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September 7, 2014

Pakistan’s poor showing in Sri Lanka leaves them with a lot of questions to answer in the lead up to World Cup 2015

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When you are rebuilding or even re-strategising, the view has to be long term. PCB chairman Shaharyar Khan seems to be carrying forward the policy that existed at the time of Zaka Ashraf and survived through Najam Sethi and that is sticking with Misbah-ul-Haq as captain till at least the World Cup, which is six months away. Despite the results one would back him on this.

Shaharyar being the type of man who doesn’t want to drop a pebble into a pond let alone make waves on the still river is likely to go with the flow rather than carry the monkey on his back. The same for the coaches who have disappointed in their first collective outing.

If he were to do that and Pakistan crashed out the chairman could well be blamed for changing the command and control so close to the final charge towards the World Cup. The Test and ODI series loss against Sri Lanka seems to have focused on the scoreboard more than the strategy paper written for it.

In the three limited-overs games the bowling returns of both Mohammad Irfan and Junaid Khan were worrisome even given the niggle Junaid was carrying and that Irfan was bowling after a recuperation period from a leg injury.

Wahab Riaz gave away too many loose balls despite bringing in twice the scalps than the two front liners could put together.

What must concern everyone most, especially Misbah, Waqar and Mushtaq was the fact that Shahid Afridi returned wicketless from the three games where he gave away some six an over in his 20 overs. Mushy especially will be in the line of fire. Being a specialist bowling coach and in his times the deadliest leg-spinner before Warne made his mark in the mid nineties, he is more culpable.

Saeed Ajmal went untested in ODIs with a solitary appearance defending 100 odd runs but it must be pleasing that in his absence and the powerlessness of Afridi, Hafeez did not falter. It is to his credit that the off-spinner finished with a sound average and RPO when everything was falling around him. Some would say that the Sri Lankan batsmen took him with more caution as runs were easy to get elsewhere, but that would not hold water for those who watched him stick to a teasing line and length.

I would have played Anwar Ali and Zulfiqar Babar in the third game instead of Junaid and Afridi; winning series is not as important as giving some time to youngsters who are in line for playing in the World Cup.

As expected though Hafeez wasn’t much with the bat except in one innings, falling to his perennial weakness on off stump. But someone who disappointed far more with the bat was the batsman I have constantly backed, Sharjeel Khan.

He may well be dropped now and though I felt he deserved more chances when he first started failing, I would say that he should make way for another opener.

Fawad Alam proved his mettle. I always had confidence in this youngster, though only for Tests. He demonstrated in the first game that he has the intelligence to pace his innings and finish the game; in subsequent matches that he has standing power. The same for Sohaib Maqsood, who despite a fine first ODI played lower down because the captain and coach don’t have confidence that other batsmen can read the situation so well if early wickets falls, and one of them could be Sohaib. That is how much the Pakistani team strategists have come to rely on him in ODIs.

I feel it is still the old guards’ selfish ambition that is keeping him down; otherwise he deserves the No3 spot more than Hafeez and Younis. Younis as I have said should not be in the limited-overs team. And it should be Hafeez who should be batting at No7.

Misbah and Umar Akmal must be two very worried individuals and I was expecting both to do well. Though it’s no laughing matter, at least those who say that Pakistan win when Misbah departs early can now put aside this theory after the last two ODIs. I nevertheless expect Misbah to come back stronger against Australia next month. After all a whole series without scoring much had to come; he’s held the fort too long.

Though there is some trepidation on the Test front, I’m not too worried there if the selectors make a couple of changes and then stick with them through the season. More on those changes closer to the Australian series; for the moment it has to be said that Pakistan could easily have saved the first Test had their innings lasted for 10 minutes more on the final day or if they had had taken the initiative to get some 20 runs more. Both scenarios were easily achievable if the batsmen had not chosen the puzzling path of blocking, having seen ironically how terribly it unfolded for Sri Lanka earlier in the year against themselves. It was déjà vu except for trading places.

But may I expect acknowledgment from the past PCB loyalists of my case building for Sarfraz Ahmed over the last couple of years? He was a revelation once given equal footing on Asian pitches though Sarfraz had played a fine rearguard knock on a South African track as well. If the prejudice against him is not caged he will be dropped at the first opportunity of course, but hopefully Waqar and Co will see the probability of being bailed out by him if Pakistan predictably collapse. And Australia have the firepower to do that.

Like Sharjeel in ODIs, it has been Khurram Manzoor who has walked the plank for me in Tests and I must accept defeat in my support for him. But pleasing was the way in which Asad Shafiq dug in and, in some way, Azhar Ali, though he really has to do more. The manner of the collapse on the last day of the first Test and the paucity of defense in the second is worrisome.  Misbah disappointed terribly and his bowlers were not outstanding.  Both these failures put more pressure on his captaincy, already being pelted with complaints that it is too conservative and goes into paralysis mode when it should be pressing the opposition more.

That Pakistan relied too much on Ajaml and Misbah throughout the tour and failed should be a wake-up call.

Again, more on that closer to the series in October, but suffice it to say that Pakistan should look for a longer run for some new faces, young and ambitious who are not yet on the radar of the Australian team analysts.

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