A support cast as talented as the stars

Pakistan's bowling attack is potent because even lesser members know their roles perfectly.

Mohammad Hafeez's awareness of his limitations has worked to Pakistan's gain.

The most significant lesson to be learnt from the first ODI between Pakistan and Sri Lanka is that the contest was between a team whose leaders were focused and ready to compete and another whose top talent was neither.

If anything, Pakistan’s biggest hurdle in the match was their over-aggressiveness. Their three-pronged pace attack operated like the ultra-efficient law firm of Gul, Tanvir and Sami, except for the regular wides sprinkled with no-balls. The pitch was affording movement, but the bowlers tried to do more than was necessary against a lazy performance from the entire batting side, save Lahiru Thirimanne.

Pakistan has the luxury of possessing a formidable limited overs attack in Umar Gul, Saeed Ajmal, Mohammad Hafeez and Shahid Afridi, and whenever someone else steps in (Mohammad Sami and Sohail Tanvir right now) he is probably regarded as the weak link. Indeed, sometimes Hafeez and Afridi find themselves targeted by the opposition as they try to race through their combined 20 overs quickly and quietly in the middle of the innings. The point is that every bowler understands his role in the team and adjusts his tactics accordingly.

Gul and Ajmal have each earned a reputation that precedes them against most opponents. The other bowlers make no special attempt to induce big shots or challenge the batsmen with theatrics. They are the quiet workhorses – assassins who acquire scalps not by wickets but economy. The opponents often fail to realize the impact and effectiveness of the secondary spinners until they look at the final scorecard, and then count all the dot balls played straight back to the bowlers. They will study the match film and see the spinners ready to run-in before the batsman finishes rehearsing his previous stroke.

These are the tricks that will soon proliferate throughout the world. Some bowlers will always be treated as part-timers who can be exploited for runs. But most cricketers given the ball at the international level will have a bit of arrogance and overconfidence in their abilities, and they will not consider themselves hittable until they are hit. It takes a man who knows his limitations to thrive with them as Hafeez has, who has miraculously (but inevitably) risen to become the fourth-ranked bowler in the format. The lesson, as always, is to understand your role in the side.

Hafeez knows can be hittable, so he keeps to a simple length. His wisdom is Socratic in that he knows that he knows nothing. So, he stays well within himself. So few other second-tier bowlers have been able to understand and embrace this simple truth that could elevate their individual and team game.
It is easy to get dazzled by Gul and Ajmal – they are world-class talents. The team succeeds because the rest of the bowling squad understands this as well as the fans. Next time, pay attention to Hafeez, who takes as much pride and puts in as much work into his far simpler job.

The Pakistan batting side; now, that’s a different story.