As the World Cup moves onto the semifinal stage, all the four teams initially listed as top favourites have managed to qualify. Top ranked India will play fourth placed New Zealand, while second ranked Australia play third placed England. Pakistan miss out, although they can take heart from their victories against New Zealand, South Africa and England. Ranked fifth favourites at the beginning of the tournament, Pakistan had themselves to blame by losing by a massive margin in their tournament opener against the West Indies as their net run rate got severely dented and remained their Achilles heel throughout their journey. A washout against Sri Lanka, a match which could have been a potential victory, as well as losses against India and Australia, meant that the overall performances of the team were not good enough to warrant a semi-final berth.

While noted commentators and legends of the game such as Michael Holding did argue that a fairer tie breaker between teams which finished on equal points should have been their head-to-head record, Pakistan simply were not good enough in the early stages of the World Cup. Had head-to-head results mattered more, Pakistan would have qualified since they expertly chased 238 against New Zealand on a spinner friendly track with variable, and sometimes erratic bounce. Depending on other it results might have worked out in 1992, and as the parallels and coincidences between 1992 and 2019 became cringeworthy towards the end, the fact that fate was out of Pakistan’s own hands led to an extremely negative mental space for the squad members and supporters to be in. Pakistan managed to defeat Afghanistan in a closely fought low scoring encounter, while they performed really well to dominate Bangladesh comprehensively in a match whose result turned out to be academic. Suspicions arose due to the nature of defeat of the Indians against England as India’s sluggish batting in the last ten overs displayed a lack of intent. Pakistan needed India to beat England at that stage, and while Pakistanis showed their dismay at the Indian effort, even Indian greats like former captains Saurav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar questioned their countrymen’s approach. At any rate, going into the tournament with 13 ODIs lost on the trot, an ardent follower of the Pakistan ODI team would have taken the results the team achieved by the end. The small window of opportunity that opened up towards the end was promising as it seemed like the team was peaking at the right time, but it all proved to be too late.

In terms of individual performances, Babar Azam topped Pakistan’s batting charts with 474 runs in eight matches, including a match-winning century against New Zealand, and three half centuries. In some games, his inability to convert good starts into match-defining knocks hurt Pakistan as he shied away when it mattered the most. Still, he played his part as Pakistan’s premier batsmen and needs to keep growing in stature as a formidable part of the middle order. Haris Sohail’s selection in the latter part of the tournament after being dropped earlier proved to be a revelation as his match winning 89 against South Africa and half-century against New Zealand proved his mettle, and he could be a solid one-down or two-down batsman for Pakistan in the future. Imam-ul-Haq chipped in with a century against Bangladesh, as well as 305 runs in eight matches, but could be severely criticised for his failures to convert starts. Mohammad Hafeez, barring his performance against England, Shoaib Malik, and Sarfraz Ahmed were extremely disappointing with the bat and displayed poor shot-selection. Often, the Pakistani lower order was left with too much to do, as opener Fakhar Zaman, who was deemed to be a crucial game changer, failed miserably in seaming conditions, and against the bounce.

On the bowling front, Mohammad Amir, who was not even in the squad in the lead up to the World Cup, used his experience well and was the pick of the bowlers taking 17 wickets in 8 matches at 21.05 apiece, while also bowling at a superb economy rate of 4.90. In tough matches against India and Australia, he seemed a class apart from the rest of the bowling attack who were unable to maintain the momentum and consistency on the other end. Pakistan lost against India and Australia in the first 20 overs and failed to reclaim the initiative. Shaheen Shah Afridi proved his mettle against Bangladesh with a 6-35, taking 16 wickets in 5 matches at 14.62 per wicket, and a healthy economy rate of 4.96. With proper nurturing, the 19 year old seems to be a proper prospect for the future, and he forced Misbah-ul-Haq to concede that his earlier criticism of him was misdirected with breathtaking displays in the latter games. Wahab Riaz, 39, also not in the original squad, turned out surprisingly well, obtaining 11 wickets in 8 matches at a costlier average of 36.36 and proving to be expensive with an economy rate of 6.0. His heroics against Afghanistan while playing with a fractured finger with the bat will be replayed time and again in history. Pakistan would have hoped for more incisive performances from the spin quarter of Shadab Khan, Imad Wasim, Mohammed Hafeez and Shoaib Malik, who were generally lacklustre as a unit.

As fans of cricket await the semifinals, with India expected to beat New Zealand, and a tough contest expected between traditional rivals Australia and England, the Pakistan cricket team management needs to get back on the drawing board and devise long term policy for the future. Moving beyond the perennial ad-hoc style of management, investing in youth coaching and improving facilities, as well as bringing back international cricket to Pakistan, should remain key priorities. If Pakistan keeps getting coerced to play in the UAE, the board needs to experiment with bouncy pitches assisting fast bowlers because the short-ball remains a key weapon against Pakistani batsmen who seem to be in more control on flatter Asian wickets. The overall focus needs to shift towards the higher forms of cricket - Tests and ODIs - as a squad with predominantly T20 based skillsets will always get caught out in the longer versions of the game. England started planning for their ODI team after their debacle in the 2015 World Cup, and have since dominated ODI rankings. Pakistan needs to follow suit, and preferably, with a captain whose place in the team is sure-shot. You cannot afford to carry dead weight for too long, especially in a setting where the game is becoming increasingly competitive and professional. Ground fielding, less so, and catching, more so, remain atrocious when compared with international standards, and need to be improved on an emergency basis. There are signs that the current crop have bags of potential, but potential alone does not win you World Cups, it needs to be consistently transformed into practice.

The writer is a freelance columnist and a social science research scholar. His research interests include critical theory, the eastern classical music tradition, as well as political processes in South Asia.”

The small window of opportunity that opened up towards the end was promising as it seemed like the team was peaking at the right time, but it all proved to be too late.