Pakistan may have won the second Test match against Bangladesh with a huge margin and with it the Test series there, but the fact remains that it is in a precarious position when it comes to qualifying for the 2017 Champions Trophy – the cut-off date being September 30, 2015 just over three months away. And following the 0-3 loss to Bangladesh prior to their Test triumph, Pakistan have slipped to 9th position in the ICC ODI rankings where they currently are, prior to starting the ODI series against Zimbabwe at home. Remember whichever are the teams on 9th and 10th positions will have to play a qualifying round against the 11th and 12th ranked side for the two positions that make up the final ten teams.
As things stand now, Pakistan have 87 points, one point below Bangladesh who have risen to 88 and are now in 8th position. That is the same number of points as West Indies have who are on 7th.
The hope for Pakistan is that they have a 3-match ODI series lined up against Zimbabwe and then a 5-game ODI series against Sri Lanka in midsummer to raise their points and ranking. The first affords them the best opportunity to rise to 8th or above; playing Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka is going to be very, very tough. Not only are they a dangerous side, but on home conditions they can be hazardous for touring teams.
West Indies unfortunately have no more ODI cricket till September 30 which means they will stay on 88 points when the time comes to count the top eight who qualify directly. They are truly helpless and are relying on events beyond their ambit of control.
This is because Bangladesh also have three ODIs against India and South Africa before the September 30 deadline. The way they are playing at the moment it is not a pipe dream anymore that they can defeat both these opponents and rise even further.
In effect, then Pakistan could just pip West Indies if not Bangladesh for the 7th / 8th position and push them into 9th position unless Bangladesh flop completely against India and South Africa.
But the question remains: how have Pakistan ended up in such a position where they are not assured of a direct entry into the Champions Trophy pool if the rankings were to remain the same by September end this year?
Well, clearly team strategy has played a huge role in it. The tour selection committee has been making so many experiments ever since Waqar Younis took over as coach last summer that no player has settled down into a confidence mode. Players don’t know their roles in the side – some are insecure, some afraid of being dropped unless they do exceptionally well. And even then they get a lease of life extending to maybe a couple of games after which they can well be dropped; maybe even exit the scene altogether.
This leads them to play under great stress which makes them falter one by one and the team loses. For instance, Sarfraz performed extremely well in his new role as T20 and ODI opener against Australia last year but was slotted down to No. 7 against New Zealand, a few weeks later. Then not considered for the opening position in the World Cup after Hafeez went home even though the selectors had informed the media that he was selected as third opener.
In fact he was not even selected as the specialist wicketkeeper until the going got desperate. Imagine the uncertainty that haunted him. Then even when he performed magnificently when reinstated, he was dropped from the third ODI against Bangladesh after just two games. So the players think that even when they do well, they are on a short lease. Then there are communication issues between the team management and players. Ahmed Shahzad and Umar Akmal were dropped suddenly and together which upset the balance somewhat. There was rancour on the World Cup also. The players complained that the training sessions were getting too intense and there was danger of players breaking down. Grant Luden, the trainer, may have been right on paper when it came to the grueling schedule but I think he lost sight of the fact that the fitness level of most of the players had not reached critical mass since the eight months he had been in charge. Old habits die hard and there are cultural hindrances (Pakistanis have never been fitness freaks like, say, the Australians).
As such going the extra stretch (no pun intended) broke down what muscles they did have going. We lost Mohammad Irfan during the World Cup and Sohail Khan, Rahat Ali and Ehsan Adil all subsequently succumbed to physical pressure on their bodies. This robbed Pakistan of its front line bowlers against Bangladesh; they may not have been the best in business, but they were the ones Pakistan was relying upon. And those who didn’t break down, like Wahab Riaz, lost steam from absolute fatigue. Then, too, players like Junaid Khan are making a return after months of lay-offs and are not immediately potent.
Another factor that has impacted on Pakistan has been the unavailability of their prime time spinners since last summer due to bowling action issues. I am talking here of Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Hafeez who were the main cogs in blocking the run rate of the opposing batsmen. That is one fault that you can’t lay on the feet of the coach, trainer and selectors.
So what is the future? Well, there is time for the injured bowlers to recover before the team goes to Sri Lanka. In between there is Zimbabwe to play, but without Brendon Taylor to carry their batting, Pakistan may get through their batting line-up without their full strength bowling attack being available. Pakistan may well play Imran Khan along with Wahab Riaz until at least Rahat Ali and Sohail Khan become available for the Sri Lanka tour. The ongoing Twenty20 domestic tournament can also throw up some bowler in prime form.
The acceptance within PCB is also fast emerging that domestic cricket is not throwing up quality players. There are noises emerging that nepotism and favouritism, rather than merit is going into the selection of the junior and first class teams. There is a feeling that the Chairman of the PCB is not in total control; that the board of governors has members that are influencing most, if not all the decisions that go into the making of Pakistan cricket.
Every game needs to be planned well, and years in advance before it bears fruit. The state of pitches and the grounds, fitness levels and the mindset of the players as well as the organisers need to change drastically if Pakistan are to rise again. In Test matches, where there is time on hand, situations can be salvaged. In limited over cricket we are panicking because there is no time to adjust when Plan A goes wrong. In fact Plan A is all we have, and so often it is not working which is why we are staring at a possible qualification stage for the Champions Trophy.