May 9, 2011

Going downhill

After peaking in their emphatic World Cup quarterfinal win against the West Indies, Pakistan have become largely unimpressive. Why?

By Khalid Hussain

On March 23, in front of a vocal crowd at the Shere-Bangla National Stadium on the outskirts of Dhaka, it seemed that Pakistan were capable of beating any team in the world. With their captain Shahid Afridi on fire, Pakistan toyed with the West Indies before thrashing them by ten wickets as thousands of mostly Bangladeshi fans cheered them all the way in the World Cup quarterfinal. The emphatic victory came soon after Pakistan had topped World Cup Group A ahead of defending champions Australia and tournament co-hosts Sri Lanka.

On May 5, at the Providence on the outskirts of Georgetown (Guyana), it seemed that Pakistan were capable of losing to any team in the world. Afridi and his men were slaughtered like lambs by a second string West Indian team in the fifth and final One-day International with the hosts cruising to a ten-wicket triumph after flooring Pakistan for just 139 runs.

The loss at Providence was a disappointing end to the ODI series for Pakistan, who were at one stage looking set to record a whitewash after securing a 3-0 lead in Barbados last week.

The back-to-back defeats against the West Indians in the last couple of one-dayers might have come in ‘dead rubbers’ but the results are enough to highlight the fact that, due to one reason or the other, Pakistan remain a highly vulnerable team.

Some might argue that Pakistan did win the series and that the defeats in the last two games didn’t matter much. But the fact is that winning the series isn’t enough considering the fact the West Indians, who are already a low-ranked team, played the series without several of their leading stars including Chris Gayle. Pakistan should have won the series 5-0 with an effortless ease.

There were early signs which indicated that Pakistan might not have enjoy a cake-walk in the Caribbean in spite of the fact that the odds were heavily stacked in their favour.

In the World Cup, the primary reason why Pakistan managed to top their group before making the cut for the semifinals was Afridi’s stunning form as a leg-spinner. When he scalped four victims in the quarterfinal against West Indies, Afridi raised his tally to 22 wickets in World Cup 2011. He finished with disappointing figures of 0-45 in the defeat against India in the semifinal at Mohali.

Having played non-stop cricket in the World Cup and before it, Afridi wanted to skip the tour of West Indies to get some rest. It wasn’t a bad idea as it was pretty clear that like Umar Gul – Pakistan’s second-most successful bowler at World Cup 2011 – Afridi, too, was left drained by the rigours of international cricket.

Afridi did announce soon after the World Cup that he wanted to miss the series against West Indies. But soon decided to change his mind and made himself available for the tour.

It was a bad choice. Afridi’s personal performance took a nose dive in the Caribbean.

Since the quarterfinal in Dhaka, Afridi has just taken just two wickets from six One-day Internationals. His poor run with the ball must have put added extra pressure on the seasoned allrounder, who has completely flopped with the bat in recent times. From his last 16 ODI appearances, Afridi has just fetched 184 runs at 14.15. He was expected to do much better in the Caribbean against a below-par home attack but Afridi just managed to get 28 runs in the five-match series.

Even as captain, Afridi is now making enough mistakes to keep his critics busy.

One glaring example is his persistence in the case of the young Ahmed Shehzad. Afridi keeps showing faith in the opener, who was one of the biggest failures of the World Cup.

It was widely anticipated that after the World Cup, one of the players getting the axe will be the 19-year-old Ahmed. But he wasn’t just retained in the touring party for the Caribbean Ahmed was given a regular role in the limited-overs series against the West Indies. He did hit a century but flopped miserably in the other five games including the tour-opening Twenty20 International.

Ahmed has so far played 19 One-day Internationals for a tally of 477 runs at 26.50. Of the 19 games, he has crossed 20 in just seven matches. He hasn’t reached doubles figures in eight of the matches he has played so far.

However, Shehzad has returned home along with Afridi and few others as they are not part of Pakistan’s Test squad. The tourists will now be playing in the two-Test series against the West Indies starting in Georgetown from May 12.

Back home, fans were once again given a glimpse of the sorry state of Pakistan cricket. Mohsin Khan, Pakistan’s chief selector, threatened to resign after dropping strong hints that the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) overruled his recommendations while announcing the 15-man Test squad. Mohsin, a former Test opener, even called a press conference only to cancel it at the last moment after getting summoned to Lahore by Ijaz Butt, the PCB chairman.

Butt didn’t make any changes to the Test squad but still managed to assuage Mohsin, who will now continue as chief selector in spite of the fact that team that will be representing Pakistan in the brief Test series in the Caribbean wasn’t really picked by him and his fellow selectors.

In spite of all the doom and gloom, there is a small piece of good news. Off spinner, Saeed Ajmal broke into the top-three of the ICC Player Rankings for ODI bowlers for the first time in his career.

The 33-year-old from Faisalabad, who took six wickets in the series against the West Indies, has improved 16 places and now sits in third position, just five points behind Zimbabwe’s left-arm spinner Ray Price. His rise means the top four spots in the ODI rankings are now occupied by spinners with New Zealand’s Daniel Vettori leading the field and England’s Graeme Swann placed in fourth position. While Saeed has catapulted himself to the third spot, Afridi has slipped five places to 14th position after a disappointing series against the West Indies.

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