Pakistan in control of their destiny at Champions Trophy

Hassan Cheema 11:28 08/06/2017
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All action display: Hassan Ali.

There’s a word often used whenever sports team struggle. It’s thrown out there like all sports cliches but unlike so many other intangibles there is some truth to it. The idea of “identity” is one that resonates across sports and teams.

To be able to realize your full potential you ought to be able to understand who you are beforehand. Take the example of Pakistan: over the last fifteen years Pakistan have lost more than they’ve won against the top seven in international cricket in 14 years. There has only been one positive year in the time since Abdul Razzaq was the next big thing in world cricket.

Yet despite this Pakistan have continued to play like a “big team”; a team that believes that if it plays its own game, if it reaches its potential, it’ll beat all comers. And despite repeatedly being proven wrong, it’s something that stays in the Pakistani DNA. The realization that Pakistan has to play as a “small team” would require a lot of people to swallow their egos and put the collective over individual goals. That is as alien to Pakistan cricket as following a strict diet. The fact that every instance where the collective supercedes the individual (see: 1992) is seen as something miraculous – shows the sort of culture Pakistan cricket resides in.

In the Champions Trophy in England, Pakistan went into the first game as a big team, as a team that relied on talent rather than planning, and it came away humiliated. In normal circumstances that would’ve resulted in the dressing room spiraling out of control. But, in the first truly impressive result from Sarfraz Ahmed’s captaincy, Pakistan bounced back, and did so while realizing what they needed to do.

There is a template for Pakistan to follow. The easiest equivalent thrown about is Stephen Fleming’s New Zealand, but the cultural differences are so vast that any comparison seems unfair. The template that Pakistan ought to follow is that of Arjuna Ranatunga’s Sri Lanka team: a team that played as a “small team” yet conquered the world while doing so.

Over the second half of the 90s only South Africa and Australia had a better win-loss ratio than Sri Lanka. They did this while having only one of the eighteen batsman (with 20+ matches) in the world who averaged over 40 in this time, and only one of the twenty bowlers (with 20+ wickets) who averaged under 25. They became a top team with three world class individuals in Jayasuria, De Silva and Murali – and with consistent contributions from everyone else.

They succeeded despite a lack of talent by virtue of innovation and by playing as a collective. Perhaps the best example of that is that the Lankans were the first of the Asian teams to take fielding as seriously as non-Asian teams did – they became a more professional outfit than their neighbours, and they succeeded more than them because of that.

That’s what Pakistan needs to do now. To realize that there are ways out of a shortage of talent, but for that to happen they need to realize how to maximize what they have. And against South Africa, over and over again, Pakistan succeeded in that regard.

Perhaps the best possible way to understand how to plan correctly is to wonder what the other team wouldn’t want you to do. For instance, with cloud cover and the chance of swing on offer would Indian openers – who like to have a slow start – have preferred pace from both ends or Imad Wasim trying to contain by bowling wicket to wicket? Against India it was in these little things that Pakistan failed at consistently.

Then there was the case of Mohammad Hafeez, a man who has dismissed more left handers in his ODI career than right handers, despite the preponderance of the latter in the international game. Against India he did not bowl a single over, even though a left hander was on the crease for over 70 per cent of India’s innings. These were just two of the many mistakes that Pakistan made in their first game. Instead of trying to close the talent gap by planning better, Pakistan did everything to avoid doing that.

That wasn’t the case against South Africa though. Hafeez was there to bowl to left handers. He may not have finished with impressive figures but he was there to help Imad Wasim out as Pakistan wrested the control of the game early on. Imad himself was used as a containing option rather than a wicket taking one: just as South Africa wanted to increase the run rate after their start, just when Amla and de Kock are at their best, was when Imad was deployed. And it is when batsmen want to press on the accelerator that Imad’s nagging nothingness becomes most effective.

From thereon in the whole South Africa match seemed a rejection of the mistakes from the India game. In the end, Pakistan couldn’t even bowl Hasan Ali out – their standout bowler – because Junaid and Amir were bowling so well at the death. A far cry from the India game where each of the pacers were tonked, and the handling of overs was such that Imad Wasim ended up bowling the final over. Even the start from Fakhar Zaman showed that Pakistan were at least attempting to learn their lessons from the first game.

And then there was Pakistan’s fielding. It’s difficult to try and rationalize how a team can go from looking like amateurs to bordering on competency in the space of three days. Of course there is a mental aspect to it, and the overwhelming support from a rabid Edgbaston crowd played a part too, but after seeing Pakistan field like that, the same question keeps popping up: if they can do this once, why can’t they do it consistently?

Thus three days after being embarrassed Pakistan find themselves in control of their own destiny. Despite their overall record over the last fifteen years there’s been a general trend of a different Pakistan showing up for at least one of the games in an ICC tournament: there was the India game in 2009, there was Australia’s first World Cup loss in 12 years in 2011, and there was Pakistan blowing away South Africa in 2015. In each of these cases that match ended up being an outlier, but a glorious one at that. But even with that as the background, for the lowest ranked team in the competition to school the highest ranked team was not exactly predictable.

And now Pakistan can build upon this. And they can learn the lesson that opposition teams have tried to teach Pakistan for decades now: talent isn’t everything.

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