A whitewash in the Tests and a 4-1 marauding in the ODIs that followed, Pakistan has endured a tough ongoing 2016-17 Australian summer. Apart from the first Test, where Asad Shafiq almost got them past a historic chase, the Men in Green never really lived up to the promise they showed in England last year. Many cited the lack of a certain swagger, a killer instinct within the squad behind this dismal show.
The overall character of a successful Pakistan team has invariably revolved around a ‘poster boy’ over the years, like many other triumphant units, and the lack of one in the recent generations has seen their stock decline drastically over the years.
A team that once dominated India head-to-head is now found wanting in terms of a personality as the Men in Blue, on the other hand, are being spearheaded by one of the most formidable and imposing figures in world cricket today – Virat Kohli.
Talking of persona, the Indian skipper was also named among Asia’s most desired men for 2016, which can largely be attributed to his antics both on and off the field. However, no one from Pakistan’s current crop of players was able to make it to this list, which even featured Arshad, the blue-eyed Pakistani chaiwallah.
So what exactly happened to the team that has seen charismatic figures like Fazal Mahmood, Zaheer Abbas, Imran Khan and Wasim Akram come through the previous generations? Like their rich cricketing history in the previous century, why does Pakistan not comprise a figure that can instill a certain fear factor into the team anymore?
Abundance of heroes
Back in 1952, fresh out of their schools and respective clubs, Pakistan’s first team was formed which was led by Abdul Hafeez Kardar and spearheaded by their nation’s idol, Fazal Mahmood. The team included fresh faces such as Hanif Mohammad, who opened the innings for Pakistan with Nazar Mohammad; Punjab University icons Khan Mohammad and Waqar Hassan; writer and journalist Maqsoor Ahmed, among others. Slowly and steadily, the popularity of these men soared, not only due to their great performances, but also with the spirit and charisma they displayed on and off the field.
Then there were players such as Zaheer Abbas, Asif Iqbal, Majid Khan, Wasim Bari, among others, who enjoyed considerable success and adulation in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, with many of them eventually becoming county captains. So they weren’t just heroes in their own country, but also garnered an equally dedicated fan following abroad.
But if there’s one Pakistani cricketer who stood out as the most elegant and charismatic leader on and off the field, unlike Indian cricket during that time, it was none other than Imran Khan who made his Test debut as a medium pacer and went on to become an all-rounder and eventually a World Cup-winning captain. What’s noteworthy here is the fact that the handsome Oxford educated Pathan garnered a fan following like never before, especially among women. Millions of women across the globe were enchanted by the man’s raw sex appeal coupled with his high-energy and aggressive stance on the field. His admirers reportedly even included Indian actress Zeenat Aman, who he is said to have dated for a while.
It was under his tenure that another dashing cricketer Wasim Akram was being groomed. Even he was especially particular about his team’s personality development along with the drills on the training grounds. His methods even led Pakistan to the final of the 1999 World Cup in England which they eventually lost to Australia.
By this time though, different problems has started plaguing Pak cricket and several members of this team were reprimanded for match fixing. Most of them said goodbye to the game in the aftermath. This also led to the ceasing of the soaring popularity that cricket had enjoyed in the country up till now.
On the other side of the border, India was also struggling with similar problems as captain Md Azharuddin was charged with fixing allegations, along with others like Ajay Jadeja. Some serious damage control was required on both sides of the border.
Changing of the guard
The changing guard in Pakistan saw Inzamam-ul-Haq take over the captaincy and brought with himself the ideals of the Tableeghi Jamaat into the team. Regular congressional prayers were held on the outfield and a separate room for prayers was usually reserved in hotels of touring cities as a new generation of Pak cricketers was being nurtured.
Exceptions remained in the form of Shoaib Akhtar, who strengthened his image as the bad boy of Asian cricket with every passing series; and Mohammad Asif who was involved in constant controversies, including the Veena Malik fiasco. However, a large chunk of the team was polarised into right-wing fanaticism under Inzamam whereas India was cultivating a unit of match-winners under Sourav Ganguly.
This was when the flamboyant likes of Yuvraj Singh, MS Dhoni and Zaheer Khan announced their arrivals on the big stage, all of them being poster boy materials. Though the Indian team had its share of ups and downs during this era (read Greg Chappell), this culture eventually laid the foundations of breeding grounds for the likes of Virat Kohli.
Picking up the pieces
The last truly star-studded lot of Pakistan cricket took to the field under Wasim Akram’s captaincy, the remains of which are being picked up through Shahid Afridi today. But it’s only a matter of time that Boom Boom hangs his boots (ignoring the fact that he has already retired and returned umpteen number of times) and it will soon be time to pass on the reins. But is there a worthy heir?
Salman Butt could have been the fix to this problem before he got himself banned for five years in a spot fixing controversy in 2010. The same case also shortened pacer Mohammad Amir’s career by half a decade. He had also shown the promise to deliver, but his tainted image will continue to haunt him even after making a comeback last year.
In the recent past, the alluring Ahmed Shehzad had been touted as the next big thing in Pakistan cricket but that one fizzed out too quickly as well. He is no more a part of the team’s plans in any format of the game. Several other budding youngsters have come and gone in this period, the only highlight of which has been Pakistan’s World T20 triumph in 2009, but none of them could manage to emerge as a definitive face – an eligible bachelor, who lets his game do the talking. Though, this has nothing to take away from the resilient Azhar Ali and the immortals Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-haq, who have kept the Pak ship from sinking. But they just don’t seem to fit the bill.
Wanted: Poster boy
Pakistan’s ban from hosting international cricket matches has also not helped, nor has the constantly unsteady state of affairs in the board that persists with a team whose average age is around 30 years. The socio-economic condition of the country is no secret either and cricket is suffering from the deterioration of gentry that has also affected various other spheres of life in Pakistan.
On their day, the Pakistan team can still be a thorn in any team’s flesh but spectacular collapses often eclipse these small rays of hope. With Team India consistently proving its mettle under captain Kohli’s leadership, at least in the shorter formats of the game, all we hope is that the arch-rivals put up a spirited show in the years to come. The emergence of a poster boy will only prove catalytic.