An agonising green meltdown in a cold and damp USA – Football News

An agonising green meltdown in a cold and damp USA

After smashing two successive fours off Arshdeep Singh, Naseem Shah put his head down and dejectedly, reluctantly completed a single, off the last ball of the contest. As he looked up, the tears streaming down his cheeks were visible. A familiar, unwelcome foe – cold, cruel defeat – had wrapped him in its embrace; it was all just too much for Pakistan’s express fast bowler.

The setting was the Nassau County International Cricket Stadium, but it might well have been SuperSport Park in Centurion or Old Trafford in Manchester, the MCG in Melbourne or the Wanderers in Johannesburg, venues where Pakistan has tilted at Indian windmills in cricket World Cups – of the 50- and 20-over varieties – and come off second best.

India holds a perfect 8-0 record in the 50-over format, while last fortnight’s six-run heist in New York was its seventh win in eight face-offs in T20 World Cups. Pakistan’s sole victory, by a commanding ten wickets in Dubai in October 2021, is an aberration, no matter how comprehensive it might be, no matter that it catalysed the end of the management era of Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri in a depressing morass of doom and gloom.

The New York loss was especially galling for multifarious reasons. Pakistan’s target was 120, numerically miniscule but worth several more on a treacherous surface. It was still well within reach of a good batting line-up against an inarguably fantastic bowling attack led expertly by Jasprit Bumrah. No matter the conditions, top teams would expect, and be expected, to get the job done even against other top teams eight times out of ten, if not more. This was one that got away, India’s stranglehold that took it home helped along by tameness, timidity and lameness, traits one doesn’t always associate with Pakistan cricket.

A red, white, and blue humbling

What made the defeat even more depressing, if that was possible, was the tournament context. It was Pakistan’s second consecutive loss and, even with two matches still to play, the Men in Green’s future was no longer in their own hands. How could it be, when they had allowed their nerves to get the better of them and been schooled by novices United States in their opening fixture?

As far as upsets go, this must rank as among the most famous in sporting history. A team of part-timers, as an American with no more than passing interest in cricket put it, felling the former champions. David coming swinging and connecting with hefty punches to send Goliath sprawling. A software engineer coding the impossible, a local talent honed overseas shaking up the established order. It was unforgettable drama staged in the theatre that is the T20 landscape on the greatest stage there is in the cricket world. How could it not exhilarate? How could it not sting?

The two Super Overs showcased the best and worst of 20-over cricket. Each was sent down by a left-arm seamer. In the green corner was Mohammad Amir, a former teenage prodigy whose career path took an unexpectedly dark turn owing to indiscretions that were only partially excused because of his influential age at the time of his infractions. In the red, blue and white corner was Saurabh Netravalkar, an international when also in his teens, but at the junior level. At an age when Amir was counting the damage of his spot-fixing follies, Netravalkar was playing for India’s Under-19 side, including under KL Rahul at the World Cup in New Zealand in 2010. After a solitary Ranji Trophy appearance for Mumbai, Netravalkar realised that cricketing ambition might not be matched by commensurate climbs up the ladder, so he made the move west in search of greener professional pastures. Until destiny, and the US, gave him what India couldn’t – an international cap.

Amir went first in the Super Over after USA had taken 11 off the last three balls of regulation play, delivered by Haris Rauf, to push the match into the decider in Dallas. Amir, experienced Amir, nerveless Amir, incredibly gifted Amir. By the time he was done with an over that seemed to last an eternity, he had conceded 18, but only one boundary, a four. Incredible? Indeed. Seven runs came through wides and overthrow wides. Was this an impostor?

United States turned to Netravalkar for a miracle, and he obliged. Without any show of pressure or anxiety. Maybe he didn’t feel the pressure because no one expected anything other than a Pakistan victory, but how could he not feel the pressure stemming from pride in performance? In an admirable show of control and courage, he kept Pakistan at bay. Comfortably, at that. No stutter to the crease, no nervy half-tracker, no sweaty palms. This was sensational stuff. Was he an impostor, too?

The genesis of Pakistan’s first-round elimination from the T20 World Cup lies in that fateful night in Dallas. Now, it’s time to apply salve, hope the wounds heal in quick time, and somehow find the wherewithal and resilience to address and overcome the mental scarring. After all, that will determine how the future unravels.

More ebb than flow

Such has been Pakistan’s lot – and yo-yoing performances – over the years that they have forever been adjectivised with ‘explosive’, ‘unpredictable’, ‘mercurial’. Not all these are used charitably or complimentarily. Pakistan has often been its worst enemy, though the Men in Green have also found ways and means to rouse themselves when it came to the crunch because they were blessed with strong leaders, none more so than the incomparable Imran Khan. Now, there is a massive leadership vacuum, even if Babar Azam is the designated captain.

Babar is an exceptional batter, especially in the two longer formats, but he is no inspirational leader or a tactical genius. From all accounts, he is a very nice person, and being nice and aggressive don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but he doesn’t command attention on the field, he doesn’t have the swagger of a general, he doesn’t stride around like a colossus. He may not so much be a captain by consensus, and one might be doing him gross disservice by basing assumption on appearances if not for the fact that those closely associated with Pakistan cricket confirm that he isn’t the brown trousers sort of leader.

It hasn’t helped Pakistan’s cause, at least at this World Cup, that heading into the competition, the team swapped captains like an ambidextrous shooter switching hands at a circus. Babar made way for Shaheen Shah Afridi made way for Babar in the months leading into the World Cup. The blame for that must lie at the feet of the decision-making group, those that pick and sack captains. It’s hardly the most encouraging development when the team’s best bowler is stripped of the captaincy not long before the biggest T20 competition in the universe though to his credit, Afridi has been nothing but the ultimate team man even if he hasn’t had the returns to show for his efforts.

Wildcard picks

Pakistan brought Amir and Imad Wasim out of the wilderness for the World Cup because of their exploits in the Caribbean Premier League and their familiarity with the conditions here, perhaps taking safe passage to the Super Eights from Group A for granted. As it turned out, they didn’t even make the trip to the Caribbean; their campaign was restricted to Dallas, New York and Fort Lauderdale. Had Amir and Imad delivered in the event of Pakistan progressing deep in the tournament, their recalls would have assumed proportions of a masterstroke. Now, they appear presumptuous and disrespectful of oppositions, even if that wasn’t the intention.

In the aftermath of their humbling exit, question marks have been raised over other selection calls, including those involving Iftikhar Ahmad and Azam Khan, son of former skipper and wicketkeeper Moin. These are inevitable fallouts of a doomed campaign. Fingers are also being pointed at the conservative approach of Pakistan’s batters, not least their openers, Babar and wicketkeeper Mohammad Rizwan. Conveniently overlooked is the fact that with much the same personnel and approach, Pakistan made it to the final of the last edition before losing a tight final to England at the MCG. But public memory is generally short, and nowhere is it shorter than in Pakistan, where a failed campaign is shrouded in an even more diabolical hue when it is accompanied by a loss to India.

Insiders whisper about fissures in the unit, but that’s nothing new when it comes to Pakistan cricket, is it? At the best of times, they have been a house divided but somehow united in the common pursuit of cricketing glory. In Imran, Javed Miandad, Wasim Akram during his early days in that role, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Misbah-ul-Haq, they had strong and inspirational leaders — some quiet and others outlandishly outspoken – who knew what it took to keep an outfit together and how to get their colleagues to set personal differences aside.

Pakistan team players’ obsession with social media, and their compulsive reactions to the venom spewed therein, hasn’t helped either. Several decisions are influenced, it is said off-handedly by those who claim to be in the know, by popular opinion, which can’t be a healthy development if it is true. Pakistan is ranked seventh in the ICC T20I rankings, fourth in the ODI charts, sixth when it comes to Test cricket and currently occupy the fifth position in the World Test Championship points table. These don’t necessarily point to a team in terminal decline, but remedial measures are required, immediately, if a gradual upward climb is to materialise.

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