COMMENT: Hopes rise as Pakistan head into another World Cup – Newspaper

ANOTHER tournament starts, and with it, hope rises once more in Pakistani hearts. Can they do it, those magnificent men in green? The team of returning king Babar Azam — the team once known for its predictable unpredictability, famous for possessing talents of random genius.

The format is short and modern; T20 cricket in the US, which is both an emerging hub and a historic venue for the game — the factoid that cricket has been played there since the early 1700s is oft-quoted. But the odds of Pakistan winning a second T20 trophy are long. The reasons for this verdict are many, and they centre on a central dysfunction both at the core of the national cricket team and the core of Pakistan cricket.

On the face of it, Pakistan should be contenders. They are a tournament team and T20 cricket is possibly Pakistan’s strongest format. They won in thrilling fashion in 2009 under Younis Khan’s captaincy, propelled by Shahid Afridi’s random genius. They have been runners-up twice: losing narrowly to India in the inaugural tournament of 2007, and derailed by an injury to Shaheen Shah Afridi in 2022 against England.

More still, Pakistan boast two of the most outstanding performers in the history of T20 cricket. Babar and Mohammad Rizwan stand, almost perpetually, around the top of the world’s rankings for batting. In Shaheen Afridi, Haris Rauf, and Naseem Shah, Pakistan can deploy a pace attack of venom and incisiveness. Abrar Ahmed, Saim Ayub, and Azam Khan are new talents on the block, to complement the recalled experience of Imad Wasim and Mohammad Amir.

Australia, England, and India remain favourites, but if Gary Kirsten can pull something out of his hat, Pakistan fans may yet get their money’s worth

Yet, scratch the surface and the mix is a rum one in every department. Babar and Rizwan remain the lynch pins, but even their success comes with the concern that they score neither fast enough, nor stay long enough to earn Pakistan enough victories.

Pakistan’s stated ambition is to reach for 200 when batting first, but it is a target the team rarely achieves. Much of this is down to the failure of the middle and late order. Fakhar Zaman is the one player who can seize a game and turn it in Pakistan’s direction, but those moments are infrequent. He is the highest ranked Pakistan middle-order batsman.

No Pakistan bowler is in the top 10 rankings. Afridi, now a lesser version of the bowler he was before his knee injury, but still the only bowler in the top 20. This is a sobering statistic for a country whose cricket is built on the strength of its bowling. It’s also hard to argue that the lowly ranking of the others is undeserved.

The state of Pakistan’s all-rounders is clear enough. Both Shadab Khan and Imad Wasim sit outside the top 10, below the mighty Dipendra Singh Airee of Nepal. Imad is also Pakistan’s highest-rated “spin” bowler at 38.

In 2024, Pakistan’s T20 record has been dismal. They have won five out of 14 matches played to a finish against Ireland and a below strength New Zealand team. They are yet to set a target of over 200. The team formula is unsettled and the fielding too is often a mess.

More worryingly, there has been no predictable unpredictability, no random genius — just predictable mediocrity. Pakistan need a change agent, and that change agent isn’t Babar.

The one hope is that Gary Kirsten, the new white-ball coach, will halt this relentless slide. And, it is possible. A new leader can create the energy for an immediate reversal of fortunes — with the proviso that sometimes things get worse before they get better.

A major challenge for Kirsten is the cards he’s been dealt. Saim, the next hero of Pakistan cricket, has zeroed. Azam’s selection is questionable; a wicket keeper struggling to move, a batsman out of his depth. Amir, the rising new star of the 2009 victory, is now an over-the-hill, morally-woun­ded paceman, earning his last international crumbs.

Of the remaining twelve men, Abrar Ahmed, Abbas Afridi, and Usman Khan are unproven at the international level. Shadab Khan and Iftikhar Ahmed have plateaued horribly. Fakhar is erratic. The three leading pacemen and Imad are making comebacks for various reasons. Which brings us back to the qualified success of Babar and Rizwan. Imagine if Pakistan didn’t have those two stalwarts?

The underlying reasons run deep: a cricket board that isn’t fit for purpose, led by whichever amateur mav­erick is in political favour; a system that now relies on the Pakistan Super League, a T20 tournament, for its all-cricket pipeline; and the PSL itself somewhat delusional about its quality and ability to unearth new stars.

Nothing can be done about this now, but Kirsten’s job is to buoy this sinking ship of Pakistan. The only possible approach is to make the best of a bad job, and to do it ruthlessly.

Accept that Azam is a passenger, disregard him as an option. Accept that Amir is no better than a backup for injury. Accept that Babar and Rizwan must return to the top of the order. Accept that spin bowling options are limited but that Abrar might do something spectacular, and that Imad remains a wily match-winner beyond his God-given talents. Accept reluctantly that Shadab, the favourite son of Pakistan’s “cricketati”, offers neither.

Accept that Fakhar is unpredictable, but back him to win you a game out of nothing. Back the form of Usman, and the promise of Abbas Afridi. Back your ability to refocus and reinvigorate the fast bowling triumvirate of Shaheen Afridi, Haris, and Naseem. Back yourself to put some steel into Saim’s batting, lower down the order.

In short, Pakistan need a miracle. But even such a miracle revival may flounder. The favourites remain Australia, England, and India. New Zealand will be contenders. And West Indies, the co-hosts, will be strong too. All these nations are better resourced and in better form.

Above all, Kirsten must resurrect the random genius in the cricket of Pakistan, that talent to produce something from nothing, to transform from a rabble to a juggernaut in a flicker of brilliance, the intoxicating magic that now seems crushed and a thing of memory. Pakistan’s fans aren’t asking for much; they want their team back.

Published in Dawn, June 1st, 2024

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