La Liga review: Barcelona farewell Xavi in style, Deportivo’s great escape

La Liga comes to an end after yet another exciting weekend and Barcelona are the newly crowned champions of Spain. The last weekend had some spectacular moments to remember, so without further ado, we review the final weekend of La Liga action.

Ronaldo – 3rd Pichichi in a row

Cristiano-Ronaldo-Real-Madrid-celebrates

Barcelona & Messi may have won the league, but it’s Real Madrid’s talisman Cristiano Ronaldo who won the Golden shoe award for the third time in row after scoring a hat-trick against Getafe after 33 minutes of the first half. Madrid went on to win their game 7-3 with Chicharito, Jese, James and Marcelo were the other scorers. Ronaldo also created history by becoming the highest scorer in one season in La Liga ever, with an astonishing tally of 48 goals this season.

Deportivo – A GREAT escape

Deportivo-la-coruna

Deportivo miraculously came from two goals down against Barcelona at Camp Nou to escape relegation which looked certain for most of the match. Desperately needing a point against the newly crowned Spanish Champions, Deportivo hopes were all but gone when they went two goals down with 30 minutes remaining in the second half. But an inspirational performance saw them levelling inside 10 minutes, with goals from Lucas Perez and Diogo Salmao. Granada also escapes relegation with a hard-fought point against the former Spanish champions, Atheltico Madrid at home.

Valencia – Champions League is ON

Valencia celebrate Champions League qualification. Source: Getty.

Valencia qualified for Champions League qualification after a two-year drought. Valencia needed to get a win to keep their fate in their own hands against Almeria, who were fighting for survival and also needed a victory to boost hopes for escaping relegation. Valencia went down twice, but came back both times and finally went into a lead in the 80th minute with a goal who else but Paco Alcacer.

Ancelotti rules out AC Milan return

Carlo Ancelotti

Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelloti reveals that it’s either Madrid or Nothing for this year in his plan. There were reports suggesting that Ancelloti might go back to Milan after a potential sacking due to trophy-less season, at the Bernabeu, but the Italian was quick to refuse that and express his desire to take a break from football if he will be sacked in the coming days.

Barca bid farewell to “graceful” Xavi

Xavi-Hernandez-Barca-farewell

The Camp Nou faithful bid farewell to the club’s one of the great legend, Xavi Hernandez with a La Liga celebration after an intense draw against Deportivo. Xavi had more than impressive career at Barcelona, with more than 760 appearance for the Blaugrana, with 27 titles in total, including eight La Liga titles.

The article was originally published on Playingfor90.com

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La Liga Preview: End of an era at Barcelona, UCL spots up for grabs

As the curtain draws on La Liga for yet another season, Azeem Siddiqui previews the final round of fixtures.

La Liga finally comes to a conclusion this weekend and after much speculation about whether the last two weeks would be suspended. The La Liga title may already be decided, however, there are still a Champions League places and the final Europa League spot which have yet to be finalised. With that said, here are few things to look out for in this final weekend of Primera Division action.

Seville or Valencia, who will finish 4th?

Valencia need a win against Almeria to secure Champions League football next season. Source: Getty Images.

The UEFA Champions League qualification round is up for grabs both for Valencia and Seville, where just a point separates the two on the 4th and 5th position. A win against Almeria will ensure that Valencia will play at least in the qualification round of Europe’s elite club tournament, or better, could even propel them above Atletico (provided that they lose). A draw or a defeat, on the other hand, would open gates for Sevilla to potentially show off and qualify for the Champions League twice, who have to win a tough one against Malaga at La Rosaleda.

Two spots up for grabs in the relegation battle – who will avoid it?

Atletico

With the last day of league shaping up, it’s still anybody’s guess who is going to follow Cordoba into the footsteps of relegation, with only two points separating Granada, Deportivo La Coruna, Eibar & Almeria. Eibar has the easiest of the fixtures out of all the other three teams as they take on the already relegated Cordoba. And it seems Deportivo and Granada both would do well if either someone managed to avoid slipping into to the 2nd division. The former will take on the newly-crowned Spanish champions, Barcelona, at the Camp Nou will the latter will take on the former champions Atletico Madrid, who are also looking to secure Champions League football.

Fight for the Pichichi

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo

The rivalry between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi remains a pivotal talking point as La Liga draws to a close. With Messi eyeing a third Treble with Barca and a potential Ballon d’Or award next year,  the battle for the league’s top scorer will come down to the wire. Four goals currently separate the two players, but with Barca playing Deportivo, scoring a hat-trick, perhaps even a double hat-trick, shouldn’t be unimaginable.

Carlo Ancelotti’s final match?

Carlo Ancelotti

Carlo Ancelotti will most probably manage the Los Blancos for the last time after a trophy-less season at the club. He came under huge criticism following a dismal week, where Madrid held to 2-2 & 1-1 draw at home in must-win matches against Valencia & Juventas that not only ended the club’s La Liga hopes, but also back-to-back Champions League dreams.

Xavi’s farewell

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Barcelona will bid farewell to one of the greatest midfielders, not only in their club history but of his generation with a rout against Deportivo. Xavi had earlier announced that he would leave Barcelona at the end of the season and will join Qatari football club, Al Sadd. The 35-year-old has enjoyed an illustrious career in Barcelona, in which he appeared in more than 760 matches, scoring 84 goals and won 23 titles for Barcelona, including eight La Liga crowns.

The article originally appeared on Playingfor90.com

Pakistan needs to bring its aggression back

There are times when nothing goes your way. When you lose at every stride and luck seems to have faded away from the stars, and it feels like nothing is going to change. Pakistan cricket team is going through such a phase.

After a lacklustre World Cup, this nation was expecting for a turnaround with the arrival of young blood, but those expectations were crushed a little too soon. We not only lost to Bangladesh after 16 years, we were “Bangla-washed” in the ODI and T20 series and believe me, being a diehard fan, seeing Pakistan lose like this is excruciatingly painful.

Bangladesh cricketer Taskin Ahmed (C) reacts as Shakib Al Hasan (L) looks on after the dismissal of Pakistan cricket captain Azhar Ali (R) during the first One Day International cricket match between Bangladesh and Pakistan at the Sher-e-Bangla National Cricket Stadium in Dhaka on April 17, 2015. Photo: AFP

However, Pakistan losing matches was not an entirely unexpected scenario.

Some of us did believe in the possibility that we would lose quite a lot of matches – since our team lacks experience and direction. Some of us hesitantly thought of how Pakistan might not qualify for the 2017 Champions Trophy because we would end up at ninth place. And some of us also thought about how, if we keep on losing games after games, we will eventually not be able to get through to the qualification round for the 2019 World Cup. But no one thought it would start happening this soon, right after the World Cup.

In order for us to qualify for the Champions Trophy, we need to win at least nine out of the upcoming 11 ODIs before the September 30th deadline – otherwise, we can kiss our participation good bye. And the state in which our team is in, I highly doubt if we will be able to win nine ODIs.

When surrounded by adversity, people often look for a positive side – something that can spark new hope and reincarnate the system with a new life. That hope might not be enough to give you your glory back but it can surely be a beginning of something to look forward to. For Pakistan, that positive side is its bowlers, who have been a ray of hope for the team on multiple occasions, even when there is no logical reason to believe in hope.

And it is here that our team needs to work, if we wish to even entertain the idea of winning the upcoming 11 ODIs.

Here is what our bowling side has to offer right.

Wahab Riaz

Wahab Riaz, after his spell against Watson, remained the talking point for everyone for a long time. His performance against Australia was something that brought out a spark for this nation. It had that onslaught, that aggression and that flavour of a young, aggressive Pakistani taking on the world champions, in their own backyard. Wahab’s spell was a real example of what this nation is capable of, and how we act when the chips are down. His spell was something new for the viewers but it wasn’t out of character for the Pakistani team.

Wahab Riaz. Photo: Reuters

As Ramiz Raja wrote in his article on EspnCricinfo, it is in our DNA to show aggression; that attitude of “if you hit with me a rock, I will hit you back with a brick” is just something that runs in our veins.

Inexperienced fast-bowlers

Wahab’s performance was a glimpse from the 90’s, when we had two formidable “Ws” who would take the world head on for their team. They used to run in with fire, with an attitude to annihilate the opposition with a fierce pace.

But looking at Wahab’s stats throughout his career, they do not reflect the kind of charisma that he shows on the field. And why is that so? Well, there can be only two logical answers to this in my view.

1. He is a bit-and-pieces bowler

2. He is not being given a chance to show his talent

Mohammad Irfan. Photo: Reuters

Personally, I believe the second one is more pertinent. The fact that our current bowlers are not of the same quality as the ones we used to have before, yet we were able to put nearly every batting team under pressure in the World Cup, goes to show our bowling merit.

During Misbahul Haq’s era, Pakistan became too heavily dependent on the spinners – so much so that we stopped taking fast-bowlers as an attacking option, and this cost us heavily after ICC banned Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Hafeez one after another.

Pitches not compatible with our pacers

In order to understand this dichotomy better, I broke down the stats from the last 15 years into two sets – one from January 2001 to the 2011 World Cup final, and the second from after the World Cup final till the recent series against Bangladesh. The stats revealed that till the 2011 World Cup final, Pakistani pacers had a strike rate of 36, which was far greater than that of spinners during the same time (strike rate of 44.7) while playing at home-ground or neutral venue (UAE).

However, after the World Cup, when we stopped depending on the seamers all together, our fast-bowlers strike rate, while playing at home, dropped to 38.5 and our spinners’ showed improving reductions to 41.2.

The above mentioned statistics show that even on batting-friendly pitches, our pacers were able to give excellent performances. However, for some unknown reason, we started creating slow and low pitches, which offered none or very little assistance to fast-bowlers.

Arguments that people make for creating such pitches are:

1. UAE is our makeshift home-ground, and since the pitches there are foreign to our bowlers, there is nothing much that we can do about it.

2. Pakistani batting is too weak to play on supportive pitches.

For me, both arguments are flawed.

First of all, once you have played in a country for nearly seven years, you should be able to create a track which would facilitate fast-bowlers. If I entertain argument number one, then how would PCB explain our performances against England in the Test series (especially in the second Test), where we ended up whitewashing them comprehensively? I am not saying that an Abu Dhabi or Sharjah pitch can be turned into a WACA pitch in seven years, but with better management and better vision, it could have been a bit more facilitative.

Pakistan’s Adnan Akmal (R) plays a shot as England’s Matt Prior (L) looks on during their first cricket test match at the Dubai International cricket stadium in the United Arab Emirates January 19, 2012. Photo: Reuters

As for the second argument, it is baseless because I believe that Pakistan always plays better when the pitches have something for everyone. That’s why we were able to beat South Africa on their home-ground in 2013, India on their home-ground in 2012-13 (where the pitches surprisingly were more useful for seamers) and victory against South Africa and Zimbabwe in the recent World Cup. Both of our major tournament triumphs (the victory of 1992 in Australia and the T20 victory in 2009 in England) came on pitches that had something for everyone, which proves my point that we can thrive in testing conditions as well.

A compromised Ajmal and an out-of-charm Hafeez

Seeing Ajmal and Hafeez’s performances after their action got remodelled, I don’t think they look anything like the bowling gods that they used to be for Pakistan, and so far, there is no reason to believe that they will be ever as effective as they were, since usually when bowlers make a comeback after remodelling their action, they end up losing their grip and hence give shabby performances.

Muhammad Hafeez (L) and Saeed Ajmal.

Need for aggression

All of this leads us back to the primary elements of Pakistani cricket – aggression, passion, pace and a roaring attitude. We need to reverse the trend of focusing on spin bowling all together. We should look for creating pitches that are more fast-bowling-friendly in domestic as well as international matches, which will bring our mighty fast-bowlers back into the game and will surely help Pakistan as well.

We might not have Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar anymore, but that doesn’t matter, because other countries do not have that quality in their ranks either. But we do have the aggression of Wahab, the passion of Irfan, the swing ofJunaid Khan and Rahat Ali and the yorkers of Sohail Khan to take any opposition down, on any given day.

All they need is a little polish and a comprehensive vision.

The original post was posted here on 10th May, 2015.

The Answers we are looking for

The whole of Pakistan mourn about the current thrashing against Bangladesh, which exposed Pakistan Cricket at many fronts. In my last article, when I said that I am extremely worried about Pakistan’s chances this time around, many asked me what my Cricket credentials are. When I said that Shehzad and Umer Akmal should not have been dropped the way they did, people said about me that “He is a student, and unfortunately, he doesn’t know about the game”.

It’s Ok. I believe all of those comments were from the people, who were as disappointed and dishearten seeing Pakistan Cricket in this position in their very own way, like I was. Many abused players and Coaches, and many just stopped watching Cricket altogether. Some with a very heavy heart said that “Yes, defeats are painful, but give these youngsters a chance”, and many raised their voice about the “Tried and tested” ones to be brought back (I was one of them). The reason for all of that activity was the mere fact that as a Pakistan cricket fan, we were shattered, broken into pieces seeing this very team, going from the high’s to the great lows.

As for the series, it is done and we should move forward. The real question remains, is this the end of Pakistan Cricket? Is there no way to revive it? People come up with arguments, such as “restructuring the domestic cricket” and a lot more phrases that I have been hearing from the time I started watching Cricket. I believe that Domestic cricket needs an overhaul, but that’s a long term solution. In the short run, we need to look at the mistakes we did, held someone responsible for the results and try to rectify it in the near future.

To begin finding who is actually responsible for this capitulation, we need a fair reflection of how things went and answer some questions honestly.Questions like is the current lot the best one we have? The answer is pretty much yes (apart from some players who were being forced to ignore). Another question is that is this team is as bad as the results suggest? Or a better performance could have been extracted from the players? Not that long ago, after the 2007 World Cup, Pakistan gave 14 players their debut while playing against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe under Malik captaincy, and with better management, we abled to thrash them with ease. I believe the answer is that these players are not as bad and with a better management, we could have produced better results in the series.

I find it absolutely un-ethical& un-professional to hold our Young Captain (whom I am not a big supporter of) or this young team responsible for the defeat. If anyone deserves to be held responsible for the loss against Bangladesh, it has to be our Coaching staff. But seeing PCB’s policy recently, I don’t believe that they will ever hold Waqar responsible for the defeat. Since PCB won’t sack him, and our coaching staff won’t resign themselves, we are going to pinpoint mistakes that our coaching staff did, and discuss about it, like we always do.

First of all, Waqar and the Coaching staff along with Selectors are guilty for picking up the team, which is just not competitive enough at the International level. They picked up a Captain, who did not have a assured place in the lineup, which will going to always make it hard for him to lead the side. They picked up Saeed Ajmal, without knowing how he is actually bowling after his remodel action, and it looks like his magic is vanished. They dropped Shahzad and Akmal, after investing too much effort and time to develop them as a product, just to drop them at the end when they were supposed to be given a more responsible role in the team. They shatter the confidence of Ahmed Shehzad to an extent that he could not hit a ball against the same bowling attack, against which he scored a scintillating 100, just a year ago in the World T20, after being told that he is not being dropped on the basis of his performance, but his flamboyance. He looked scared, cautious & confused. He was nothing more than just a shadow of what he used to be.

There are not many times when you actually have a clean sweep in a series without blunders, and this time our Coaching staff made sure that they will make enough blunders to sink Pakistan down. Looking at the 1st match, Bangladesh were struggling with 67 for 2 in the 20thover and Pakistan was all over Bangladesh. Azhar Ali was in charge of the team for the first time, and it was natural for him to do a mistake by actually introducing 2 part timers from both end, which eased the pressure on Mushfiqur and Tamim Iqbal. But the real question is, was our Coaching staff sleeping that time? In between overs, they could have sent a message to Azhar that this move would backfire and that he should keep attacking from one end at least, which they didn’t. In the same match, when Pakistan came to chase 300 +, Hafeez was coming off from an imposing 85 as an opener in the practice match against BCB XI, but somehow our Team management thought otherwise and demote him in the order and opened with Sarfaraz. I was one of the many voices who was cheering for Sarfaraz when he opened in the World Cup, but that was because we did not have any other opener inform with Shehzad at that time. This time, opening with Sarfaraz left us vulnerable at the back end of the innings, and we did not had any one to improvise at the death overs to give us a good finish.

Another blunder was seeing Fawad Alam batting at no.6, where he looked completely out of sort. He normally bats at no.3 or 4 at the domestic level, but either our Coach didn’t know that or he was trying to show everyone that he is so naïve that he don’t know what Fawad is capableoff. Fawad is the sort of player that you need to anchor the inning, not to bat at 6, because he is just not for big shots. Having him at 6 is like telling him in person that “we don’t need you at all “.

I cannot comprehend the fact that how our team management is so naïve or incompetent that they cannot define a role to a player in the playing XI? Our batting looks as baffled as it looked in the World Cup and before. Prior to World Cup, it was evident that only Misbah had a defined role, which was to play till the last over. The rest was playing as if they are a driver of a car who is lost in the desert, without any clue as where to go and without any knowledge to what the final destiny is. In the 3rd match, as soon as Azhar got out, our Team management sent Rizwan in. It was supposed to be Rizwan’s duty to improvise from there on as Pakistan was easily looking for 300 and beyond, and it should have been Haris to carry the team till the last over, but as usual, his role was not delineate. He got out just 4 balls later, trying to heave Mashrafe for a long hit over mid – wicket, which left Pakistan on the brink of a collapse. Had he been informed by the team management that he needs to stay there till the end, it would have simplified his role, but as usual our Team management was too lazy to say the least. I am not saying that Pakistan would have won the series had these decisions been taken by the Team management, but having the ability to adapt to a particular situation in modern Cricket is what is the need of an hour, and hour Coaching staff is experienced enough to know the importance of these moments.

Our team management, who is mostly dominated by our Head Coach “Waqar Younis”, needs to be asked these questions as to why Pakistan’s performance on the field has a constant decline. He was a legend of this Country, whom was loved by the people in this country. But in his current stint as a Coach of the National team, he seems to be still in the stardom of the past, and his ego is being too much to handle for this team. He was the Coach when the Spot Fixing scandal came in the media, and his ego was one of the reasons behind Razzaq’s decline, and that was not the only case to remember. His man management skills are being questioned over and over again, and this time around, he isn’t doing any better. But the real question remains to be seen is the current PCB hierarchy have the ability, moral ground or courage to ask these questions to Waqar, and sack him if he won’t satisfy with the answers? The answer is what we are still looking for.

The original post was posted here on April 27, 2015.

Pakistan will lose to Bangladesh…again

Pakistan cricket is bizarre, especially with regards to team management and structuring. Coaches, managers, captains and players, all seem to be stuck in a quagmire when it comes to helping Pakistan to get out of the plethora of issues it is plunged it.

Who would have thought back in January that Fawad Alam will be left out of the World Cup squad and Nasir Jamshed will get to play a full role? Who would have thought Rahat Ali will make it to the World Cup and prove to be a master stroke? Our lack of planning has led to many miracles – but that is not how matches are won.

Bangladesh cricketer Soumya Sarkar plays a shot during the first one day international cricket match between Bangladesh and Pakistan at the Sher-e-Bangla National Cricket Stadium in Dhaka on April 17, 2015. Photo: AFP

Six-months ago, had someone told me that Pakistan was going for a Bangladesh tour, I would have counted it as nothing more than a bunch of practice matches. I would have been sure of Pakistan’s success and I wouldn’t even have minded betting on Pakistan for once. But things are not the same anymore, and for a Pakistani cricket fan, it’s calamitous to say the least.

The match of Friday is a testimony of that.

This tour would not have been much of a hassle if our policies were straight-forward and simple. This tour would have been a mere formality, and we would have won our matches splendidly – if only the management was prudent enough to listen to experienced players and create a blend of young and senior players alike to bring forward a formidable side.

However, that did not happen.

I remember the last time we faced Bangladesh – during the Asia Cup – it was Shehzad, who scored a century against them and it was Umar Akmal who made us cross the line with a sublime Afridi-esque inning in the middle and a typical Fawad-like effort. We were chasing 300 plus and were in trouble at the start; however, not once was I worried about what the result will be – because I trusted my team.

But this time, I have no faith in them. And I am worried about our chances at winning.

Practice match

Anyone who witnessed Bangladesh’s performance in the ICC World Cup 2015 would know that this tour is not as easy as it might seem to most cricket pundits. They qualified to the quarter-finals at a time when nearly all of their players were inexperienced. They defeated England and were mighty close to beating World Cup finalist New Zealand as well. So they mean business.

They have the confidence and the passion to take on any team that comes their way, and yesterday’s match showed it. Also, from 2013 onwards, Bangladesh has played 23 matches at home, where they have won 11 and lost 11 with a win percentage of nearly 50%, which is better than Pakistan (38% win ratio) and England (44% win ratio).

Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) XI celebrate after defeating Pakistan by one wicket in the one-off warm-up game before the ODI series. Photo: AFP

On the other hand, Pakistan team is clearly in crisis mode.

We lost the only practice match against Bangladesh Cricket Board XI, a team which had only four international players playing against our complete touring team. We were 203/8 in the 44th over, and even though Fawad took us to a respectable 268, it was chased down with ease. I can’t recall a time when Pakistan lost a practice match with Bangladesh.

But oh well, I guess there is always a first time.

Pakistan versus Bangladesh – first match

On Friday, our fears became reality, where we lost to Bangladesh after 16 years by a comprehensive margin.

There is a lot to criticise about the way we played, but seeing that most of our players were young and our captain was inexperienced, it would not be appropriate to be brutal about their performances.

Azhar Ali played an inning that one wouldn’t have expected him to play, at the top of the order, scoring a well-crafted 72-runs and debutant Muhammd Rizwan played like a gem, at the lower end of the innings. However, questions need to be asked about the team management (especially Waqar Younis and Saqlain Mushtaq) as to why the batting line-up was so ill-prepared? Why did our batting side look so vulnerable?

Azhar Ali scores a fifty in his first match as the ODI captain. Photo: AFP

Furthermore, I cannot not understand the logic behind Mohammad Hafeez’s out. He was the highest run-scorer in the practice match; so what went wrong? Also, it needs to be answered as to why Fawad was batting at number six, when he is not a big hitter. Irrespective of how weak the team is, a few tweaks here and there could have made a huge difference. But our inept team management made sure that we lose badly, and if they do not mend their ways, the upcoming matches would have the same fate.

Way forward?

Pakistan needs to look at the crisis we are in and then come up with a viable solution. True, this is the first time, in more than eight years, that we are playing without Misbahul Haq and Shahid Afridi – who were the cornerstones of our team; true, we are going in with a captain who doesn’t have an ensured place in the line-up and it’s his first series as a captain of Pakistan in any format; true, Saeed Ajmal and Hafeez (hopefully) are making a comeback after months of ban and Junaid Khan is making a comeback after a long injury layoff, so their effectiveness seems to be compromised; and true, we dropped Ahmed Shehzad and Umar Akmal, two of the brightest batting talents in the country, right at the time when they were supposed to be given a more responsible role, so our batting seems ever more weaker than it was before – but all of this does not validate such a harrowing defeat.

Tamim Iqbal scored his half-century off 75 balls. Photo: AFP

Teams have gone in with worse and have come out with better outcomes, just because their coaches and managers were strategic enough to understand their strengths and weaknesses.

I am all in favour of rebuilding of the team, but you can’t just rebuild it by dropping all the important players and replacing them with the young ones. There is a method to every madness but the kind of madness PCB is showing is just hilarious and downright scary. I fail to understand why we can’t find a proper time to do a certain thing. As far as I can recall, only West Indies has the tendency of making a bad decision at a crucial time more frequently than Pakistan.

When we need the likes of Shehzad and Umar, we drop them. When Kamran Akmal and Shoaib Malik should be given a chance on their preferable positions to make a comeback and fill the space of the seniors who have left, we ignore them. When we finally have the chance to include Anwar Ali into the mix to give him a chance to shine, we forgot him. And so our self-destructive ways continue to hinder our progress.

Pakistan cricket is in its worst shape right now. Our players have not played cricket at home for years and the authorities who are responsible for developing cricket in this country have their own set of agendas to follow. It looks hard for us to win against Bangladesh in the next match and I won’t even be surprised if Pakistan loses the entire series.

The original post was posted here on 19th April, 2015.

Pakistan vs Australia: Without Irfan, our romance with fast-bowling continues

As we qualify for the quarter-finals (the super eight) in the most unobjectionable style possible – keeping in mind how we lost our first two matches – it makes me wonder how phenomenal our team’s journey has been.

Looking back at how things were about a month ago, and how they are now, it was nothing less than an emotional roller coaster ride for the 180 million people of this country.

Pakistan’s Wahab Riaz (L) runs to his teammate Mohammad Irfan (R) as they celebrate their 29 run win over South Africa. Photo: AP

For the first week or so, our performances were so poor that many broke their TV sets, people were bursting with rage on social media and perhaps exaggerated a bit too much by saying things like,

“This team can’t win a tea cup, let alone the World Cup!”

Former cricketers called this team as bad as a “club side”.  It was all too emotional for us to accept.

However, things have changed and the picture looks more optimistic now. People have started looking for similarities with the 1992 triumph. I have realised that the reaction we had after the first two defeats was because we, as a nation, could not handle the frustrating thought that our bowling attack, which we were so proud of, was not the same as it has always been.

Pakistan’s Rahat Ali celebrates the wicket of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s Amjad Ali during the teams’ Pool B Cricket World Cup match. Photo: AFP

We neither had any high hopes from our batting nor did we think that we would take a dozen Jhonty-like catches in the field, or produce phenomenal run outs, to win us a match. It was always our bowling attack that we had faith in, no matter how weak it was, and this time too, it did not disappoint us. Even in the first two matches, when Pakistan lost, in all fairness, our bowlers did extremely well, apart from the last 10 overs in the match against West Indies.

In the game against Zimbabwe, facing a potential early exit from the World Cup, they tried to defend a mediocre target set by us, in a tournament where 300 runs had been chased down with ease and on a ground where 236 runs had never been defended in the last decade or so. This is when our bowlers came to the party at just the right time and we dismantled the minnows with aggression that showed shades of the 90s, when our bowlers were not scared of going for runs and they came back steaming in and blew the opposition away.

Pakistan’s spin bowler Shahid Afridi (R) gestures as India’s batsman Shikhar Dhawan (L) gains his ground. Photo: AFP

Then came the big game.

I, along with everyone else, thought it would be ‘impossible’ to beat a team, who scored 400 runs in consecutive ODIs with such ease. Things looked bleak when the mighty Proteas had to chase 232 runs in 47 overs but then the Pakistani pace battery stepped in, aiming to bring down one of the best batting line ups in the tournament like a house of cards.

From 67 for one in the 10th over, South Africa was all but gone when they went down to 102 for six wickets in the next 10 overs. AB de Villiers kept attacking our young and inexperienced bowlers but our pacers were undeterred. They were sure of their abilities and so were we. They ran in with fire, bounced out the opposition, set the batsmen up by bowling the out swingers, and then brought in the yorkers – it was just amazing to see the aggression we are known for.

Pakistan bowler Sohail Khan celebrates the dismissal of Indian batsman Virat Kohli. Photo: AFP

ESPN Cricinfo’s headline “Pakistan roar back through bowlers”, next to Muhammad Irfan’s picture is a testament of our match against South Africa. We came roaring back at Dale Steyn after removing him in a famous and first ever victory against South Africa in the ICC World Cup. Just reading the headline got me excited for our future matches and I am sure that many readers like me, who have grown up watching Pakistan play cricket, would have gone ballistic seeing a bowler in a Pakistani jersey labelled a “lion”.

All this sums up Pakistan and its cricketing abilities. We love our bowlers and we expect them to win it for us, anytime, anywhere and against any opposition.

That’s what we are and that’s what we do, whether you like it or not.

Muhammad Irfan (L) celebrates after dismissing Dale Steyn. Photo: AFP

Perhaps it’s because it has always been our bowlers who, in almost unwinnable situations, have come up with solutions for our team in the past and have produced innings which are nothing sort of magical. Our bowlers have done it time and again and that’s why they are the darlings of this nation. They are being followed, admired, idolised; they are the real superheroes of this nation full of cricket fanatics.

No wonder this nation broke into pieces when the spot fixing scandal came about, when two of our talented bowlers, whom we were very proud of, were taken away from us.

A year back, who would have thought that this team would be playing without two of the world’s best spinners in ODIs, Saeed Ajmal  and Muhammad Hafeez, without their best fast bowlers, Junaid Khan and Umar Gul, and yet will be competent enough to fight back nearly every team in the tournament.

Junaid Khan (TL). Saeed Ajmal (TR), Umar Gul (DL), Muhammad Hafeez (DR)

Now, it is a very crucial time in the World Cup, where even a single defeat could be fatal. We face Australia next, in their backyard, on their home turf and, to our disadvantage, we will be without our ace pacer, Irfan, who is out of the World Cup due to an injury.

Yes, this hurts our team’s chances, but that is how it is and we have to move on. We are the ‘cornered tigers’, we have always loved that title, but perhaps we’ll be even more dangerous as ‘wounded tigers’. No matter whom the PCB will send in, he won’t be here for the quarter-final match, so we have to go on with the four pacers left in the squad and believe in them, like we have before.

Misbahul Haq (L) and Muhammad Irfan (R).

Given that the pitch in Adelaide is a slow one and is not that scary for Asian teams, the batsmen should give our bowlers something challenging to bowl at, and if they are successful, then fingers crossed, the Kangaroos better watch out.

We are going to come in hard on you, we are going to roar like lions do, and we will do whatever it takes to take you down, because if our pacers are in the mood, then no victory is impossible.

The original post was posted here on 18th March, 2015.

Why Not Drop “Team Management” instead of Players?

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Pakistan cricket, often termed as something which is not a bed of roses for some, but for others maybe it is (By other’s I mean PCB Officials and Team Management). World Cup ended on a low and no one from the Team management or from the PCB headquarters took the responsibility, and all of us knew that “Players” will bear the consequence. It was only Moin Khan, who was the chief selector then, who was sacked or being laid off from his duty, but due to the casino scandal. I am sure even he wouldn’t have been replaced if that scandal didn’t happen.

As a cricket follower, I failed to understand why always players are to be blamed for a poor performance in cricket? Especially in Pakistan. In soccer or other sports, coaches or managers are held responsible for the team’s performance, but in Cricket that’s not the case. It can never work this way in sports that you held players only accountable for a debacle by saying that “when you win, you get the credit too”. It’s an illogical analogy in the first place.

Every country has a sporting attributes that are directly affected by their culture. In Pakistan cricket, where there is a shadow of Pakistani culture is visible in the team’s behavior on and off the field, the Team management role becomes even more important. Just like you have a grandfather or a father who rules the show in the family in Pakistan normally, it is the grandfather, like figure (Coach) in the team who runs the show there. The same way that we don’t expect to have much say in front of our dad or grandfather at home, I find it a total madness to believe that a youngster would have more say in front of an ex cricketer, who was his hero when he was a kid and who is an elderly figure in the dressing room now, because well he just knows more (Like our elder’s know more always). But unlike our home culture, when there is a time to take responsibility in Pakistan cricket, the youngsters have been shown the door.

That’s not it. Pakistan’s cricket another dilemma is the disaster of not letting the youngster grow in the limelight that other players enjoy all over the world. Cricketers in this country are being treated like school boys because 3 cricketers in the past have betrayed the trust of those, who actually allowed them to do all the shoddy stuff. Players are not allowed to use social media, not allowed to talk to the media during tours, they cannot stay out after 8 at night and then the media is after them for poor performances. I feel for the players who don’t get to play any cricket at home, are being kept in a prison abroad, and being bashed by the media upside down when they don’t perform up to the expectations of this naïve but emotional Nation. The reason for all of this so-called “Curfew” from our team management is the spot fixing scandal that tainted our image. But I want to ask the team management, how about putting the restrictions on the Coach as well? Who is the same one when that scandal came in the media 5 years back? I also want to ask PCB that is this the way to treat your stars? By keeping them in a prison like environment when they are supposed to enjoy their life? On a lighter note, I think if PCB’s tactics are really working, then that means that since most of the Talibs were Pakhtoon, so we should put all the Pukhtoons in the jail because well, some of them hurt us. Woah, What A JOKE.

Pakistan’s World cup campaign was not great, and it was the player’s fault (Obviously, according to PCB officials). So let’s drop everyone who underperformed. Ok, I Agree for the sake of argument, but what about the selection of out of form Nasir Jamshed? Was that the fault of player’s as well? Or the selection of Younis Khan? Or persistence with Mr. Technically sound Asad Shafiq, who have an average of 25 in more than 50 ODI’s since the 2011 World Cup? Or the omission of Fawad Alam from the World Cup squad after being the most consistent one in the past 8 months? Or now the selection of Azhar Ali, who couldn’t play a single ODI in the last 2 years and now he is the Captain of Pakistan ODI team. Is these all the players fault as well? And we should drop all of them?

If the pain of seeing Pakistani cricket going down the road is not enough, then the news of Ahmed Shehzad being dropped was nothing less than a minor heart attack. I saw Shehzad first in 2009 in a Domestic T20 tournament and he looked a package that will serve Pakistan for ages. He was aggressive, flaunting, charismatic and stylish at the same time, a rare combination that you will not find in Pakistan cricket now a days. But somehow over the period of time, Team management made sure that they turn him into an Ahemd Shehzad, who is cautious, scared, selfish and confused at the same time. All of which took his charm away, but yet he kept producing performances more consistently than any other batsmen except Misbah.

Ahmed Shehzad, who was the 2nd highest scorer in the World Cup for Pakistan, and had the 3rdhighest average after Sarfaraz and Misbah, have been dropped from the ODI squad for the Bangladesh tour on disciplinary ground. This omission seems even more surprising considering Misbah retired already and Hafeez is just making a comeback. Knowing Shehzad and his attitude on the field, many called him “Kohli” of Pakistan cricket, which always seemed a little over exaggerating. This country has a nation who just need a small point to criticize anyone, and they found Shehzad’sselfie craze as that one thing that lead him to go through serious criticism. But I want to ask my fellow countrymen that why can’t we handle a character like Kohli in Shehzad, who is aggressive on the field, have a little flamboyance touch, and is a little active on Social media? If the likes of Maxwell’s, Kohli’s, Warner’s, Kp’s, Steyn’s can survive on the international level for so long, why not Shehzad?

PCB sources say that he believes that he is a hero already and he does not take Cricket seriously and that’s why he should be dropped? , But the records suggest otherwise. Shehzad was the third highest scorer for Pakistan in Last 2 years in ODI’s, after Hafeez and Misbah. I always believe that Cricket need characters like Afridi, Yuvraj, Gambhir, Steyn, Akhtar, KP, Gayle, who brings the magnetism to the field, and Shehzad have that bit of spark of him. These sorts of players bring the kind of performance on the field like no other player can, and that’s why they remain the blue-eyed boys in their country. I still don’t remember a Pakistani opener playing the kind of innings Shehzad played against South Africa in South Africa against the best bowling attack in the world in their own backyard. His performance on the field was not the worst and his omission seems an obvious intentional effort from our old boys, sitting in an office which is centrally Air Conditioned in the PCB headquarters, to destroy this young boy flair of magnificence that sets him apart from the rest of the team.

To conclude, it all, Shakib’s statement about Bangladesh being favourite against Pakistan in the coming series sum it all. This is the same team who hasn’t beaten us in any format for the last 16 years, but now they pose a serious threat in the coming series. This shows that now we are at the crossroads, where it can make or break for Pakistan Cricket. It is easy to blame the weaker and let go the stronger, and that’s what we have done so far. We let go the big names and sacrificed the ones who did not have a lobby on his back for his support. But it’s now or never, and it’s better to be late than never. It’s high time we should hold PCB officials and Team management accountable for their blunders, which are making Pakistan suffer more and more as the days goes by.

The original post was posted here on 08, April 2015