Vantage point

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Pakistan Cricket

I have always been a fan of the Pakistan team. According to me, they are one of the few teams who play truly entertaining and passionate cricket. A strong Pakistan team is absolutely essential to the well-being of world cricket.

So it is speaking as a fan of Pakistan cricket that I say that the Bangalore win will actually serve to be counter-productive. It will usher in a lot of euphoria and back-thumping in the Pak cricket establishment, and will postpone some vital steps that need to be taken.

Firstly, the issue of captaincy. Inzimam needs to be replaced. I don't believe all this "leading by example" crap. A test cricketer is one of only 11 players representing his country, and he should not require examples to give his best. A captain's role should primarily be that of a strategist and a tactician. He needs to have a finger on the pulse of the game, and have plots and backup plots ready. Leading by example, motivating the team, etc is also necessary, but it is a given, and is not sufficient to make a good captain.

Anyone who thinks that Pakistan won the Bangalore test because of Inzi's captaincy on the last day has got it dead wrong. The funny thing is that this is being written by people in the same column in which they write that India virtually gifted the game to Pakistan. If India gifted the game, how is the win a result of Inzi's captaincy? In fact in the first session, when the openers were at the crease, Inzi was fairly clueless, and was just waiting for a divine gift rather than making things happen. Never were the words "Sanse pehle allahtaala ka shukar" more heartfelt than on that day. In general, Inzi is just not a good captain. A brilliant batsman, but not a good captain. And he needs to go.

So who will replace him? Younis Khan, the cry will go around. But I would suggest Yousuf Youhana. Younis Khan, for all his runs in this series, is not as good a batsman as Youhana. Two good knocks on flat wickets don't ensure that he will now start delivering consistently. Pakistan will be playing a lot of cricket on bouncier pitches and Younis Khan needs to deliver consistently for a season or two to be considered in the same league as Youhana. Sadly though, the Pakistanis get swayed easily.

The opening combination has always been a problem for the Pakistanis. They need to decide on a pair and try them out for 6-7 tests at a stretch. Only then will they be able to gauge true quality. Salman Butt is an excellent option and I find it baffling that he is not an automatic selection. He is one of those rare Pakistani openers who seems to put a price on his wickets. Just one bad test, and he's been chucked out?

And why the hell is Shahid Afridi opening the innings in a test match? That the former Chief Executive of PCB, Rameez Raja mentions Sehwag and Afridi as batsmen with "similar batting styles" shows that a bunch of idiots are running Pakistan cricket. Sehwag is leagues and leagues above Afridi. Sehwag has scored 10 centuries against 6 different teams in different conditions, of which 6 scores are over 150, of which 2 scores are over 200, of which one is above 300, averaging over 55, and all this in just three seasons. Afridi has been around for eight seasons, and managed just two centuries, at an average of under 35. Sehwag is technically a much more superior batsman, and is much more talented.

And the main reason why Sehwag has done so much better is because most of his scoring shots are risk-free and hit along the ground. With Afridi, almost all his scoring shots are fraught with risk. So it is easy for an opposition captain to plot an Afridi dismissal. Unless it is Afridi's day (there seem to have been only two such days in his test career, going by his century count), he will hole out sooner or later. It is not that he lacks the maturity to play like Sehwag. he lacks the talent and technique to play like Sehwag.

So Afridi opening the batting in test matches is just not a long term solution. Whenever a captain makes that move, he is taking a huge gamble, hoping it will be his day. But the probability of that is extremely sparse.

Salman Butt and Yasser Hameed would be my choice, but only after Hameed goes through a long session with the coach in which he resolves not to go fishing outside the off stump until he has reached a score of 25.

In the middle order, Inzi needs to bat at one drop. He is one of the best batsmen in the world, and he has to get out there as early as possible. Plus, with Inzi coming in early, the game can just change in a matter of half an hour. Youhana needs to be at 4, and Younis Khan at number 5.

In Asif Kamal, Pakistan have found a superb Number 6, and they need to make sure he is picked in every test. He is like a left-handed Mohammad Kaif, and a very dangerous opponent. Kamran Akmal, a fantastic wicketkeeper is perfect at Number 7, and if Moin Khan and Rashid Latif are reading this blog, I would advise them to announce their retirement(s).

Now we come to the bowling line-up. Shoaib Akhtar, when fit, is a natural selection. Danish Kaneria too should be a permanent feature from now on. It is the other two bowling options that worry me.

I am not in favour of keeping Abdul Razzaq in the test team. Like Afridi, he is just a short term option, and though his selection paid off at Mohali, it might not for the remaining season. The only reason he is in the team is because of the legacy of Wasim Akram, wherein they had a decent bat coming in at Number 8. But Wasim was good enough to be included in the team for his bowling alone, and Razzaq is not. While both Afridi and Razzaq are auto-selections for one-dayers, their inclusion in the test team does not make sense if Pakistan is to regain its position at the top of the pile, like the 90s. They have to get used to the fact that their top 6 batsmen, with some help from Number 7, will have to make 400 runs. Having a bits-and-pieces player at Number 8 is suicidal.

Mohammad Sami has enough skill, technique and gumption to be a decent Number 8. He also bowls decently, but is not spearhead material. So whenever Shoaib is unfit, Sami will struggle. Sami also needs to bring in more variation in his bowling. He is fast, but not fast enough to just blast batting line-ups like Shoaib. A good bowling coach will really be able to make him a better bowler.

Now all that remains is the 4th bowler. The three pace options are Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, Shabbir Ahmad and Umer Gul. Gul is probably the only Pakistani bowler who can get swing with the new ball. For that sole reason, I would pick him ahead of the other two if he was fit. But if not, then it would be a tough call between the other two. Pakistan need to uncover more fast bowling options.

So this is my ideal Pakistani team and batting order, and in my opinion, if they stick to this, they should improve enough to be counted in the same league as India and England.

1. Salman Butt
2. Yasser Hameed
3. Inzimam-ul-Haq
4. Yousuf Youhana(C)
5. Younis Khan(VC)
6. Asif Kamal
7. Kamran Akmal(wk)
8. Mohd Sami
9. Shoaib Akhtar
10. Umar Gul
11. danish Kaneria