Pakistan has never been famous for his fielding over the years and was constantly criticised for its fielding standards by both fans and cricket experts but in recent times-especially since Champions Trophy-the side has become one the best in the world.
According to a detailed report by English newspaper Telegraph, after an England Test defeat as abject as Lord’s, fingers have inevitably been pointed at Twenty20 – for England’s shoddy shot selection, the marginalisation of the County Championship, and probably the inclement May weather too. But ask Pakistan about the impact of T20, and their answer will be very different: the shortest format has done more than anything else to improve the standards of Pakistani fielding.
To understand the roots of Pakistan’s brilliant fielding performance at Lord’s – when they did not drop a single catch and, until a couple of pieces of poor ground fielding on the third evening, barely missed a ball either – it is necessary to understand the impact that the Pakistan Super League has had on cricket in the country.
Pakistan cricket’s nine years in exile have cost the board about $200 million (£151million), because of the extra costs of playing their home matches in the UAE instead and the loss of ticket revenue. For the next generation, it has also deprived them of the opportunities of learning from foreign coaches, as few have been willing to stay in Pakistan for long.
The PSL, which launched in 2016, changed all this. For one month a year in the UAE, Pakistan’s best young players play for leading foreign coaches and with leading international stars. As this is in the format of the game which most demands athleticism, fielding has been emphasised like never before. A measure of this shift is that a higher proportion of catches are taken in the Pakistan Super League than Australia’s Big Bash.
At Lord’s, England did not just glimpse the batting and bowling skills of a team being regenerated but also saw a new generation of effervescent fielders. Shadab Khan is both in keeping with the stereotypes of Pakistani cricket – he is a brilliant teenage legspinner – and also completely removed from them: he is a vivacious fielder too and, indeed, a genuinely three-dimensional player of the ilk that Pakistan have seldom produced. Shadab was known as a precocious fielder even before the PSL but the tournament honed his athleticism, just as it did for Imam and Faheem Ashraf.
When elevated to the national squad, these players sharpened their fielding and fitness methodically and meticulously. After Mickey Arthur was appointed the head coach in 2016, he appointed the Australian Steve Rixon as fielding coach. “What we’ve done, again, is that uncompromising way we’ve worked with fielding and fitness standards,” Arthur explained before Lord’s.
Before his very first tour – the series in England in 2016 – the team trained with the army; the sight of Pakistan’s players doing press-ups on the Lord’s outfield two years ago was an acknowledgment of how this had helped. This time – as he has made the norm – Arthur oversaw a pre-series camp in Pakistan and, during the early tour matches and the Test in Ireland, honed the side’s slip fielding. Asad Shafiq’s diving catch from second slip on the first day, to account for Jos Buttler, amounted to stunning vindication.
Playing in Dubai, Arthur believes, has forced Pakistan to achieve new heights of fitness. “You get to Dubai and you get to 50, and it’s 40 degrees, you have guys throw their wickets away. Well, now their fitness standards allow them to go on and get 80s and 100s.”
Arthur was not the first foreign coach to stress the importance of fielding. In many ways he shares many of the same qualities as Bob Woolmer, who also coached South Africa before doing the Pakistan job: the demeanour of an amiable uncle, a determination to improve Pakistan in their historical weaknesses without impinging upon their traditional strengths and his embrace of Pakistan as a country as well as a cricket team.
During his celebrated stint as Pakistan coach, from 2004 to 2007, Woolmer brought a new emphasis to fielding as a core skill, not merely a nice garnish on the side, introducing a rigour to fielding sessions. If there was only so much that could be done to make Inzamam agiler, Woolmer pushed the elevation of more dynamic fielders, like Shoaib Malik and begun a broader cultural shift in Pakistani cricket.
Arthur is completing the revolution that Woolmer started. Since he took over as Pakistan coach, they have taken 80 per cent of catches in Tests; only New Zealand and South Africa have been better. Pakistan have always been capable of out-batting and out-bowling opponents. Now, they routinely out-field them too.