Pakistan performed better than expected in the World Cup, but it has led to another bout of soul-searching about grass-roots issues. Usually this leads to no transformation, though this time there is some hope (and trepidation), because after a decade of cosmetic tweaks, some drastic changes are being made to the domestic structure. Timely too; the Misbah-Younis era can be seen to have delayed the inevitable: Pakistan have now lost 15 of their last 22 Test matches. From being unbeaten in the UAE for seven years, they have lost two of their three series under Sarfaraz Ahmed there.
It’s worth remembering that Pakistan, over the past four years alone, have managed to become the top-ranked side in Tests and T20Is, and have won an ICC tournament too. That is to say that their A game is still something that can compete with the best. But the depth of talent or infrastructural support required for Pakistan to become an elite and consistent team has been lacking.
Pakistan’s overall Test record
Pakistan began their journey with a surprisingly good first decade, in the 1950s, led by a generation of players who had come up the ranks in the pre-Partition Ranji Trophy. For instance, in the 1946-47 Ranji Trophy season, the last before Partition, the top run scorer was Gul Mohammad, while the second-highest wicket-taker was Amir Elahi – both of whom would go on to play Test cricket for Pakistan in the 1950s.
This era was followed by a decade of decline, as the baton was passed to a group of players who grew up in Pakistan’s own domestic system, and were unable to compete at the highest level. Over the course of the late ’60s and through the ’70s, though, thanks to a generation of players who became regulars in the county game, Pakistan were able to turn their fortunes around. From the early ’80s until the mid-’90s (the age of Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, Wasim Akram and Saleem Malik) Pakistan were a regularly successful team in Test cricket.
But over the last two decades they have been in stasis, playing a game of two steps forward, two steps back. Since January 1996, Pakistan’s Test record reads: 74 wins, 75 losses; in the 23 years prior to that, the record was 52 wins, 33 losses. The peaks under Inzamam-ul-Haq and Misbah-ul-Haq are sandwiched between troughs before and after.
No place like home
One of the keys to Pakistan’s overall poor record in the five-day game since the mid-’90s has been their performance at home. From losing the home series to Sri Lanka at the end of 1995, until they were forced to move to the UAE following the Lahore attacks in 2009, Pakistan lost as many home series as they won. In fact, just from 1997 to 2004, Pakistan lost home series to South Africa, Australia, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, England and India. But prior to that 1995 series loss, they hadn’t lost a home series in almost 15 years.
This explains why the successes of the Pakistan Test side in the UAE in this decade were so obviously ignored by former players – either they had been part of the teams that played in that pre-1995 period or they had grown up watching Pakistan being impregnable at home; to those players, winning at home was no real achievement.
The Pakistani pitches fallacy
Anyone who has listened to commentary for any of Pakistan’s Tests over the last few years will have heard about how pitches in the Emirates are similar to those in Pakistan. From non-Pakistani commentators, that’s fine – they are probably remembering the pitches from the days they played in Pakistan, when they were flat and good for batting. In the decade leading up to Pakistan’s forced exile, the surfaces used for Test cricket were the most batting-friendly in the world.
Yet that does not tell the truth about the state of domestic pitches in Pakistan. A decay that set in at the turn of the century has now taken hold. In each of the past three seasons of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy the average first-innings score has been lower than the average first-innings score in any major domestic first-class tournament in 2017.
In any other country even one such season like any of the past three QeA Trophy ones would be cause for sweeping changes to the domestic game. In Pakistan, though, any attempts to reform are blocked, or in fine Pakistani tradition, reform is half-hearted. Now we have a change in domestic structure, but as long as the quality of pitches doesn’t change, would the whole thing not be just applying lipstick to a pig? Perhaps it’s just that Pakistan has deeper bowling reserves. Or perhaps we have run out of excuses by now.
An inability to produce batsmen
Pakistan have systematically damaged the development of their batsmen with the quality of pitches and balls on offer in the domestic game.
First, there is a dilution of quality. The number of teams in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy has fluctuated wildly over the years.
The quality of both batting and bowling is watered down as the number of teams grows. There are current batsmen in Pakistan who admit that their plan against most domestic bowling attacks is to see off the one threatening bowler in the opposition and milk the rest. When they graduate to the international level they realise that every bowler they face is threatening, and they are found to be out of their depth.
There was not a single season in the 1990s when there were more than 11 teams in the QeA Trophy, but each season in the past decade has had more than 11.
The no-spin zone
Anyone who has seen Pakistan turn their home fortunes around in the UAE might think that a golden generation of spinners, aided by spin-friendly domestic pitches in Pakistan, has come through, a bit similar to Sri Lanka. One factor in Sri Lanka’s recent decline has been a dilution of quality in their first-class game (like Pakistan) and a predominance of spin-friendly wickets that do not allow the development of big-scoring batsmen, express pace bowlers, and spinners who are effective in unhelpful conditions. That isn’t the case for Pakistan, though, at least not the last bit.
The Pakistani pitches that helped spin are no longer around. Before 1999 there was not a single QeA Trophy season where the list of the top 30 wicket-takers included fewer than six leg- and offspinners (the number of SLAs has remained consistently high and they have not been considered here); since 1999 there hasn’t been a single season where there have been as many as six. In fact, in each of the past four seasons there has not been a single legspinner in the top 30. For the country of Abdul Qadir, Mushtaq Ahmed, Danish Kaneria and Yasir Shah to rely on T20 cricket to give opportunities to legspinners is quite the change.
The club game continues to produce spinners, but bowling attacking spinners on sub-par first-class pitches, where low-scoring matches are the norm, is a risk. Medium-pacers and slow left-armers who bowl wicket to wicket are enough to produce the advantage. Furthermore, since matches are low-scoring they quite often don’t even go into day four, where spinners really learn their trade.
The contrast with the English County Championship (Division 1) is illustrative. Only twice in the past 15 seasons have there been more off- and legspinners among the top 30 wicket-takers in the QeA Trophy than in the corresponding season of the County Championship. England rely on fast bowlers and end up having to scrounge for spinners when they tour Asia. Pakistan, who play the majority of their cricket in Asia, have built a system where they are in an even worse position to produce spinners than England are.
Perhaps no one better illustrates the state of Pakistani spin bowling than Usama Mir. In the second season of the PSL (2017) Mir finished with 12 wickets, three more than Shadab Khan and Yasir Shah (and ten more than Shahid Afridi). Since then Yasir has continued to be Pakistan’s go-to spinner in Test cricket. Shadab has become his back-up and Pakistan’s main spinner in white-ball cricket. Neither has had much chance to play domestic four-day cricket – but that’s not the case with Mir who, in theory, has had plenty of opportunity to play. And yet, for whatever reason, he has played only five first-class matches since, and one of those was a second-division match in Sri Lanka. Since that remarkable PSL season Mir has gone on to play as many first-class matches in Panagoda, near Colombo, as he has in his home city of Sialkot.
Pakistan’s ODI numbers
Since the turn of the century Pakistan have the fourth best win-loss ratio in ODI cricket (behind Australia, South Africa and India). So on the surface it appears they have been a good ODI side this century. But break it down a little bit and cracks begin to appear.
Fifth and sixth on that win-loss list are England and New Zealand. Consider Pakistan’s record against these top five teams and you realise that their overall numbers are propped up by winning against lower-ranked teams. Against the best they have consistently been below par.
Since 2001 when they won eight of their 13 matches against the top five sides (Australia, England, India, South Africa and New Zealand) there has not been a single year where Pakistan have won more matches against these sides than they lost. They came close in 2005 (when they won a famous series in India), then in 2008 (when they played only four ODIs against these five teams, winning two and losing two), and in 2011, but over the last 17 years Pakistan have been consistently mediocre.
A tournament team
Despite all this Pakistan have found ways to overachieve. Only three times in their history have Pakistan gone six or more Test series in a row unbeaten – two of those three instances have been this decade (the latter leading up to Pakistan becoming the No. 1 Test side). But it’s really in ICC ODI tournaments that they have turned up, forced foreign commentators to define them as “mercurial”, and overachieved when they had no right to.
In the ’90s, Pakistan were generally considered one of the top three or four ODI sides (they finished the decade with the third best win-loss ratio, behind South Africa and Australia. Over the next few years Pakistan were consistently in third or fourth spot after the launch of the ICC rankings.
And yet, despite it all, they were consistently a below-par tournament team. From 1992, when they barely made the World Cup semi-final, until their exile from their own shores in 2009, Pakistan played nine ICC tournaments and only made the semi-finals in three of them. Since then, as the graph below shows, their fortunes have turned.
In only one of the six tournaments since 2009 have Pakistan finished the tournament lower on the points table than their ICC ODI ranking before the tournament started. In those six tournaments they have reached three semi-finals, as many as they did in the 17 years (and nine tournaments) prior to that.
Is it just a smaller sample size? Even so, the turnaround is pretty obvious – from being a team that finished higher than their ranking once in a decade to finishing lower than their ranking only once in the following decade.
Perhaps in the aftermath of 2009 every ICC tournament that Pakistan play is a reminder to the world that they still exist, a reminder that ostracism doesn’t mean exclusion. Perhaps, as some in the dressing room have speculated, a team that is constantly on tour and never plays at home is better suited to long tournaments than other sides. Perhaps that’s too simple a reading (and again, a small sample size).
There is one other explanation, though. The greats of Pakistan past (in the ’90s and 2000s) were particularly poor when it came to major events. Of the nine Pakistanis to score over 6000 ODI runs, only one did significantly better in major events than outside them.
And the same is true for bowling too. Of the nine Pakistanis to have taken more than 180 ODI wickets only two (Imran Khan and Saeed Ajmal) truly stepped up in big tournaments through their careers. Wasim Akram did too, but he still had the odd poor tournament (like the 1996 World Cup, when he took one wicket in three matches against the top eight teams) to spoil his record.
Considering that Wahab Riaz just became the second-highest World Cup wicket-taker in Pakistan’s history, and the team without him won the ICC Champions Trophy in 2017, perhaps the simplest answer is that Pakistan have, over the past decade, gone from great players who underperformed in major tournaments to not-so-great players who overperform in them.
Do Pakistan play too little or too much T20?
Among the recent excuses offered for the failures of the national side, by both former players and media, has been the theory that everything would be fine if Pakistan selected domestic performers and not overhyped T20 specialists. Here are some numbers.
Only England, Sri Lanka and South Africa took squads to the 2019 World Cup that had more domestic first-class experience than Pakistan. England and Sri Lanka, much like Pakistan, are currently confused regarding the sheer quantity of matches played in their domestic seasons. South Africa, meanwhile, are the exception – but if you were to take out Imran Tahir (who happens to have played a third of his first-class cricket in Pakistan) their squad would have fewer first-class appearances than Pakistan’s.
Despite having Shoaib Malik, Mohammad Hafeez and Wahab in their squad (each with 200-plus T20 appearances) Pakistan are in the lower regions of the middle of the table as far as T20 appearances are concerned. Predictably India, with two generations of IPL greats, sit atop the table.
Overall the numbers for Pakistan are not dissimilar to most teams. While Sri Lanka and England have overcrowded first-class seasons, the Afghanistan and West Indies sides were built mostly on T20 superstars. Pakistan, like half the teams in the World Cup, found themselves in the middle.
A comparison of Jasprit Bumrah and Hasan Ali is useful here. Both fast bowlers were brought into their national sides originally as T20 experts; both made their first-class debuts in October 2013; and both have gone on to play around 25 games since then. And while Hasan has played 63 T20s, excluding internationals (despite having played in the PSL, BPL and the CPL), Bumrah has played more than a hundred domestic T20s in India alone. The difference – considering how similar their numbers otherwise are – thus could be said to come down to the quality of first-class cricket they play and their development under their national teams. Or maybe playing more T20 is better for you.
The stunted growth of fast bowlers and openers
The Hasan case points to another failure. Most of the findings above are to do with the domestic system, but for anyone who wants to scratch the surface, an equally worrying trend has been seen with the national team camp.
For all the problems of the first-class scene, it still continues to produce players, particularly fast bowlers. But what happens to them the longer they stay with the national team is the opposite of what should ideally happen.
Since the 2003 World Cup there have been nine fast bowlers who have made their ODI debuts and gone on to play more than 50 ODIs for Pakistan. None of them have then gone on to play more than 130 ODIs and if you look at the bowlers before that era, even Shoaib Akhtar finished with 163.
With the exception of Rao Iftikhar Anjum, each of leading fast bowlers for Pakistan has come into the team on the back of impressive form in the domestic game and gone on to be effective immediately in the international game. Yet none have improved over time – the longer they have been with the national team, the worse they seem to get. Mohammad Amir – mostly thanks to a stellar 2019 World Cup – has managed to buck the trend, as has Mohammad Irfan, but the general trend of bowlers getting worse ought to make the PCB question the value and input of their bowling coaches over the past decade and a half.
This problem applies to openers as well. The trend of Hasan’s career is seen in those of the Pakistani openers at this World Cup – an explosive start, followed by a gradual decline. Fakhar Zaman and Imam-ul-Haq may have had extraordinary starts in ODIs but the arc of their careers since has been the same as that of any Pakistani opener since Saeed Anwar.
And this isn’t just true of opening batsmen – the likes of Asad Shafiq, Umar Akmal and Sohaib Maqsood made bright starts to their ODI careers too, and yet the tournament that should have been their peak (the 2019 World Cup) was one that none of them came even close to being a part of.
The easy answer to the trend, as far as batsmen are concerned, is simple (and anecdotal): a player performs really well in the domestic game, takes that form into ODI cricket, where it carries him for a while before his technical deficiencies are highlighted by opposition think tanks; he then gets dropped, returns to the domestic game, and continues to score there without ever needing to change what made him fail at the highest level.
This, again, puts the onus on the domestic system; but equally, what are Pakistan’s coaches doing? If there are no spinners coming through, and openers and fast bowlers all decline under their purview, are they just there for the odd middle-order batsman that comes through? Considering that Babar Azam is the only player who made his debut this decade who has actually become an elite middle-order player, the summary quite simply is that Pakistan’s team managements have failed emphatically.
Stats inputs from Mazher Arshad