A series that wasn’t supposed to happen ended up leaving Pakistan with more questions to ponder than they would have expected. By Wednesday night the biggest question was whether the PCB ought to be more concerned about what happened in Karachi or what happened in Lahore.
First there was Karachi. Pakistan ended up winning both the ODIs that took place there comfortably, but everything around the matches must have reminded the board of all that has happened in the decade since the team’s exile, and how much they have to catch up on. The first ODI was rained off – the first time that’s happened in the history of National Stadium Karachi. Unseasonal rains and climate change aren’t really something that comes under the PCB’s purview but their reaction to it was revealing.
The night before that ODI, reports emerged that barely a quarter of the tickets had been sold; over the days that followed it was revealed that the NSK staff had to bring in covers from other first-class grounds around the city to deal with the rains. And then there were the reports that people in power were happy with the delay as it allowed them to bring in the broadcasting equipment for the 2nd ODI, which hadn’t arrived in Pakistan by the first ODI. The second ODI was moved from a holiday (Sunday) to a working day (Monday), with the PCB announcing that tickets for the first match would be valid for the second one too. Two hours into the match that finally did take place – the first ODI in Karachi (a city of 15 million, a number that the locals say is under-reported) for a decade – and more than half the stadium was still empty. Vast swathes of empty seats are how Karachi welcomed the Pakistani ODI team.
In a nutshell, those are the challenges the PCB has to face as it becomes adamant about hosting cricket in their home country. The infrastructure around cricket has cratered over the last decade – the grounds are still in the condition they were in a decade ago. The PCB was supposed to renovate many of the grounds around the country for the 2011 World Cup, but obviously that didn’t happen. Most of these renovations were then put on the backburner until PSL2 and PSL3 when stadium renovations were done, but the ground infrastructure has remained pretty much the same.
Then there’s the small matter of attracting a generation of fans who have grown up with cricket as something that happens in far-away lands, available to them only on their TV screens. The culture of going to matches is something that has pretty much vanished from Pakistan. And with the quality of broadcasts now available, boards need to provide motivation to fans to even attend. In the NFL and NBA there has been a drive to make all stadia wi-fi friendly, meanwhile in Pakistan fans can’t even bring in a bottle of water. To attract fans to stadia (outside of T20 cricket) the PCB will need to think outside the box, something that has never been their strength.
And as far as being imprisoned by mental limitations, there’s the Pakistan T20 team. From the end of the 2016 World T20 till the start of this year Pakistan, under Mickey Arthur and Sarfraz Ahmed, lost only four of their 33 T20 internationals – even against the higher-ranked teams (England, Australia, India, South Africa and New Zealand, who are ranked second to sixth in the T20I table) Pakistan won 11 of their 13 T20Is. But many within Pakistan, including it seems the new Head Coach, considered that to be a false dawn, something that needed to be worked on. Sure, Pakistan had lost three of their four T20Is before this series this year, but their lowest score in those three matches was 173! Pakistan’s bowling, which had taken them to the top of the rankings had declined – particularly the form of Shadab Khan (who has now dropped to third in T20 Bowlers Rankings) and Hassan Ali – but it wasn’t as if there needed to be an overhaul.
Now perhaps there might need to be one. Within a week Pakistan’s lead at the top of the rankings has gone from 17 points to 11 points, but perhaps, more importantly, the belief, faith and confidence that the T20 team had built up over three years have shattered. The captain and the new coach have spent press conferences throwing the men they are supposed to protect under the bus, while the team has lost its identity.
This was a team defined by its youth – the XI that played the 3rd T20I had a higher average age than what Pakistan had even in the 2019 World Cup. This was a team defined by clear role and an obvious batting strategy – Babar or Sarfraz would anchor while everyone else attacked around them; by the third T20I Pakistan were playing a batting unit in which two of the five specialist batsmen have career T20 run rates of less than 7.0 (Sri Lanka didn’t have a single batsman with such a record), and neither Sarfraz nor Babar was one of them. This was a team that built a platform in the first ten overs then took off in the second half of the innings – the average score after 10 overs in the last 10 matches under Mickey Arthur was 77 at an average of 1.4 wickets lost at the halfway stage; in this series Pakistan’s scores at the halfway stage were 57/3, 68/5 and 63/1. This was a team defined by a flexible bowling unit, which had all weapons available to it – only one of the 60 overs bowled by Pakistan in this series was by someone outside the main five bowlers. Simply put, everything that had taken Pakistan to the top was changed because the new management wanted to leave its own stamp on the team. Now they have left their stamp, and the next month will be spent deconstructing that.
The PCB had assumed what worked a decade ago will continue to work today, they were proven wrong. Misbah-ul-Haq had assumed what had worked in recent years needed to change. He was proven wrong too.
The writer is the manager of Pakistan Super League side Islamabad United