There was a time, not so long ago, when Pakistan cricket embodied skill, glamour and a fierce mongrel spirit. Those were the days when its scripts were written by the Brothers Grimm or Yabo Yablonsky of Escape to Victory fame. Now, the stories are a lot more bleak, and in some cases, like at The Oval today, not even worth watching. To dignify the 48-run capitulation against England as a “performance” would be to trivialise the word and to insult generations of great cricketers who have worn the Pakistani colours with such pride. This was a shambles, and barring an extraordinary meltdown from the courageous Dutch, Pakistan, who pushed India all the way in the inaugural World Twenty20, won’t even make the Super Eight.
They don’t deserve to either. Everything about Pakistan cricket stinks of decay and the team’s performances are a mere reflection of that. Let’s start with the administrators. When not humiliating senior players by making public private medical reports, they stop the players from competing in the domestic Twenty20 competition. Remember that Pakistan were the only major cricketing nation whose players had nothing to do with the second season of the IPL. But while the key Indian, Sri Lankan and South African players warmed up for this event with at least 12 games each, the Pakistanis were asked to skip their own competition. Preparation, eh? Who needs that?
And with all due respect to Intikhab Alam, a great player from a long-gone era, and Younis Khan, a thoroughly nice bloke, the tactics made a skunk’s scent seem pleasant. Yasir Arafat is a decent cricketer, a good option as a first or second-change bowler given his experience of English conditions. Nothing more. The very idea of him taking the new ball for a country that has produced some of the world’s greatest fast bowlers is nothing short of preposterous. Mohammad Amir will have better days than he did today, but at least he looks like a new-ball bowler. Arafat never will be one.
Any team can get whacked around a little during the Power Play, but the better ones come back by creating pressure in the field, by harrying batsmen looking for singles in the circle, taking catches and throwing down the stumps. Pakistan’s fielding, by contrast, is a throwback to the days when princes stood around sleep-addled from too much lunch, and then politely walked to the boundary rope to pick up a ball that had just been hit past them.
They catch like the ball might detonate at any minute and the less said about attempts to stop it, the better. You see better fielding sides in grade cricket in Australia, and in the northern leagues in England. You can make all the excuses you want about the difficulty in picking the ball out of the background at The Oval, but you can rest assured that the team that wins the title on June 21st won’t be treating the cricket ball like a foreign object.
That brings us to an even sadder tale, of the batsman that was once Shahid Afridi. In his former guise, he failed often, but on the occasions when he came off, he could terrify bowlers with the raw power of his hitting. I’ll never forget a 45-ball century at Kanpur in 2005, when even the great Anil Kumble was dismissed from his presence with some awe-inspiring strokes.
That was a long time ago. These days, Afridi and the middle of the bat are strangers. He walks out and starts swinging with all the menace of a drunk trying to swat a fly. There’s just one stroke, the full-kitchen-sink, and unfortunately he never connects with it. Today, he managed five runs while wasting 12 balls, never once looking like he could clear the rope.
That would have been fine if he was batting at No.7 or 8. But instead, he had come in at No.6, ahead of Misbah-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s best T20 batsman by a mile, and Yasir, who struck the ball beautifully in the warm-up game against India. By the time Misbah eventually made it to the middle, Pakistan needed three runs a ball. Withholding the big guns really makes no sense if you have no artillery in the first place.
Every team will lose games, but it was the spinelessness of this surrender that will irk fans the most. Had they collapsed in a heap for 120 while going for glory, few would have complained. But to dawdle along to 137 in the full quota of overs was just wretched, and a slap in the face for all those passionate fans who had never stopped cheering for their team.
Think back to the greatest moments in Pakistan’s limited-overs history. The victory over Australia at the WACA in 1992 that was to be the spur for the greatest of all World Cup resurrections. Moin Khan’s stunning assault on Glenn McGrath at Headingley in 1999. The common thread was the team’s indomitable spirit, a stubborn refusal to lie down and accept fate.
That was what made the team such icons even to non-Pakistani supporters. Today, they disgraced that proud tradition. Instead of making them swear on the Holy Qu’ran, Intikhab should ask them all to look at themselves in the mirror, and see just how many hang their heads in shame.