• 11 May - 17 May, 2024
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While records are being shattered in the IPL, they remain hindered by a persistent fear of losing wickets during the powerplay. One hundred and seventy-eight: a warm welcome to Gary Kirsten in Pakistan’s T20 realm as he is now the head coach of Pakistan in White ball cricket for the next two years.

On two occasions in the recent series against New Zealand, Pakistan posted a total of 178, and once they scored 174. Out of these, they secured one win and suffered two losses. Earlier in the year, during the five-match T20I series in New Zealand, they managed scores of 180, 173, and 179, yet lost each of these matches.

One hundred and seventy-eight: the issue isn’t the score itself but rather what it symbolises. It seems to represent the pinnacle of Pakistan’s ambitions, as suggested by captain Babar Azam’s rather precise outline of their desired innings progression. He aims for over fifty in the powerplay, another 40 by the 10th over, with 90-100 in the final 10 for a total of 180-190.

However, 178 also appears to be a burden, particularly highlighted by the surreal performances in this IPL season. On the day he was named Pakistan’s coach, Kirsten’s Gujarat Titans scored 200, only to see Royal Challengers Bangalore effortlessly chase it down with nine wickets and four overs remaining. Just prior, Gujarat narrowly missed chasing 225.

Last Friday, Kirsten witnessed the Punjab Kings effortlessly reaching a target of 262. The Sunrisers Hyderabad were close to hitting 300, with RCB almost catching up. The cricketing world is left pondering whether this season is a deviation or a new norm for T20 cricket. Meanwhile, Pakistan consistently scores around 178.

Admittedly, comparing franchise cricket to T20I bilateral matches is somewhat unfair. The former operates under different dynamics, driven by market rather than geographic constraints, and even the game rules vary.

But Pakistan’s persistent lack of aggressive intent, especially while setting totals, has evolved into a contentious issue, pitting statistical enthusiasts against traditionalists. In an attempt to address this, Pakistan introduced Saim Ayub as an opener, disrupting the Babar-Mohammad Rizwan duo, previously both a strength and limitation of their strategy. Ayub has appeared in nine of the last 10 matches and, while yet to mirror his PSL performance, has received strong endorsements from the captain and interim coach post-series.

However, the change hasn’t been drastic. In New Zealand, Rizwan opened with Ayub, and Babar batted third; back in Pakistan, Babar resumed opening with Rizwan dropping to third. Ultimately, Pakistan continues to feature two anchor batsmen (strike rates around 129) at the top of the order, a strategy generally advised against in T20 cricket. Ayub might remain in the playing XI, but few would be surprised if he isn’t opening, potentially leading to a reunion of Babar and Rizwan at the top.

Indeed, as Babar emphasized following the final match against New Zealand, there remains a prevailing concern about losing early wickets during the powerplay. This cautious approach, frankly, seems outdated. It’s not the totals themselves but the apprehension of wicket losses that feels archaic, especially as modern batters increasingly dismiss such fears in the format.

Kirsten, with his astute coaching acumen, understands this dynamic well. He’s aware that despite these concerns, Pakistan has consistently reached at least the semi-finals in the last two T20 World Cups under dramatically varied conditions. He recognizes that the aggressive batting showcased in the IPL may not directly translate to the T20 World Cup. He knows that a sweeping transformation at this stage is impractical. Yet, he must also be cognizant that the time for significant change is on the horizon.

Moreover, Pakistan's fascination with, and at times fixation on, the Australian approach to cricket has led them to seek Australian expertise in various capacities, from dressing-room advisors to pitch consultants. Recently, Shane Watson was approached for the role of white-ball coach, but he declined. Since then, Gillespie has been the preferred candidate for Test coach, and an agreement with him, alongside Gary Kirsten as white ball coach, was reportedly reached weeks ago.

However, Gillespie has earned respect as a coach not by pandering to teams but by being forthright, and in his initial comments since his appointment, he cautioned Pakistan against trying to mimic Australia or any other team. "My philosophy is to avoid trying to be something you’re not," he stated on the PCB’s internal media channel during a podcast. "I want the Pakistan cricket team to play a style of cricket that suits them; that’s crucial to me.

"You need to be genuine in your approach. I will encourage them to be positive, aggressive, and entertaining. Play with joy and captivate our fans. There will be moments when the game requires you to dig deep, and that’s the essence of Test cricket. It challenges your abilities, mental strength, and patience. There are moments to press forward and others to withstand pressure from the opposition. If we can maintain consistency, the scoreboard should take care of itself, and we'll achieve victories."

Kirsten also spoke to the PCB, calling it a “wonderful privilege” to be offered the job of Pakistan white-ball coach. “I think Pakistan sits as one of the top four to five coaching jobs in the world internationally,” he said. “What is important is that I have the opportunity to work with some of the best cricketers in the world and that excites me.”

Kirsten had arguably the highest profile coaching job in the world when he was appointed coach of India in 2008, famously ending his tenure on the shoulders of Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina, who hoisted him up for a lap of honour after India won the 2011 ODI World Cup. If he sees out his current two-year contract, he will oversee Pakistan in three white-ball ICC events: two T20 World Cups and a home Champions Trophy in 2025.

“The important thing for me is to understand where the team is at and where we want to go to – whether that is winning World Cup events, which, by the way, is not easy. Often some people think you just pitch in and you’re going to win the championship.

“But if you can win one of those three ICC Events, that will be an amazing achievement on its own, whether it’s the upcoming event or it’s two years from now. My job is to make sure that the team operates at its best, it’s as simple as that. And if the team is operating at its best, we will always have a good chance of winning a trophy.

“So for me, it is important to understand where is the team now and where its need to go to be able to compete right at the top of the pile, and that’s winning ICC events. You can’t guarantee a trophy, but what you can do is put the steps in place to give yourself the best chance of winning a trophy. And that’s really what I’ll tend to do.”

For Pakistan’s upcoming T20I series against Ireland and England, while Hasan Ali, who had last played a T20I in 2022, has been called up to the squad. Haris Rauf, who was injured during the PSL, has also been included, even as Agha Salman also returns.

Hasan, who like Jamal is currently playing county cricket for Warwickshire, had his selection attributed by the PCB more to his experience and ICC tournament pedigree rather than current form. Hasan did enjoy a stellar PSL this year with Karachi Kings, but was still not selected for the New Zealand series.

His selection appears to be based around belief in his ability beyond just hard numbers, and an opportunity to assess him in Ireland and England before this 18-man squad is whittled down to 15 for the T20 World Cup.

Pakistan play three T20Is against Ireland starting May 10, before playing four games against England. The deadline to announce the squad for the T20 World Cup (May 25) is after they play the first T20I against England (May 22).


Shahzeb Ali Rizvi is a sports aficionado with a keen eye for the intricacies of cricket and football. He can be reached at [email protected]