Perhaps the most accurate word to describe Misbah ul Haq‘s time as Pakistan’s captain was foresight. It is the reason he never seemed to panic. If Plan A didn’t work out, he had Plan B, C, all the way through to Z. After that, you felt he could have switched to the Urdu alphabet, which has 37 characters instead of 26, and gone all the way through to ے. He never gambled, he merely calculated. He didn’t punt, he took educated guesses. He was so calm many in Pakistan managed to take issue with that, complaining he bored the pants off them because he was so predictable. Which he was. He predictably found a way out in the end. He predictably won series after home series, Pakistan not losing one until he left.
To hear Misbah speak now and witness him take, and then justify, decisions as chief selector over the past four months, you wonder if it’s the same man. Where he dead-batted media criticism so effectively, he now rises to bait, even when it hasn’t really been offered. As captain, every move appeared to have been thought through to, and well beyond, its last calculable logical eventuality. T20 squad selections were especially straightforward for Pakistan for the past three years, but now, it appears a free-for-all. Debutants? You got plenty. Older players you thought Pakistan had begun looking past? You’re sorted. Offspin bowlers currently suspended from bowling offspin? Yes, sir. Players who declared they’d rather play for Australia? You bet.
It is the format where a coach could not have dreamed of taking over a more settled, in-form side a year out from a World T20. When Misbah came in, Pakistan had won 30 of their last 37 T20Is. Now, they are yet to win one under the present management, having lost all five completed internationals.
If there is an overarching plan or philosophy connecting the players that have lined up for Pakistan in that format since September, you could be forgiven for having missed it. The first squad Misbah named was eyebrow-raising for the inclusions of Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad in a clear departure of the policy during Mickey Arthur’s time, who believed it was time to move on from them. It was an unnecessary gamble and appeared a somewhat gratuitous two-fingered salute to the former head coach who, at least in this format, appeared to have Pakistan on track. That it backfired so sharply both were dropped after two heavy defeats instantly put Misbah on the defensive.
The next T20 squad Pakistan named – for the tour of Australia – represented a complete shift. With Sarfaraz Ahmed removed, there was a slew of fresh faces that appeared to suggest Pakistan were moving on from the old guard. Mohammad Musa, Kashif Bhatti, Khushdil Shah, and, out of seemingly nowhere, Usman Qadir, were called up; Umar and Shehzad were gone once more. But there was space for another player Arthur had discarded, with 37-year old Mohammad Irfan brought in from the cold. He, too, would only last two games, conceding 58 in six overs, and finds himself out of the T20 squad against Bangladesh Misbah just announced.
So youth promotion, generally, right? Ermm, hold your horses. In this third edition, we’ve got another duo back together, with 37-year old Shoaib Malik and 39-year old Mohammad Hafeez returning, Misbah expressing confidence their experience will be crucial.
However, if this represents a turn back towards experience and familiarity, here’s another roadblock on the way to that narrative. Mohammad Amir, with more T20I wickets than any other Pakistan bowler since January 2018, and Wahab Riaz, fifth on the all-time T20I wickets list among Pakistan fast bowlers, both find themselves out of the squad. In their cases, Misbah reasoned it was important to include younger bowlers in the XI, and having experienced bowlers in the squad wouldn’t abet that goal.
More worryingly, Misbah’s comments today didn’t exactly radiate confidence. “We have tried a mix of senior and young players which enable us to retain our winning momentum. Until the World T20, everyone is in consideration. The situation is now alarming after we lost against Sri Lanka and then in Australia. But we are going to keep experimenting until we get to our best combination.”
You may wonder how Pakistan have found themselves in a position where, nine months out from a T20 World Cup they seemed destined to be favourites for, they are essentially reduced to throwing names into a squad and hoping one combination eventually sticks. It isn’t all down to Misbah; the central contracts were issued days before he was appointed head coach and chief selector, and he may well have had no input in those decisions. That said, only five of the 16 players named in the squad that plays Bangladesh are part of the centrally contracted list anyway, so that appears no hindrance. (It doesn’t bode especially well for long term planning, though, when as recently as August, PCB CEO Wasim Khan said the board “wanted to attach a high value to receiving” a central contract.
The blame for Hasan Ali’s recurring injury or Shadab Khan’s loss of form can’t be placed at Misbah’s door either, nor Fakhar Zaman’s struggles and the timing of Sarfaraz Ahmed’s removal as captain. Amir and Wahab’s retirement from the Test format may have done their chances of T20 selection no good, either, with Misbah having publicly expressed unhappiness at players being able to pick and choose their availability just last month. Whether that was the reason the duo were edged out, or indeed if factoring that into T20 selections is judicious at all, is another matter entirely.
But where there used to be a contingency plan from Misbah, there is a strategic vapidity to T20 squad selections. It is impossible to say whether this Pakistan setup wants to promote youth, and a long-term vision, or go back to the comfort zone of picking players they believe may get them short-term results. You couldn’t say if Misbah’s Pakistan emphasises bottom heavy power-hitting, what the players selected tell us about Powerplay usage, which quicks are death bowlers or whether they want to play a legspinner at all. When Misbah took over as head coach and chief selector, Pakistan were a top T20 side. Now, they appear imposters clinging on to a T20 number one ranking it is scarcely believable they attained. If the master tactician has a plan for this, he’s kept it very well concealed thus far.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000
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