Let the euphoria sink in. After the most lopsided of defeats against India who would’ve thought Pakistan would be preparing themselves for a semifinal clash against the hosts, and favourites, England? It’s safe to say many in the Pakistani dressing room wouldn’t have thought so either.
The performance in the following games against South Africa and Sri Lanka has reflected that uncertainty. But both matches have been won by the return of the one thing that Pakistanis have consistently been good at: out-bowling the opponents.
Pakistan’s matches are, more often than not, a direct clash between their bowling and the opponents’ batting. And the bowlers have come out on top against both South Africa and Sri Lanka, restricting them to little over 200.
But even the bowling has been inconsistent over the past couple of years, especially since the 2015 World Cup. Let’s not forget that it was only 10 months ago, and in England, that Pakistan conceded the highest ever ODI score 444/3 at Nottingham, with pretty much the same bowling attack.
However, Junaid Khan has been absolutely on the mark since his return. Mohammed Amir is back in the wickets again; and it was the duo’s second spell that dented Sri Lanka, who looked set to post a score within proximity of 300 at one point.
Similarly, spinners ImadWasim and Mohammed Hafeez were especially effective against South Africa. While Hasan Ali was the star with the ball against the Proteas and took three wickets against Sri Lanka as well. Debutant Faheem Ashraf picked up a couple on Monday as well, and looked impressive with the bat later on.
Even so, the match was truly won thanks to an unbeaten 75-run partnership between captain Sarfraz Ahmed and Mohammed Amir. While the skipper led the team home, with help from the Sri Lankan fielders, it was Amir’s dogged batting that was the crucial differential. Both Amir and Sarfraz, however, exhibited the one thing that is often the most important on a sporting field: the desire to win.
But, let’s call a spade a spade. A performance twice as good – especially with the bat – won’t be enough to challenge England in Wednesday’s first semifinal, let alone beat them. Then again, Pakistan have traditionally thrived in the underdog role, with the fewest of expectations.
Both Pakistan and England have been headed in opposite directions since the 2015 World Cup, where the English side failed to make it past the group stage, while Pakistan were close to beating eventual champions Australia in the quarterfinals.
The Nottingham hammering, the 4-1 ODI series defeat last summer – and the 2-1 defeat in the UAE in November 2015 – show the contrasting trajectories of the two sides.
After being found wanting at the highest stage, England underwent a purge and got rid of players that weren’t good enough for modern day demands. Pakistan after 2015 appointed Azhar Ali as the ODI captain, who despite his rise in Test cricket is not a limited-overs batsman.
Azhar Ali has returned to the ODI side after being dropped for the tour of West Indies, and giving up the captaincy. And while he made the only meaningful score for Pakistan in the match against India, his discomfort is visible every time he is expected to push on the accelerator.
Mohammed Hafeez is a clear liability on the team with the bat. And if he has to be played because of his exploits with the ball, he should be asked to bat lower down the order so that there aren’t many deliveries left for him to waste.
Babar Azam should also be pushed to increase his strike rate once he is settled, and not worry about personal milestones. He is a truly gifted player, and needs to be taught to prefer team goals over his personal stats – which undoubtedly are very impressive.
Shoaib Malik has been unlucky, but remains the only Pakistani batsman with any volume of matches under his belt who can play aggressively and meet the demands of modern cricket. And while Sarfraz played the decisive knock against Sri Lanka, one can’t help but feel that he’s not the modern-day finisher, with his inability to hit big – he should ideally bat in the top three.
The positives with the bat for Pakistan are Fakhar Zaman up top and Faheem Ashraf at number 7. These are arguably the only two batsmen, along with Shoaib Malik, who can clear the boundary with ease and hence should be a part of Pakistan’s future. But more pertinently their performance – especially that of Fakhar Zaman – would be crucial against England, where it’s unlikely that scoring less than 250 would be good enough for Pakistan to win.
Imad Wasim has come back strongly with the ball since the hammering against India, but continues to struggle with the bat. It’s unlikely that he would continue to be preferred over Shadab Khan in the long run, unless he starts justifying his ‘all-rounder’ billing. This is especially true since Shadab is no mug with the bat.
Every single individual would have to play out of his skin for Pakistan to beat an in-form England at home. The batting especially needs to rise to the occasion, and play with more positive intent. Pakistan would have to come up with the best ODI performance for the past two and a half years to overcome England. Anything less than that simply won’t be good enough.