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Friday, April 1, 2011

Afridi and Waqar, take a bow

There’s been something strange and oddly compelling watching Shahid Afridi and Waqar Younis mold this Pakistan team. It’s difficult to precisely say why. If I were to put my finger on it, it’s probably because of the way they’ve personified that famous Walt Whitman quote – “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
For one thing, their defensiveness doesn’t quit fit with who we know them to be. Calling Waqar and Afridi “aggressive cricketers” would be like calling the Battle of Stalingrad a skirmish – both Waqar and Afridi, as individuals, play(ed) breathtakingly attacking cricket. And yet, their tactical decisions betray an almost-unPakistani mindset of containment and “good areas”. It almost makes no sense.
Then there’s the maturity, unity, togetherness and sense of camaraderie that has permeated this team. Where did it come from? Waqar famously led the revolt against Wasim Akram prior to the 1994 New Zealand tour, and was a central figure in the fractious 1990s, when we always seemed to have eight captains on the field at any one time. Afridi, for his part, has always been involved in some shenanigans or the other – biting a ballballet dancing on the no-go areas of the pitch, and even channeling his inner Inzamam in almost hitting a spectator with a bat.
And yet somehow, some way, these are the guys who’ve been at the forefront of a team that has practiced hard, that has maximised its potential, that has seen no serious disciplinary problems, that has backed each other and fought for each other. A team that didn’t suffer from selection controversies or dead coaches or players getting into dressing-room fights or getting caught with drugs – recreational or otherwise. No incidents at the airport or at their hotel or at a night club. No one faked injuries and no one sought asylum.
And here’s the kicker: the man universally described as having the smallest brain in Pakistan, Lala himself, gave one of the most honest, heartfelt, generous, intelligent and mature press conferences I’ve ever heard from anyathlete in any sport. Seriously, if you haven’t heard it, go have a listen. And remember, this is after suffering a heartbreaking loss on cricket’s biggest stage. Listening to that, I thought to myself: this is the same Afridi? The absolute nutter that is Afridi is suddenly a diplomat, winning Indian hearts and minds? Really? Evidently, yes.
Afridi and Waqar are, as a collective, the main reason I’m not terribly upset at the semi-final loss. Look, does losing to India hurt? Of course. Does losing a semi-final hurt? Well, yes. And when you combine the two, there’s an awful lot of hurt, no doubt. But these guys gave it their all. They were professional throughout. You can’t ask for more. I’m proud of them.
Plus, we’ve experienced worse. Bangalore 1996. Lord’s 1999. Sydney 2009. Those are just three off the top of my head that absolutely, positively, hurt more. This loss wasn’t even close to those.
My one criticism of the team management would be their penchant for pigeon-holing. If they decided that something, or someone, fit in a particular spot or a particular role, they didn’t budge. They needlessly restricted their own options.
Look at how we used our batting powerplays – in only one match did we take it before the 43rd over, and even the one time we used it “early” (against New Zealand) it was because we were 8 wickets down and the game was essentially over. Three times while chasing small totals – against ZimbabweAustralia and West Indies – we didn’t even use it, even though it could’ve helped our net run rate. We were stuck in a “must hit only in the last seven overs” mindset and refused to innovate.
Or examine some of our players and how they were used. I look at a guy like Mohammad Hafeez, and I think that this guy suffers from low expectations. He has the talent to score 100s but he gets out after 30 or 40 because he’s okay with getting out at 30 or 40. He thinks he’s done his job.
My sense is the management has told him “you’re an all-rounder – you have to chip in with wickets and you have to chip in with runs and you have to take catches.” All of which he does. But he could do more. He certainly has the ability to do more. But for that to happen, the management has to make it incumbent on him to do more. Set high expectations and not box him in as a “chip-in” player. Tell him: just because you can contribute with the ball doesn’t mean it’s okay to give it away after making 40. What I saw in that insane paddle against Munaf Patel was not necessarily someone who threw his wicket under pressure, but someone who thought he’d done his job. That’s partly his fault, but also partly the management’s fault – they see Hafeez as a “chip in player” and so he feels no need to exceed those expectations.
Our batting order, and the strategy of conserving wickets for the big hitters down the order, was another example of pigeon-holing. Everyone had their role, which can be a good thing. But the sheer inflexibility on display in our tactics – yes, Misbah and Younis, I’m looking at you – ultimately caused our demise. We were so beholden to a particular way of batting that we couldn’t adjust when we needed to.
Ultimately, these are minor quibbles. Be honest: if someone had offered us a platter of (a) winning our group, (b) beating Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka and ending Australia’s 34-match winning streak in World Cups, and (c) a semi-final berth before the tournament started, we’d have taken it in a heartbeat.
And I’m going to savor the spirit and joie de vivre with which our team played, because I know it won’t last. This isn’t cynicism, it’s just me getting old enough to recognize patterns in our cricketing history. Our last period ofbhai-bhai-dost-dost was from about 2005 to 2006, when Inzamam united a pretty young team under his fatherly influence. The last one before that was Wasim’s third stint as captain, around 1999-2000, when he had learned some harsh lessons from earlier failures and became a better communicator and leader. But those periods prove to be transient for reasons that would require a post – or a book – on their own. The point for now is to just applaud and appreciate the men who’ve made us all proud, and the men who’ve led them: Shahid Afridi and Waqar Younis, take a bow.
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