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March 27, 2016

Why we lose


March 27, 2016

The first edition of what is now known as the Cricket World Cup was held in 1975. Including that event, there have been a total of 11 World Cups so far. Pakistan won in 1992 and made the finals in 1999. In the past 16 years, Pakistan has not made it to the finals of any World Cup.

The first ICC World T20 was held in 2007. Pakistan was a finalist. In 2009, Pakistan won. Since 2009, there have been four T20 championships (including the one currently going on in India). Pakistan has not made the finals of any of them.

Since 1988, there have been 11 world cups for under-19 cricket teams. Pakistan made the first finals back in 1988. Since then Pakistan has won twice (in 2004 and 2006) and has also made the finals twice (in 2010 and 2014).

In case you don’t see a pattern, let me spell it out. We have talent. We suck at technique.

I remember many, many years ago reading an interview of Mark Calcavecchia, the 1989 British Open golf champion. What he said, to the best of my recollection, was something like this:

“When I was young, I used to beat everybody because I had talent and they didn’t. And talent beats no talent every day of the week. Then I turned pro and I started losing because everybody else didn’t just have talent, they also had technique. And talent plus technique beats pure talent every day of the week.”

Our (men’s) cricket team’s problem is the same problem faced by the young Calcavecchia: we have talent, and we have grown accustomed to winning on the basis of talent alone. What we face on the international level though are people with both talent and technique. And talent plus technique beats pure talent every day of the week.

The issue here is not the lack of technique. The issue here is giving a damn about technique.

The most brilliant piece of sports writing I’ve read in recent years is Osman Samiuddin’s ‘The Haal of Pakistan’. If you haven’t read it, please go do so now. In it, Osman describes the propensity of Pakistani cricket teams to rescue victory from the most improbable of situations, to create a desperate magic out of thin air. The analogy he gives is that of a state of ‘haal’, when qawwali listeners are so carried away by the music that they are, quite literally, in ecstasy.

But as powerful as that piece is – and I repeat, it is brilliant – it is also scary as hell. There is a quote in there from Waqar Younis about how “We’ve never given importance to coaching. We were never analytical, or scientific.” What, might you ask, is Waqar’s job today? He is the coach of the Pakistan cricket team.

My point here is that waiting for ecstasy is not a strategy. At least not one that pays in the long run. Sports is not just big business, it is a big deal. Representing Pakistan at cricket is more than playing a game: it means carrying the hopes of millions. And those millions deserve more than a strategy based on a wing and a prayer.

In his book ‘Moneyball’, later a movie starring Brad Pitt, Michael Lewis wrote about how the manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team used statistical analysis to identify the most productive players and to then hire them on the cheap. What sticks in my mind from the movie is the unassailable arrogance of the old guard. They know. Or at least they think they know. Things have always been such. And things will always remain such.

One of the many bright aspects of the PSL was that it finally introduced Moneyball-type statistical analysis to Pakistani cricket. And while there were many reasons why Islamabad United won the inaugural PSL, one of those reasons was the fact that the Islamabad team owners engaged cricket nerds like Hassan Cheema to bring some degree of science to bear on the complicated question of how to put together a winning team.

I spoke to Cheema immediately after the loss to India to try and get some idea as to what had just happened. I wish now that I had recorded that interview but, in pith and substance, what he had to say was that Pakistani cricket is run by dinosaurs, and that too dinosaurs of a whimsical bent.

His first point was regarding team selection. Pakistan’s opening combination in the World T20 has been Sharjeel and Ahmed Shehzad. Yet barely a month before the tournament, neither had been part of the team! Sharjeel was unilaterally added to the Asia Cup squad by Shahid Afridi after he battered the Peshawar Zalmi with a century in the semi-finals of the PSL. And Ahmed Shehzad was added after the Asia Cup when it was evident that Khurram Manzoor was not cut out for T20 cricket.

His second point was regarding preparation. Apparently when Pakistan had toured South Africa some years back, the joke was that South Africa had at least 17 hours of video footage for each Pakistani player, Pakistan didn’t even have 17 hours of footage for the whole South African team.

His next point was regarding the importance of picking not just the right team but of then handling those eleven players in the right way. More specifically, his point was that the batting order could not be treated as set in stone. Instead, one had to take into account the particular moment in the game and then decide who would be the best batsman for the moment. In the India game, for example, the ball was turning square from the first over onwards. And yet Pakistan’s best players of spin (Hafeez and Sarfaraz) came in at six and seven.

I could go on and repeat all of his criticisms. But the point here is not to find fault with specific games and specific choices. Instead, the point here is to note the following: (a) cricket is important; (b) relying on talent-driven ‘haal’ for the odd victory is a lousy strategy; (c) there are better strategies available; and (d) Pakistan keeps on losing because Pakistan keeps on refusing to change.

My further point is that refusal to change is a common Pakistani problem and that it is infuriating in all contexts. Take, for example, the recent pronouncement by the chief justice of Pakistan that “there is no imperfection in our existing judicial system as the same system is working quite well in other parts of the world.” No Sir, the truth is that our existing system is rotten. It does not provide justice to people. Instead, it takes decades for an ordinary case to get decided.

More importantly, we do not have ‘the same system’ as other countries except in the trivial sense that other countries also have judges who decide cases. Other countries have functional administrative and regulatory systems which prevent title disputes from arising.

Our system of land title has remained essentially unchanged for almost a thousand years and is the single biggest source of litigation in Pakistan. It is a hideous anachronism and needs to be discarded.

Similarly, other countries have functional systems of court management. The average lawyer in London or New York knows a year in advance as to when his cases are going to be argued. I find out my schedule for the coming week on the Saturday before that week starts. Yes, this is ‘a system’. No, it is not a good system, let alone a system free from imperfections.

Pakistan needs to change. Its systems need to change. There are better alternatives available. It is time we adopted them.

The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Twitter: @laalshah

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