Sometime soon after Pakistan lost their Asia Cup T20 2016 match against Bangladesh in Mirpur on Wednesday (March 2), a rumour spread on social media that Shahid Afridi had retired from Twenty20 International cricket.
As is the norm, some of us checked with the Pakistan team spokesperson, and the news was denied. It’s another matter that retirement and Afridi make strange bedfellows – what is denied today could well be confirmed tomorrow, and vice versa. Javed Miandad might feel Afridi’s time with the national team was over “a few years back”, but he is still there, still the captain, and, much as his detractors might disagree, still a decent bowler even if his days as Boom-Boom are well past.
Be that as it may, the loss to Bangladesh has clearly hit Pakistan hard. Under different circumstances, had the World T20 not been days away, serious debates would have ensued in Pakistan and heads could well have rolled. That might happen yet. For now, though, the loss that knocked Pakistan out of the Asia Cup and put Bangladesh in the final, against India, has caused the usual uproar and outrage in Pakistan. Unconfirmed reports say that effigies of the team captain were being burnt in Lahore. That might not be the end of it.
In Mirpur, the scene of the action cricket-wise, there was a sense of gloom and impending doom.
“We have fallen hard. We have not played well at all. We tried our best. I think it wasn’t good enough,” said Waqar Younis, the team coach, after the five-wicket defeat. “We didn’t bat well. We didn’t put enough runs (129/7) on the board. We batted very poorly in the first ten overs. We gave too much of a lead. It was a 160-170 pitch. Unfortunately, losing early wickets did not help us, in the previous games also. Bowlers gave their best to pull the game towards us and yes it did move towards us for a while. But that’s how T20 cricket goes.”
Should the team be revamped? Is there time to do something drastic before the World T20?
“I don’t know. It’s not my decision. It’s the selectors’ decision. Whoever they give, I try to get the best out them. And I guess they will probably look at what is needed and not and then decide,” said Waqar non-commitally. “It will be harsh to say that (this is the worst Pakistani batting lineup in years). They are going through some tough times. They are also playing on pitches that are more suited to the pacers. We are out of form, I would say, rather than saying such a harsh word.”
Question marks have been raised about a lot of players in the Pakistan team, especially the batsmen, with Khurram Manzoor coming in for special attention. Manzoor wasn’t deemed good enough by Islamabad United, the champions of the inaugural edition of the Pakistan Super League, to be given a game, but he was still chosen for the Asia Cup and the World T20.
“Both the openers (Sharjeel Khan being the other) are new for Pakistan – I think the pitches are a little bowler friendly and not helping. If you look at all the games then all the teams have lost two or three wickets in the first six overs. The batsmen might be in a shell. We couldn’t gain the momentum. In some odd innings, (Shoaib) Malik has played well and today Sarfraz (Ahmed) played well. Overall I think it was a failure of the batting,” offered Waqar.
Prior to the match, looking at the way Pakistan’s first and second matches in the competition had gone, Wisden India had spoken to Intikhab Alam, the manager of the team, to get an idea of what exactly the matter with Pakistan is. He, too, had pointed to the batting frailties.
“We have a lot of youngsters that selectors have put their faith in. Results won’t come overnight. We have to be patient; we have to keep at it. The sky is the limit actually. We are trying very hard; the coaches are trying very hard. But you have to be very patient when you are building a new side,” he said.
Alam felt that while fast bowling hadn’t suffered in his country, batsmanship certainly had. He spoke of the bigger picture; the setbacks Pakistan has had to deal with in recent years with the international ostracism, to explain the rot.
“Actually, we are fortunate as far as the bowling is concerned. We have been able to produce the fast bowlers, and some spinners as well. But we have to rely on our domestic cricket. It’s very competitive, but (international) teams are not coming to Pakistan since the attack on the Sri Lankan team. We play abroad. It’s been a painful journey,” he explained. “It’s difficult for the players, the fans, the PCB … we play away from home all year. It affects the team. We are trying our best, but we haven’t been able to prepare a bench strength. It requires a lot of mental and physical strength. We have done better in Tests, where we have more experience. Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis (Khan) are there, and Azhar Ali has come along. With T20s and ODIs, it’s been tougher.”
Alam also expressed hope that even though the present was rather imperfect for the Pakistan T20I team, the PSL should be able to ensure that the future looked better.
“PSL is the best thing to have happened to Pakistan cricket. People were glued to the TV. We want it to happen in Pakistan, which is a realistic hope. Maybe not immediately, but sometime soon, I hope. In the next two years, it might do for Pakistan cricket what the IPL has done for Indian cricket, with more and more youngsters rubbing shoulders with the greats of the game,” said Alam.
In the subcontinent, two years is a very, very long time when it comes to the national cricket team. Alam might well be right, and Pakistan might become a force again in a couple of years. But the focus and attention is always on the here and now. And that doesn’t look good for the national T20 team at all.