As 2015 approaches and Pakistan go through their ritualistic disastrous build-ups to a World Cup (WC), a signature of the side since the tournament's 2003 edition, desperate fans try to clutch at straws by coming up with similarities between 2015 and the Holy Grail of Pakistan cricket: 1992. The WC returns to Australia and New Zealand for the first time since that starry evening in Melbourne when Wasim Akram forced physicists across the world to revisit their core beliefs, while simultaneously providing a lifetime supply of material for YouTube Daily Motion video-makers by puckishly disturbing Allan Lamb's off stump.
For the most faithful amongst us, the same venue is justification enough but for those who need a little more convincing, Misbah’s Niazi heritage, the dichotomy between Afridi and Misbah (Javed-Imran), Sohaib Maqsood's laidback Inzamam-styled bat swings and the sheer fact that Junaid Khan bowls left-handed are all signs that Pakistan will repeat the miracle Down Under. The belief is so unwavering that Saeed Ajmal's suspension has already been compared to losing Waqar Younis before 1992. At this rate, Nasir Jamshed hitting a purple patch and getting injured right before the WC will only be taken as a positive given the fate of Saeed Anwar twenty-three years ago.
The reality, however, resides in the shadow of doubt that has made a permanent home even in the most optimistic Pakistani fans' minds, and by extension the team itself. The loss of Saeed Ajmal is irreplaceable and most probably catastrophic. Afridi being handed the T20 captaincy right at the start of the season that culminates in the WC is only inviting a power struggle. And, to put it lightly, the eternal lack of consistency in the top three is embarrassing. Does Pakistan really have a shot then?
To tell the truth, it does. It does more than most other sides in the tournament, but less than quite a few of the others. That might seem like the most diplomatic statements of all time, but is justified by the nature of the WC as the sport becomes more and more professional. To win a WC in the modern/professional era (2003 onwards for CWCs), a team needs to be firing on all cylinders by the time it hits the second round. Its preparation needs to be top-notch, with special attention given to the mental capacity of the squad and how it would fare under situations of intense pressure. Relatedly, the team needs to have the hunger and self-belief to pull through these testing situations. Even if all these bases are covered, in the end winning the World Cup will come down to which way the pendulum swings in those tiniest of ‘what-if’ moments (Herschelle Gibbs’s drop chance of Steve Waugh, Sachin's grounded toe off an Ajmal stumping, etc). The point is that almost all of the major eight cricketing nations have a shot at what will be the most open WC in recent memory. Winning the whole competition in the end, given its overly forgivable format, is really all about winning three matches on the trot. No team will be a clear frontrunner until the WC is well underway. Here is what Pakistan needs to do to make a deep run into the tournament.
"To win a World Cup in the modern/professional era, a team needs to be firing on all cylinders by the time it hits the second round. Its preparation needs to be top-notch, with special attention given to the mental capacity of the squad and how it would fare under situations of intense pressure"
Misbah, the man to lead Team Pakistan
One of the key factors behind a successful team is stability. Pakistan has not tasted much success of late, but what Misbah has been instrumental in providing is stability to the current players' mindsets. Most of the squad has been playing as a group for the past two to three years. Misbah has been vital towards breeding this sense of security amongst what is one of the most mentally fragile and insecure group of individuals. You can see some positives coming through in the batting as batsmen like Ahmed Shehzad, Umar Akmal, Sohaib Maqsood and Fawad Alam start to find their feet. For better or for worse, this is Misbah's Team now, and he should have the firm backing of the team and board management to prevent any inevitable infighting. Making Afridi T20 captain and statements of assuring him captaincy till the 2016 WT20 closely resembles the build-up of the last WC with the roles of Misbah and Afridi reversed.
It is too late to lose faith in Misbah now. He has worked hard to bring Pakistan cricket back from the brink, and is the only deserving candidate to lead the side Down Under.
Wahab, the main all-rounder?
It’s a shame Abdul Razzaq never got to play a WC in Australia/New Zealand at his peak, because the conditions there suited an all-rounder of his nature. This World Cup is going to be won by strong fast-bowling all-rounders. It is the main reason New Zealand (Anderson, Neesham), South Africa (McLaren), Sri Lanka (Mathews, Pererra) and Australia (Watson, Johnson, Faulkner) are extremely strong contenders to go the whole hog.
As useful as our spin all-rounders have been, our team is incomplete without at least one genuine all-rounder in the fast bowling mould. Wahab Riaz is the only one that comes close to filling those shoes. He is not there yet but he has the potential to assume the position for Team Misbah. Both Bilawal Bhatti and Anwar Ali are susceptible bowlers, and with Hammad Azam nowhere near international reckoning, efforts would be much better targeted by making Wahab aware of this role and define his position in the side. His bowling is already showing improvement under Waqar, and he has some vital cameos with the bat behind him. It is up to Wahab and the coaching staff to work on both facets of his game as come World Cup time, he could be the difference in how far Pakistan progresses.
Batting Dos and Don’ts
In Ahmed Shehzad, Fawad Alam, Umar Akmal, Sohaib Maqsood and Misbah, Pakistan have a decent batting order that has started to blossom. Shehzad has gained confidence at the top, but needs to work on rotating the strike more often. Younis Khan, as great a batsman as he is in Tests, is only going to cause further headaches if squeezed into the top order and needs to be kept away from the ODI team. Both Sohaib and Fawad need to bat above Misbah due to their ability to rotate the strike, exploiting Misbah's tenacity in handling pressure down the order. Umar Akmal has been forced to adapt his game to the number six slot and should stay there. Half of Pakistan's batting problems would resolve themselves if Hafeez is pushed down the order, but since that is never going to happen, it's not even worth discussing.
For an Asian side, especially one possessing such gifted spinners, it’s an aberration but our batting currently is one of the worst against slow bowling, especially leg spin. With Pakistan bound to face Imran Tahir/Piyush Chawla/Ravichandran Ashwin/Sunil Narine in the group stages, all the batsmen need to work on how to tackle this diverse array of spinners. Mushtaq Ahmed would obviously need to work overtime, with footage of Younis Khan/Javed Miandad/Salim Malik on sweeping the ball and how to use one's feet coming in handy.
Bring the horses-for-courses approach into play
It's quite simple. Pakistan is terrible at this! With no team being a clear favourite, and conditions poised to play an important part, the team that outthinks its opponent is most likely to succeed. Apologies if this is news, but Pakistan is not going to be a collection of extraordinary talent at this WC. At least four or five other teams will probably field man-to-man better individuals compared to Team Misbah, and not realising this as reality is just going to make Pakistan's task harder.
It will be a collective effort that is going to win Pakistan the crucial games in the tournament and they will need to dig deep into the 16-man squad and insert players according to conditions/opponents to succeed. Afridi, for example, should ideally only be played against teams really susceptible to his style of spin bowling and should be rested against teams like India, South Africa, Australia and Sri Lanka. The surfaces are going to vary vastly. And Pakistan's habit of unimaginative selections, especially not picking an XI based on the opponent and changing conditions, may end up costing them dearly.
Despite the recent dip in form and Ajmal's probable absence, Pakistan's bowling still remains its stronger suit. Mohammad Irfan on Australian pitches is the team's trump card and needs to be treated like gold dust. During the tournament, he needs to be used as aggressively as possible at the start of the innings, which is where he will be most dangerous. Death bowling, even with Ajmal in the team, has suffered drastically over the past year. Waqar needs to work with both Wahab and Junaid along with Gul on bowling in the last 15 overs.
The number of times our opponents recovered at the fag-end after Hafeez has kept things tight in the middle of the innings in the last 15 months is alarming. With Pakistan's mental barrier at chasing anything beyond 240-250, this is all the more important. Hiring Wasim Akram to spend a few weeks with the boys to work specifically on ‘death bowling’ should also be explored.
Don't fret over Ajmal
There is no point worrying about something that the team has little control over. Prepare for a World Cup without Ajmal. If he makes it, well and good and if he doesn't, use it as motivation to perform and win it for him. Look at the positives, bleak as they might be. Ajmal was becoming less of a mystery, given the high amount of video analysis and preparation – and the oppositions solely focusing on him. The best players of spin – Kohli, Amla, AB, Sangakarra – had him figured out and were scoring against him much more freely than before. A good spinner like Raza Hassan will have ‘the unknown factor’ advantage, as most of the teams will be facing him for the first time.
Work on the mental aspect
This is a highly important side of sports that is not given its proper due in our part of the world. In fact, most of the times it is considered taboo to even bring up mental issues, and often rubbished as a sign of weakness in a spuriously machismo society and industry. Lifting the trophy is going to require excruciating levels of mental fortitude. Of course there is no real substitute for the real thing, but there are ways modern professional teams go about building the psychological strength and mental capacities of their players.
There are plenty of examples of this working in cricket itself. Team building and psychological strength building trips were taken by the South Africans before they beat England away in what was a battle for the No.1 Test ranking in 2012. England did something similar before their victorious Ashes trip down under in 2010/11. India had full-time staff and a comprehensive strategy in place to build their 2011 WC team’s mental character, and the PCB itself employed the services of a psychiatrist before their successful 2009 WT20 campaign in England. Something similar, given the physiological trepidations of our batsmen and the undeniable mental trauma that now haunts Pakistan in WC games v India won't go amiss either.
Pakistan has assembled a management team of 1990s era stars for their Cup campaign. More than anything, they need to instil the confidence and belief in the current squad that it can achieve greatness. Waqar Younis' role in this will be absolutely vital. An aggressive bowler, his coaching has often come across as too safe, and will need a touch more imagination and creativity than in 2011. He, of course, was not part of the legendary ’92 team that hoisted the Cup, a fact that probably still hurts him deep inside despite all these years. This summer Down Under provides the perfect opportunity for Waqar to put his hand around the Cup.
(Note: This piece was written prior to the Australia series)
Shoaib Naveed is a sports management professional and hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB)