Pakistan’s success a win for cricket at large

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Pakistan are returning to the glory of the good old days. Photo: Dunya News

Ah Pakistan. How we love you and your carefree approach to the game.

We had written you off after your embarrassing loss to India, but we shouldn’t have. Clearly we had forgotten your modern-day trademark – to win games when nobody expects you too and when your backs are firmly against the wall.

It’s true. These days, nobody knows which Pakistan is going to show up. The one that plays like a newly assembled group of park cricketers, or the one that is capable of defeating the powerhouses of the international game through grit and determination.

We saw it against South Africa, where a master-class in reverse swing bowling from Amir, Junaid and Hasan saw Pakistan dismiss one of the tournament favorites for a total of 219, before Malik made hay while the sun shone against a South African bowling attack ravaged by Kolpak deals.

It was brilliant to watch. Not simply because reverse-swing has seemingly gone AWOL since the introduction of two new Kookaburra balls, but because cricket thrives when Pakistan is playing like they did in the days of Akram and Imran.

But these occasions are few and far between; only appearing when you least expect them too.

Even against Sri Lanka, Pakistan could have pulled a Pakistan and collapsed short of the finish line like a dehydrated marathon runner. They were already seven wickets down when the game was completed and captain Srafraz had been dropped not once, not twice, but three times in quick succession by an undisciplined Sri Lankan side who fielded as if they were ready to board the plane home. Not like a side that was desperate to give its travelling supporters something to cheer about.

Plain and simple, Pakistan wanted it more than Sri Lanka; they were hungrier for victory.

This approach is evident in the Test Match arena as well. Out of nowhere they have climbed the ICC rankings quicker than a feral cat scaling a telephone pole despite the fact they are a side of lightweight’s taking on the heavyweight champions of the world.

They’re unpredictable and often enter a bout as rank outsiders, but when you least expect it they’ll throw a haymaker that knocks their opponents to the ground quicker than a right-hook from Mohammad Ali.

This is best exemplified by their captain, the enigmatic Sarfraz Ahmed; and their coach, the often misunderstood and unorthodox Mickey Arthur. A man best remembered for being sacked after setting the Australian team homework on their tour to India in 2013. The clincher here is that, if you can recall, he played the role of headmaster and sent a few of his player’s packing for failing to complete it.

Unsurprisingly, Australia lost that series 4-0.

Arthur is like the teachers pet sitting on his lonesome at the back of a dimly lit classroom. He is bullied, bruised and teased for his differences, but makes his peers red with envy when he passes a test he is tipped to fail. Luckily for Arthur, he has made a habit of doing so just when the knives of his doubters, namely those being wielded by members of the PCB, begin to sharpen.

When he rose from his seat on Monday evening to celebrate Pakistan’s progression to the semi-final stage of the Champions Trophy, some of that unbridled joy would have been pure, unadulterated relief. Only a week earlier his job was under threat. India had handed Pakistan their backsides and there were whispers that the waters had muddied in the team camp.

But, like an unpopular high school student, he overcame the hurdles of adversity and passed the test. A sign that Arthur has pitched his tent on Pakistan’s property like a nomadic traveller and doesn’t plan on leaving until those with more power come knocking.

Nothing about Pakistan is conventional. But they always seem to find a way to get the job done.

Shortly before the start of the Champions Trophy, Pakistani opener, Sharjeel Khan, was banned for spot-fixing and yet another strike was put against Pakistan’s already sullied name.

Due to Sharjeel’s absence at the top of the order, Pakistan was forced to draft in a debutant during a major world tournament. Hardly ideal.

Quite clearly, corruption continues to act as a major stumbling block for the progression and performance of Pakistan cricket.

Young opener Fakhar was thrown into the deepest of dead ends and has responded admirably, scoring a half-century against Sri Lanka. But what if he hadn’t. How much could you blame on Sharjeel’s alleged crimes?

How much could you blame corruption for Pakistan’s struggles during the start of the decade, a period spent without whiz kid Mohammad Amir, who was rubbed out of the game along with two other members of Pakistan’s set-up for dealings with an illegal bookmaker.

Mohammad Irfan, a member of Pakistan’s ill-fated 2015 World Cup Campaign, was also banned at the beginning of this year for failing to report approaches by bookmakers linked to spot-fixing. As a result, Pakistan have had no choice but to introduce young, inexperienced seamers whose performances could have seen them exit the Champions Trophy without so much as a whimper.

Pakistan has a worrying association with corruption, but a finals berth at the Champions Trophy would make many players reassess the reasons why they play the game.

England awaits.

A post mortem of Australia’s cursed Champions Trophy campaign

Australia's Aaron Finch and Steve Smith (right) look dejected
Finch and Smith in the cordon – Photo: Indian Express

Losing to the Poms is always a bitter pill for Australian’s to swallow, but it is made far worse when it occurs in a must-win game at fortress Edgbaston and results in the elimination from a tournament you’re expected to get within touching distance of winning.

Sure, we can blame the rain for ending a game we should’ve won. Bangladesh will go through to the finals but they were totally outplayed by Australia and should consider themselves more than lucky.

They finish on three points having beaten New Zealand at Cardiff, and more thrilled for them I could not be. However, something must be done about the DLS system, because Australia have been robbed of the chance to show their wares beyond a sudden death group stage match-up that for only a fleeting moment they looked capable of winning.

Bangladesh have not played better cricket than Australia. Yet they are the one’s progressing to the finals.

At the Oval on Tuesday, Australia were within four overs of sending the Bangladeshis packing when rain intervened and both sides were gifted a point, much to the delight of their captain Mashrafe Mortaza, who said in no uncertain terms that Australia totally outplayed Bangadesh and were on a collision course for victory.

That’s it. Four overs was the difference between qualification and a plane ticket home. How can this be justified?

Call me a whinging Australian with a God complex, but that Australia, the better of the two sides, cannot progress beyond the group stage despite demonstrating their dominance over the very opponents that will, means there is something seriously wrong with the current system that decides upon a victor in the event of rain.

There are no two ways about it, Australia played poor cricket against England and deserved to be beaten. In fact, nothing about the brand of cricket they played across the entire tournament said they were entitled to a finals berth.

In the games against New Zealand and England, the bowlers lost their radar and were unable to take wickets at regular intervals nor stem the flow of runs when batsmen were set; so inconsistent was their line and length. King of the ODI castle Mitchell Starc was Reduced to a mere peasant, rarely able to hone in on a yorker length as he did so routinely back in the 2015 World Cup. Cummins, for all his star power and raw pace, was more expensive than a three course meal at a Turkish restaurant; the quicker he delivered the ball, the quicker it found the rope.

Only Hazlewood and Zampa can be commended for their performances with ball in hand. The former will return to Australia having bagged nine wickets in just three, rain affected matches, while the latter, often neglected by his captain at crucial stages of the innings, can depart knowing he has made a difference in this tournament.

While he couldn’t match the feats of Adil Rashid, who himself has battled through periods without the full backing of selectors, his craft is slowly developing and he is now apart of the fabric of Australia’s ODI team. Why Smith elected to bowl part time slow-bowler Travis Head before him, a specialist leg-spinner, beggars belief and was a tactic that failed to produce enough wicket taking opportunities for it to remain a viable option. Hopefully Australia have learnt their lesson and will stray from this line of thinking in the future.

It was a strange tournament for the batsmen. We can make all the excuses in the world about the weather preventing them from getting any semblance of match practice under their belts, but they are professionals and we need to see more in the way of adaptability.

Finch, a man who is no stranger to English conditions, looked out of touch in the first two games but returned in the last with a typically defiant innings filled with strokes born of power and aggression. His opening partner was just as fluent, but was dismissed after a promising start which saw him crunch a few boundaries in quick succession to kick-start Australia’s innings. If Australia were to win, he too needed to join Finch in reaching a half century at the very least. A start of 21 was never going to suffice.

Other notable performances came from captain Steve Smith, who continues to tick milestones off his list, and Travis Head, whose late order hitting edged Australia towards a respectable total. The rest were, without sugar coating it, extremely poor.

It was rather stupefying not to see Chris Lynn force his way into the Australian side for their clash with England. Moises Henriques was again given the nod ahead of him and provided nothing after a strong start from the top three, eventually falling to a poor stroke which saw Smith hammer the turf with his bat in frustration, perhaps acknowledging he had made the wrong decision.

There is no doubt Chris Lynn was the perfect man for the situation Henriques found himself in. Finch, Warner and Smith had set a platform and Australia were looking at a total of 300+ which, given England’s track record post the 2015 WC, was a requirement if they were to win and progress to the finals.

Lynn’s free-flowing stroke-play and absence of fear could have seen him capitalise on what was, at the time, some wayward bowling from Plunkett and Stokes. But Smith persisted with Henriques, perhaps hoping that his potential and raw skill would transform into an X-factor that could influence the game and help set a challenging total for England’s batsmen. As it stands, he leaves the Champions Trophy with a lowly average of 9 and his career hanging by a thread.

Speaking of outlandish selections, why was Pattinson, and Hastings for that matter, consigned to the carrying of drinks? For those who are unaware, Pattinson has been playing county cricket for Nottinghamshire and performing admirably in the Royal London one-day cup. Of all the Australian’s, he would’ve no doubt understood the conditions more than his other fast bowling counterparts who have been lapping up the dusty wickets in the IPL, yet he was never given the opportunity.

There is a pecking order in Australian cricket and Cummins, quite clearly, through pace and perhaps a smidgen of extra experience, is currently ahead of the Victorian spearhead.

So where do Australia stand now in ODI cricket? Like I said in my last article, they are far from the side that took the field against New Zeland in the World Cup final of 2015; lacking as they are both in experience and genuine match winners capable of matching it with the Stokes, de Villiers and Kohli’s of the world.

Clarke and Johnson, two of Australia’s finest warriors, have left a hole in the ODI side bigger than those at Gina Rinehart’s mining sites. For this reason, and many others that are within the players’ control but don’t appear any closer to a solution, Australia are now well below the powerhouses of the international game – India, England and, err, South Africa – and languishing somewhere around the middle of the field which is currently occupied by New Zealand and Pakistan. They are powerful at their best and woefully inconsistent at their worst.

Sure, some of the stars of the game reside in Australia’s side, but if we can take one thing away from this Champions Trophy it is that you need substance beyond your top order. New Zealand didn’t have it; neither did Australia. But England sure do, and India, with Dhoni and Yuvraj at the helm, have it in spades. That is why we are set for a repeat of the final of four years ago once again this time around. Bat is dominant over ball in this era and a strong order can atone for the sins of the bowlers.

Buckle your seat belts, folks. We are in for a wild ride!

ICC Champions Trophy update – guillotine looms large over Australia’s finals aspirations

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Australia must win their game against Bangladesh or face fierce backlash. Picture: DNA India 

We’re three days into the Champions Trophy and already it is becoming clear who the contenders are for the crown. England cruised to victory against Bangladesh, who put up a valiant fight but were ultimately lacking star power at the back end of their batting innings. New Zealand gave Australia a good scare and, had rain not ruined proceedings, you can’t help but think that the Kiwis would’ve won that game given the way they started with the ball. Finch, Warner and Henriques were already back in the shed when play was called, and the run rate was quickly creeping up on the Australians like a Lion stalking a Zebra in the dead of night.

South Africa also got their tournament off to a winning start on a slow, placid Oval wicket. Sri Lanka performed exceptionally well with the ball to restrict South Africa to a sub 300 total, but fell short in the run chase despite a strong opening stand from Dickwella and captain Tharanga. Had a few more batsmen chipped in, Sri Lanka would’ve given South Africa an almighty fright. But the guile of Imran Tahir proved too much for a Matthews-less Sri Lanka who, much like Bangladesh, are missing the star power in their late to middle order, making any chase over 325 a real struggle.

The slowness with which Sri Lanka got through their fifty overs yesterday evening was nothing short of farcical. It is no secret that one-day cricket is withering on the vine and slow over rates aren’t helping its cause. At one point during last night’s game, Sri Lanka had just twenty minutes to bowl ten overs. How the umpires allowed it to get to this point is beyond comprehension and goes to show that the ICC must do something to ensure we are not sent to sleep by batsmen calling for a refreshment every second over.

Banning the captain for one match is quite clearly failing to deter sides from taking their sweet time in setting fields, or from captains talking to their bowler as if they are relaying Chinese whispers. The only way to stamp this out is by introducing in-game penalties which are enforced by the on-field umpires. For example, if Sri Lanka go 45 minutes beyond their allotted time, and the batsmen aren’t calling for drinks at regular intervals, runs should be added to the opposition total. Whether this means adding 5 runs for every 10 minutes the bowling side goes over time, or cutting the innings off at a certain point, is up to the ICC to decide upon but must be made post-haste to ensure we are spared the nonsense that goes on between overs. Bottom line – fail to make a change now and risk seeing fans turn away from the one-day format in their droves.

Now that this little pet-hate of mine is out of the way, we can move on and talk about the cricket. Australia might be just one game into their campaign but already they are under great pressure to progress beyond the group stage. Rain is predicted for their clash with Bangladesh on Monday meaning they are at risk of going into their final group stage match against England with two no results to their name.

The odds are stacked firmly against them, so it is of paramount importance that they get the team formula right for the remaining matches. Last game, Henriques got the nod ahead of Lynn. While I understand that the selectors may have gone this way because Henriques provides Smith with an extra bowling option if things go awry early, as they did against New Zealand, Lynn is too good a player to waste on water-boy duties. He can change the game in a matter of overs and has the ability to send the ball to Timbuktu no matter the circumstances or conditions. Imagine a top order of Finch, Warner, Smith, Lynn and Maxwell. It doesn’t get much better. These are some of the finest one-day players the world has to offer, not to mention some of the biggest hitters on show, and will ensure Australia pass 300 more times than they fail. Take Lynn out of the mix though and it doesn’t look quite as threatening. Henriques is a fine player but he would be better suited down the order. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a spot for him currently, as Hastings showed on Friday how valuable he is as Australia’s fourth seamer.

On that note, I’m not quite sure what to make of Australia’s bowling effort. It was brilliant at times and horrible at others. Hastings and Hazlewood were the pick of the bowlers and changed the game when it looked like Ronchi might take it away from them. But even they were a little expensive and seemed powerless to stem the flow of runs when Ronchi and Williamson were in full flight. If it weren’t for some late innings brilliance from Hazlewood that sparked a lower order collapse, or the constant rain delays that put the game on hold, Australia would’ve been staring down the barrel of a mammoth total that might have ended their campaign there and then.

This is a telling tournament for Australia. They are still champions of the world but a number of the players who took them to that World Cup final are now making ends meat in franchise T20 tournaments around the globe. An Australian attack without Johnson is a weaker one no doubt, as is a batting order missing Clarke, Watson and an in form Bailey. In the two years since the World Cup trophy was held aloft, Australia have been tremendous on home soil in the one-day format and abysmal against the stronger nations away. They thrashed Pakistan at home last summer and India the year before. But were themselves defeated twice in the Chappell-Hadlee series, and against South Africa last October. More embarrassing the latter could not have been.

So there is plenty riding on this tournament for Australia. We will certainly know more about the side following the next two games then we did coming in to the Champions Trophy. Are they still capable of mixing it with the world’s best or are we witnessing a fall from grace bigger than Texas?

Monday’s game against Bangladesh is huge. Lose that and, suddenly, Australian one-day cricket is in a state of flux. I can hear the knives being sharpened already…