T20I cricket comes to Lahore, but it's not the same Pakistan as on TV
Cricket really has its own, cruel ways. A team that trekked the globe mopping up T20Is for fun have seen Sri Lanka wipe the floor with them when the game returned home, in front of an adoring public who had been convinced of the quality of their side based on their television screens. Was it really the same side they had watched on TV pummel West Indies in Port of Spain, hammer Australia in Harare and New Zealand in Auckland? Did Pakistan, brushed aside by a Sri Lankan team cobbled together from among the consenting and the capable, really win 29 of 33 T20Is since the end of the last World T20?
The patterns of play Sarfaraz Ahmed's side - and for now, it remains his side - had executed so ruthlessly over the past three years have vanished in the Lahore evening. On each of the two nights, they fielded first, and found themselves on the back foot within the first Powerplay. This, in itself, is not unusual; with only two fielders out of the circle, batsmen will look to apply the pressure. Pakistan have experienced it, Pakistan have dealt with it. Pakistan have dished it out too. But on Monday night and Saturday, they simply couldn't.
Sarfaraz used five different bowlers in the Powerplay on Saturday, with Danushka Gunathilaka, the man whose chanceless century in the third ODI in Karachi had served as a warning shot to Pakistan, running riot against a side that had plotted itself into disarray. Sri Lanka smashed 64 in those first six, and on a day when Pakistan's fielding was so abysmal it may have left Steve Rixon (now sat in the Sri Lanka dressing room) red-faced with vicarious embarrassment, the visitors went on to notch up 165.Misbah has been roped in despite his lack of coaching experience for a cricket brain believed in some circles to be among the sharpest in the country. It is difficult to reconcile that with the unnecessary gamble he took with Shehzad and Umar, guaranteed to reflect poorly on him if they failed and prove little if they didn't
This allowed Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad the opportunity to show why they had been called back into a side that had risen to world No. 1 without them.
Instead … Shehzad was lucky to survive nine balls; he should have been dismissed at least twice before then, while Umar needed just the one to play across the line and find himself trapped plumb in front. Babar Azam's rare failure took the asking rate close to nine.
Just over a year ago, Pakistan had found themselves in a similar situation in the final of a tri-series against Australia in Harare. Two wickets in the first over had set them back in a chase of 184, with the required rate rising to ten after just two overs. The two at the crease, though, understood the importance of ensuring runs continued to flow; without that happening, the game would be gone anyway. An improbable hour and a half later, they had won with four balls and six wickets to spare.
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In a less challenging situation and against a lower quality attack at home in the first T20I, Sarfaraz and Iftikhar Ahmed opted for the safety of strike rotation and wicket preservation, watching the Powerplay tick by as Sri Lanka's limitless supply line of spinners began to tighten the noose. Sarfaraz, on 24 off 30, went for a low-percentage slog he would have missed six times out of ten even if he wasn't in the seemingly endless rut currently afflicting him. He would miss, the ball would hit, and Pakistan would be skittled less than five overs later.
The second T20I was more of the same, with Pakistan never really in the chase after a shocking bowling effort allowed Sri Lanka to put up 182, the biggest T20I total in Pakistan. Two early wickets put the pressure on Pakistan once more. Following that, Shehzad and Sarfaraz adopted the novel stance of rejecting the notion that 183 was a rather stiff chase, or that just two boundary riders represented an opportunity to make it a little less stiff. Just 25 runs were added in the first five; Sri Lanka had scored 41 and lost the same number of wickets in that period.
Two overs of acceleration were followed by three wickets in an over from Wanindu Hasaranga. His uncanny ability to not just bowl a mean googly, but apparently also make the subsequent batsman forget he could do so, saw him clean up each of Shehzad, Umar and Sarfaraz playing the same shot to almost identical deliveries, in the process condemning Pakistan to their first T20I series defeat against Sri Lanka.
It's these errors of strategy and execution that one hoped Pakistan had moved on from following the 2016 World T20. Sri Lanka might have the makings of a wonderfully exciting young side, but the Pakistan of 2016-2018 would have had little trouble getting over the line in this series. This Pakistan that's turned up this year, however, is startlingly distinct from that one.
They have lost five of six T20Is this year; since the end of the 2016 World T20 through to 2018, they had ended up on the wrong side just four times in 33 games. Hasan Ali and Shadab Khan, two of the bowlers to play seminal roles in Pakistan's rise to the top in the shortest format, have regressed to the point where one is out of the team and the other needs a spell away from it. Fakhar Zaman, the spearhead at the top - the flourish to Babar's finesse - hasn't crossed 25 since that heist in Harare, leaving his partner unfairly saddled with the burden of providing a strong start.
These problems, and others, gnawed away beneath the surface, each irksome enough in their own right. But the open sores generated by the simultaneous return of Shehzad and Umar, an assertion of authority by a new head coach (and chief selector), preclude any deeper introspection into the side's malaise. Despite bursting at the seams with talent, the two had been dropped for the cause of the greater good, results justifying the move with each passing series. Their return in the face of scepticism Misbah had dismissively waved away, and the spectacular manner in which the move backfired, meant the head coach and chief selector had scored a remarkable open goal, his honeymoon period prematurely terminated and the scrutiny on him decidedly more antagonistic.
Misbah has been roped in despite his lack of coaching experience for a cricket brain believed in some circles to be among the sharpest in the country. It is difficult to reconcile that with the unnecessary gamble he took with those two selections, guaranteed to reflect poorly on him if they failed and prove little if they didn't (soft runs, weak opposition, etc). It came off as a gratuitous two-fingered salute to his predecessor Mickey Arthur, who had used the sacking of Umar in particular to brand himself an uncompromising disciplinarian and saw the ascent of Pakistan's T20I side as vindication of the decision.
Pakistan have rarely shown as much consistency in any format for a sustained period as they did in T20I cricket for two-and-a-half years. With the next T20 World Cup approaching, the wheels appear to be coming off at the worst possible time, and the three-match T20I series in Australia next month that promised to be a celebration of the format could now instead be a sobering reality check for the world's best side.
As Sri Lanka celebrated at a Gaddafi Stadium rapidly clearing of people who knew not when they would have the opportunity to watch international cricket live again, it was despair that overrode all emotions for the locals. Cricket had come home, but the cricket team they knew off the TV had not.