Monday, January 31, 2011

The curious case of Younis and Misbah

Christchurch witnessed a quintessentially Pakistani style of play: start slow, build a base, retain wickets, and explode in the end. It used to be the norm in 1980s before Saeed Anwar and Aamir Sohail changed that in the 90's, but once again, without a settled opening pair, Pakistan are returning to the roots. Not many teams can launch into a frenzied and mesmerising attack in the end overs like Pakistan can. Abdul Razzaq swinging like there is no tomorrow, Shahid Afridi swinging like there is no next moment, and the scarred opposition living on the boundary's edge, waiting for the violence to end. As Luke Woodcock put it: "I've seen a bit of it on TV but to actually see it first hand, playing against him [Afridi] for the first time, it was a pretty special knock and he took the momentum away from us."
Mohammad Hafeez hit his maiden hundred in his 61st game, Ahmed Shehzad dazzled briefly in the second ODI, and Umar Akmal showed glimpses of the imperious flair he possesses. But what about Pakistan's experienced middle order? For long, Younis Khan's critics have said that he bats in ODIs like he is batting in a Test and vice versa. For long, Misbah-ul-Haq's critics have said that he bats in all formats like he is batting in a Test. Their supporters will cite Christchurch as evidence of their effectiveness. Let Younis and Misbah play the middle overs, preventing a collapse, and set the base for the marauders to take over. The critics want the same thing but they wonder why the holding job can't be performed with more purpose? Can't Younis and Misbah take singles, keep the strike rotating, and score at a decent pace? Their career strike rates are just over 75, which is actually ideal for the job they do, but the criticism, especially against Misbah, is that he only makes up towards the end of his knock. The sedate approach at the start increases pressure on the others and triggers self-destructive ways or so the argument goes. It will be interesting to watch their approach in the next game.
Their opposition, New Zealand, are experimenting, searching for the ideal line-up before the World Cup. The biggest puzzle is the position of Brendon McCullum. On the flat-beds of the subcontinent, considering that he is a regular Test opener, would it be better to play him at the top or keep him for later? Martin Guptill has been in great form, and Jesse Ryder is best while opening, so why not plug McCullum lower down to make use of the batting Powerplay? And what about Jamie How, who looks good in most innings but never carries on? He will get one more chance in the next game, this time in the middle order, and he needs to grab it.
Tim Southee and Hamish Bennett are the two chosen ones for the fourth ODI. It was slightly strange to see New Zealand make Bennett bowl against the breeze in the last game. Will they give him a chance to go down wind and try and use his pace to unsettle the batsmen? Luke Woodcock, who had a good debut, lost out as Vettori and Nathan McCullum return. The pressure is on Nathan to put in a good performance to keep Woodcock behind in the pecking order.
Napier, the venue of the fourth ODI, has been a burial ground for the bowlers and if the pitch remains flat and full of runs, Pakistan hold the edge over New Zealand.

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