Asia Cup 2018: Pakistan's strategy ahead of 2019 World Cup should be debated, not their loss to India in dead-rubber game
As the Pakistan team departed for the Asia Cup, there was an admission, in hushed tones, of how long this was going to be. For the other teams in the tournament it is just a badly scheduled tournament played in weather that is clearly not suitable for cricket; but it's a tournament that gives each of those teams a clear indication of where they stand with nine months left to the ICC World Cup.
For Pakistan it was that, but far more than just that. The next time Sarfraz Ahmed spends more than a week back at his home in Karachi " injuries permitting " will be in April next year. Over the next seven months Pakistan will go from the Asia Cup to "hosting" New Zealand and Australia in the UAE, followed by a tour to South Africa before they come back to the Middle East for the PSL and the second leg of Australia's tour to the Emirates. Pakistan's plans, thus, were reflective of that.
Their ODI team selection was built around this tournament and the subsequent bilateral series being preparation for the World Cup. This is best reflected in their bowling unit: they took six pacers and just two spinners to this tournament, in conditions that are built for spin-heavy attacks " as Afghanistan and India have shown thus far. With the World Cup in England, and a big tour in South Africa, Pakistan were planning on revving up their pace battery over the next two months. Rotations and preservation were the order for this tournament. They didn't want to fall back to Yasir Shah or any other spinner knowing that Shadab will be their go-to guy in their 4pacers+1spinner strategy they plan to use in the World Cup and South Africa. Now that's a strategy worth debating " I, for one, firmly believe that Pakistan would be a better team with the ever-improving (in white ball cricket) Yasir as part of their squad " but it's one that at least has some logic and long-term planning behind it: two things that Pakistan cricket teams have been famous for.
That was Pakistan's plan.
"Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face." Mike Tyson.
Pakistan got punched in the face on Wednesday. Repeatedly. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah landed the first blows, Kuldeep Yadav had the big upper cut and Kedar Jadhav " a man Pakistan had quite clearly not planned for " ended up delivering the knockout blows. All that was left was for the Indian openers to dance over Pakistan's prone body, both enjoying the freedom that such a chase offers in regaining form and confidence.
And so, Pakistan's favourite pastime started. Officially hockey is still the country's national sport and cricket remains the most popular sport in the land; but what Pakistanis really love doing, even more so than moral policing, is starting inquests. So, it began " why wasn't Hafeez in the squad, isn't he a rich-man's Jadhav? Why do Pakistan have only two spinners for this tour? Is a batting unit that goes five-deep long enough? Can Pakistan really succeed with Imam as the other opener? Is Asif good enough for this level? When will Sarfraz realize that being a captain is about more than strategy and man-management, he has to justify his spot in the XI too? And, of course, inevitably, is it time to drop Amir?
The discussion for each of those deserves its own article, but what is interesting is how and when these discussions started. One loss to India " that's all it takes.
The worry for Pakistan is that under the guise of rotation they actually succumbed to those impulses " in trying to bolster their batting they went in with an extra batsman against Afghanistan, which meant that they could never apply the sort of pressure in their bowling that has been the cornerstone of their success in the recent past; Pakistan removed the foundations of the house for an extra pillar. Everything else in the match " Pakistan needing to chase more than they could have planned for; not being able to switch the batting order because there was no Shadab or Faheem; and being strangled after Imam and Babar got out " all came from the mistakes they made in the team selection. Mistakes that were quite obviously being supported by many before the game.
The Pakistani media in 2018 exists on the Goldfish model " everything that happened more than a week ago is ancient history. It was restricted to political "news" channels to begin with, but it has quite firmly entrenched itself in sports media too. Never mind all the progress Pakistan have made in white-ball cricket over the past eighteen months; never mind that this team is so young and inexperienced that only two of the XI that played against India even had 50 ODIs under their belts (only Malik, Sarfraz and Amir have played more ODIs than Jadhav, for instance); never mind that the New Zealand ODI series aside Pakistan haven't really had bad white ball days in the last fifteen months; never mind all that, it was time to rip it all up. It was time to bring back Hafeez to bowl on these pitches, regardless of where the World Cup was (Hafeez averages 49 with the ball in England)! Why was Wahab Riaz being discriminated against " even though there are already four left arm pacers in the squad, who have all outperformed Wahab since the 2015 World Cup, are all younger than him, and are all likely to end up with a better record in England than Wahab (Wahab averages 96 with the ball in England).
There are reasons for this. The narrative makers that descend on any India-Pakistan match aren't the ones who keep up to date with the national team. Perhaps that was never the case, but one imagines that in the pre-cable era when the sole TV channel in the country showed cricket all day, even the casual fan was abreast with the fortunes of the national team. That is no longer the case, now the casual fan descends only during primetime Test matches, multi-nation tournaments or in matches against India. Thus, the calls for Wahab and Hafeez make sense " they were vital members of the team the last time these guys saw their team in action. But for their narrative to be backed by the sports media, that did come as a surprise.
But these are all the fruits of the tree that is Pakistan-India cricket. It captures the imagination of the populace in a way no other aspect can in this country. And when the result of that is a one-sided loss this reaction is the least one should expect.
The reporters, the anchors and the patriots had a minor meltdown due to a loss in a dead rubber game. What happens if, god forbid, Pakistan lose to India in the Super 4s, or maybe even the Final? Mickey Arthur and Sarfraz Ahmed may be planning for next summer, but for way too many in the country it's the next week that matters. Four days into a seven-month long season, and Pakistan are already in crisis. 23 September's match against India is suddenly a must-win game. A must-win game in a tournament that was supposed to be for preparation and experimentation? How quintessentially Pakistani.