Pakistani cricket: the defensive mindset that needs to be changed

On a pleasant morning in March this year, I managed to get hold of Shahid Afridi at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground in Colombo. Pakistan were back in the Sri Lankan capital after playing their 2011 World Cup pool games against New Zealand and Zimbabwe in Kandy and were now preparing to meet defending champions Australia in their last league game.

Originally published as: Pakistan cricket needs self-belief

Though the quarterfinals were still a few days away, there was already talk of old rivals Pakistan and India meeting in the last eight stage of the World Cup. The way the two groups were shaping up, there was a big possibility of such a clash taking place in the Indian city of Ahmadabad, something that inevitably refreshed memories of the Pakistan-India quarterfinal of the 1996 World Cup, which Pakistan lost in Bangalore.

I asked Afridi, then Pakistan’s captain, whether his team was ready to face India in the quarterfinals. He first smiled, looked towards the sky and said: “We are hoping that we don’t have to meet them (India) in the quarterfinals. It’s not that we are scared of them it’s just that our team’s strength is nothing as compared to theirs.”

The prayers of Afridi and his boys didn’t go unheard.

Pakistan went on to stun Australia at the R Premadasa Stadium to top the pool and set up a relatively easy quarterfinal against the West Indies. The Greenshirts crushed them by ten wickets in Dhaka only to face India in the first semifinal in Mohali.

I caught up with Afridi again just before the team left for Mohali and asked him whether he was confident facing the Indians in their own backyard. This time his reply was different: “We are ready for them and are confident of reaching the final.”

But his voice lacked something. It lacked self belief. It wasn’t that Afridi thought it was impossible to beat MS Dhoni’s in-form India in India. It was just that he knew that his boys didn’t really believe that they could achieve such a feat.

Pakistan had their moments in that Mohali clash but in the end their lack of self-belief let them down.

Such lack of belief in their own abilities is one of the biggest reasons why Pakistan have become an under-achieving team in international cricket following the glory days of Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and Wasim Akram.

More recently, Pakistan failed to go all the way in their Test series opener against Sri Lanka in Abu Dhabi mainly because, deep inside, they never really believed they could beat their higher-ranked opponents even after taking a huge first-inning lead.

Pakistan’s defensive mind-set, perhaps a product of an alarming dearth of self-belief, allowed Sri Lanka to claw their way back into the match and finally salvage an honorable draw.

This weakness is not just plaguing our players. Our cricket administrators are suffering from it too. They have stopped thinking big and have developed the habit of celebrating even the smallest of wins.

It’s pretty clear that the biggest challenge facing our cricket bosses is the return of international matches to Pakistan. Our country hasn’t played host to a proper international cricket match since the Sri Lankan team was forced to rush back home in March 2009 after being attacked by terrorists in Lahore.

It’s been almost three years since that unfortunate incident took place but so far little has been done to engineer the return of international cricket to Pakistan.

Officially, Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) officials will tell you that they are making all out efforts to convince the cricket world that they should help revive international matches in Pakistan. They will tell you that the PCB was in close consultations with the International Cricket Council (ICC) and other national cricket boards to resolve this issue.

But privately, they will confide in you that the idea of bringing international cricket back to Pakistan is absurd considering the fact that the country is struggling against terrorism as suicide bombings are still a daily routine here.

“Do you expect any foreign team is going to visit Pakistan under such adverse circumstances,” a senior PCB official asked me. “It’s childish to think that international matches can take place in Pakistan in the near future,” he stressed in an informal chat.

Nobody can argue the fact that bringing international cricket back to Pakistan is a gigantic task especially after what happened to Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore. But it’s certainly not impossible.

Even during their fiercest battles against Tamil separatists, the Sri Lankans continued to host international cricket teams for decades. For years Sri Lanka struggled to cope with a civil war but cricket went on.

Our current security situation, in many ways, is worse than what Sri Lanka had to endure but that doesn’t mean that we just sit back and let our ‘home’ matches get played in offshore venues like Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. It just doesn’t feel right.

What our cricket administrators need is self belief and the will to make things happen. It’s true that they don’t have any say when it comes to external factors but they do have the means to prepare a blueprint that can help bring international cricket back to Pakistan.

Ijaz Butt, the previous PCB chairman, announced soon after being relieved of his position by the government earlier this month that the Board has five billion rupees in its coffers. That means funds shouldn’t be a problem for his successor Chaudhry Zaka Ashraf. All the new PCB chief and whatever team he forms around him will need is self belief.

Arab News