Pakistan: A fall from grace for the once upon a time KINGS of ODIs
My first few memories of watching cricket on TV or at the stadium involve Pakistan winning tournament after tournament in Sharjah. Aaqib Javed taking a hattrick of LBWs against India, Waqar Younis clean bowling Ian Bishop off the final ball of an ODI to lead Pakistan to a 1 run, Wasim Akram clean bowling Hughes, Rackemann, and Alderman off successive deliveries, are some of my first memories watching cricket on TV or at the stadium in Sharjah.
Pakistan were unbeatable in Sharjah. They always beat India, they won every tournament that took place there, they were the “Kings of the Desert”. They were the best team in the world and Imran Khan was everyone's hero even before 1992 happened.
Then Pakistan won the World Cup in 1992 and they were officially the best team in the world. It was a time when Indian commentators like Sunil Gavaskar would publicly talk about the danger posed by Pakistan and kept saying not to count them out when every newspaper carried headlines of Pakistan's disastrous World Cup campaign.
There were more victories after that World Cup win. More Sharjah trophies were won, there were bilateral series wins, a tri-series win in Singapore, a tri-series win in Australia, and there was another World Cup final.
The 90s was a dream era for every Pakistan cricket fan. Not only did Pakistan win a lot of ODIs, they had a team full of match winners and they held a lot of ODI records.
Highest team total against a test-playing nation, highest individual score, best bowling figures, most individual hattricks, team with most bowlers to take a hattrick, most number of wickets, fastest century, highest partnership for any wicket. Individual and team brilliance shone like never before for Pakistan.
If you grew up watching Pakistan dominate ODI cricket in the 90s, you must be feeling sick in the stomach after their 3-0 loss to Bangladesh. To witness Pakistan fall to 9th in ODI rankings and also watch each and every single one of those ODI records broken over the years has been nothing short of a heartbreak.
Where did it all go wrong for Pakistan?
Typical talk of a bad domestic structure, board level politics, player politics is mere talk. All that existed back then as well. Player rivalries have been part and parcel of Pakistan cricket for as long as it has existed. There have been no bigger rivalries in Pakistan cricket than Imran-Javed and Wasim-Waqar, yet Pakistan rose above all that and dominated opponents on the field.
The domestic structure and the board was just as dysfunctional in the 90s as well. Yet Pakistan was a great team on the field. Pakistan changed more captains and coaches in the 90s than they ever have in their history. Yet they played two World Cup finals and won other ODI tournaments.
All the problems one discusses today existed two decades ago as well so it can't be just that.
Pakistan were so good back then that despite a mediocre decade in ODIs, they still have the third best overall record in ODIs. However, they are such a bad ODI team now that they are on the verge of missing out participation in the Champions Trophy 2017 and face the potential shame of having to play a qualifying round to take part in the World Cup 2019.
What a damning fall from grace
Names like Javed Miandad, Saeed Anwar, Inzamam Ul Haq, Ijaz Ahmed used to give bowlers sleepless nights. While Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar, Saqlain Mushtaq have given the same sleepless nights to opposition batsmen. Yet now opposing batsmen and bowlers lick their lips at prospects of improving their career figures when playing against Pakistan.
There is not a single name in Pakistan that would spell fear in the mind of any cricketer from any team. That includes the eternal minnows Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, and even associates like Ireland and UAE who have all fancied their chances against Pakistan in recent clashes.
What I fail to understand is that during this same period, Pakistan have taken great strides in test cricket. There was a test win over Australia after 15 years. There was a test series win over Australia after 20 years, and that too a clean sweep. There was a clean sweep of the world number 1 test team as well. Forced to make UAE their home, Pakistan have created a fortress there and have not lost a test series in the UAE for as long as that has been their "home"; over half a decade.
Batsmen like Younis Khan, Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq, Ahmed Shehzad, Mohammad Hafeez, and even their captain Misbah have excelled in tests at home and away. Many have managed what greats like Inzamam could not; like scoring test centuries in South Africa. Even batsmen that have been tried in tests over the past 5 years but have not played too regularly like Taufeeq Umar, Khurram Manzoor, and Shan Masood have done brilliantly.
The same names, however, have been utter failures in ODIs.
It is the same system, the same board, the same management, and the same players who have done exceedingly well in tests. Yet when it has come to ODIs they have failed miserably.
Pakistan is fast becoming England but the problem is that they don't play as many tests as England do. It is not that tests have been given a higher priority resulting in Pakistan's relative success in the format as compared to ODIs.
The problems they face in ODIs, i.e. strike rotation, big hitting, and constant mistakes on the field, are not really problems in test cricket. Hafeez and Shehzad can manage to hit a boundary in every over without rotating the strike in tests; they can do that all day if they wish to. Doing the same in ODIs is what causes problems.
I don't know when Pakistan will come out of this rut. Surely it can't get worse after losing to Bangladesh 3-0. Or can it with Zimbabwe coming home?
Pakistan have been trying to revive international cricket at home for as long as it was taken away from them. It has been 6 years since Pakistan has hosted an international cricket match on its land, and they have finally managed to convince Zimbabwe to come over. But an ODI series between the 9th and 11th ranked teams is definitely not what the PCB would have hoped for.
Not many watched the series against Bangladesh. After the 3-0 loss to them, Pakistan cricket has lost more fans. I am not sure if the TV rights have been secured for the Pakistan vs Zimbabwe ODIs, but I highly doubt there would be a race to get their hands on that. Even though cricket is coming back to Pakistan after 6 years, I really do not know if they will be able to fill the stadiums in this heat for a team that has been appalling in ODIs.
In the 90s, people used to drive for 4 hours to reach Sharjah to watch Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Saeed Anwar, Inzamam Ul Haq. Even Aamer Sohail, Ijaz Ahmed, and Saleem Malik had fans. Flash in the pan players like Basit Ali, Zahid Fazal, and Mohammad Zahid also made fans flock the Sharjah stadium.
Who would fans go for now? There is not a single name in Pakistan's ODI line up that one can wish to watch. There are no great players. There is no superstar. There is absolutely no one.
It is great for Pakistan and world cricket that the sport is returning to Pakistan's land. But the timing could not have been worse for Pakistan.
I know this whole rant is all over the place. But that is what I feel like at the moment as Pakistan cricket fan. All over the place.