes around. Based on how they handled the Asia Cup, it might be time to prepare for the traditional Pakistani lead up to the World Cup.