More than a decade since its inception, international T20 cricket finds itself in an odd place. For all the hype and successes of domestic franchise leagues the status of the international game continues to fluctuate. In a sense, T20Is has had the accelerated journey that ODI cricket took four decades to traverse: from not being taken seriously to being celebrated and thus over-done to questioning whether it was even needed outside of ICC events. Of course it doesn’t help that the standout team over the course of this decade so rarely turns up outside of these world tournaments.
The series between West Indies and Pakistan is instructive on the state of the international T20 game. Pakistan will leap frog West Indies in the ICC rankings if they manage to win this series, and considering that they clean swept the same opposition at the start of this season in the UAE, it doesn’t seem that outlandish. But considering the recent overall fortunes of the two teams, this outcome appears counter intuitive.
Over the first few years of T20I cricket Pakistan could reasonably claim to be the best side in the format, as they reached the final of the first two Word T20s and were one Hussey miracle away from making it three in a row. Since then, though, the world has first caught up and then passed Pakistan by. And this has happened despite Pakistan’s best efforts. Seven of the other nine Test playing nations [excluding Bangladesh and Zimbabwe] have played between 56 and 64 T20Is. Pakistan, by comparison, has played 74. Yet despite this extra experience at the international level the Pakistani absence from the IPL, and how much later the PSL started compared to other domestic leagues, has meant that Pakistani cricketers still remain less in-tune with the demands of this ever evolving format.
Of course if you were to be reductive regarding these two teams you could do that by just pointing fingers at the captains. Pakistan’s record, for instance, since that 2010 heartbreak would provide evidence for those who consider Pakistan’s failures as borne out of personnel problems rather than institutional malaise.
But for all of Afridi’s captaincy issues, Pakistan’s record in limited overs cricket in general – let alone the obvious evidence for anyone who cares to watch Pakistan bat – shows that blaming him alone would be a false solution to a deeper problem. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that if his and Hafeez’s tenures were interchanged, the same would be true of their records. And for all that Sarfraz has done [five wins in a row – all with dominating performances], the health of the opposition also considers bearing.
Four of those five wins have come against the West Indies, who have their own captaincy stats which are far more revealing than Pakistan’s.
Here the questions are of a different nature. While the WICB continues to compete for the hotly contested crown of international cricket’s worst run board, many of the problems they face do not trickle down to the players. A generation of freelancers have honed their skills in leagues across the world. Time and again, they rise above the mediocrity that the WICB promotes, and have become the best T20 side in the world over the course of this decade. But as the above stats show, this only happens when the big stars turn up and nearly always under Darren Sammy. Without Sammy and others like him they too become as representative of their board as Pakistan is.
And in the current series – much like the one in the Emirates last year – it’s the less threatening West Indies that Pakistan have had to put up with. The result is a team who were one rain affected match away from doing a World T20 three-peat – with all three tournaments in Asia – unable to deal with anything close to quality spin. Imad Wasim’s slow straight ones were their undoing in the desert, much as the higher quality of Shadab Khan was in the first T20. If West Indies continue to play spin as they have, and there is little evidence to suggest otherwise, the series becomes an opportunity for Pakistan to work on things they never have the chance to work on. Dominating matches allows you that luxury.
And yet, however straightforward it may seem, this series – or rather this tour – is a chance for Pakistan to get back on the horse they fell off of in the Antipodes. Here’s a chance for them to regain their momentum from the England tour last year while inducting a new generation and captain in their ways. A series win here and Pakistan will leapfrog the West Indies in the T20I rankings, which considering the performances of both sides over the past five years would be quite the turnaround. Of course, fans of both teams would credit any positive result to playing personnel, as their boards go along their merry ways.