On Friday night, Pakistan roared like lions as they toyed with Sri Lanka on their way to an authoritative 83-run triumph in the opening One-day International in Dubai. At the same venue and under lights, Pakistan had succumbed like lambs in the must-win second Test just a few days ago.
The transformation from a side that didn’t know how to finish a match even from seemingly winning positions into one that did it with ease has its reasons. Pakistan’s ODI squad is quite different from their Test lineup though both of them are skippered by Sarfraz Ahmed. Their stunning title-winning triumph in the ICC Champions Trophy in England in June has certainly given Pakistan the sort of confidence that a team needs to continue giving its best. Most of Pakistan’s top performers like Babar Azam favour the two faster formats and do not look comfortable in white clothing.
While under Misbah-ul-Haq, Pakistan proved their mettle in Tests even as they flopped in limited-overs cricket, it seems to be the other way around with Sarfraz Ahmed at the helm.
Just last year, with the seasoned Misbah in command, Pakistan climbed to the top of the Test rankings’ ladder. They were No.1 in the format following a series of impressive results. If Pakistan’s rise to the pole position was surprising then their fall to number 7 is astonishing.
Nothing has gone right for Pakistan since last summer’s Test triumph at The Oval which didn’t just give them a 2-2 series draw against England but also catapulted to the number one spot in Tests. Since they have been thrashed by Australia and New Zealand and even beaten by lower-rated West Indies and Sri Lanka.
These days when it comes to the five-day format, Pakistan are sheep in sheep’s clothing.
It should change and it should change fast.
Back in 2007, Pakistan cricket experienced one of its darkest days when the national team was knocked out of the World Cup at the first hurdle in the Caribbean following a stunning defeat against minnows Ireland in a must-win pool game.
Next May, Ireland will play a historic first Test at home against Pakistan. They are still counted among the minnows of international cricket but against a Pakistan team that recently exposed its weaknesses in all departments of the game, the Irish will fancy their chances of an upset win. May is going to be cold and wet in Ireland and with their brittle batting line-up, Pakistan might struggle. Unless they start taking remedial measures right away, suffering the ignominy of losing a Test against Ireland is going to be a possibility for Pakistan. Apart from the Test against Ireland, Pakistan will also play a two-Test series against England early next summer. The last time Pakistan visited England, they triumphed at Lord’s and The Oval to share the series honours against a highly-rated England side. But then, Pakistan had the services of two of the greatest batsmen of this generation – Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq. When the seasoned duo bowed out, there were fears that Pakistan’s batting will struggle without Mis-You to bolster it. Against an unfancied Sri Lankan side, Pakistan’s batting just didn’t struggle, it flopped. Against better teams like England and in much more challenging conditions from what they faced on batting-friendly wickets in the UAE, things could be much worse.
The problem with Pakistan is that there aren’t any quick fixes. You can’t just replace a man like Younis Khan, with 10,000 runs and loads of experience. You can’t just instill Misbah’s captaincy skills in Sarfraz. Don’t get me wrong. I have great regard for Sarfraz and his fighting spirit. In fact when very few were willing to support him, I was always lavish in my praise for this vastly-talented cricketer. But so far, Sarfraz has been unable to impress me with his captaincy in Tests. But you can’t judge him on the basis of just two outings. My guess is that he has the guts to take up this challenge just like he did in Twenty20 and One-day Internationals. But that’s just a guess. Pakistan should be ready if Sarfraz fails to cope with the pressures of leading them in all three formats. At the moment, however, they seem to be short on options.
Apart from Sarfraz, the other man who has to play an important role if Pakistan are to turn around their Test fortunes is Mickey Arthur. The South African coach was lucky when Pakistan rose to number one in Tests just weeks after he took over last year. But under his watch, Pakistan have slumped to number seven. Though he received a boost when Pakistan won the Champions Trophy, Arthur has yet to prove that he is the right man for the job, especially when it comes to Test cricket.
Similar is the case of Inzamam-ul-Haq. As chief selector, Pakistan’s former captain reaped rewards when Pakistan lifted the Champions Trophy but so far Inzamam has done precious little to justify his position. Inzi’s recent decision to bring in his own nephew in the ODI squad hasn’t helped his cause either.
Last week, the International Cricket Council unveiled a nine-nation Test championship in Auckland. It will begin in 2019 and see nine teams play six series over two years – three home and three away. The league will culminate in a final between the two top teams at Lord’s.
Pakistan’s fans would love to see their team feature in the Lord’s finale. But the way things are going right now, it seems like an unlikely scenario.