After a hard-earned break of around two months, Pakistan will begin a continuum of high-value clashes with the Asia Cup in mid-September. Pakistan’s last challenge was the tour to Zimbabwe, where the team not only whitewashed the hosts in a five-match ODI series, they also won the T20I tri-series that also featured Australia.
Prior to that, Pakistan earned a hard-fought draw in a two-match Test series against England, which followed a win in Ireland’s inaugural Test. With the tri-series win maintaining Pakistan atop the T20I ranking and the Zimbabwe ODI series the second clean sweep that Pakistan has completed in the past three series, it is evident that the team is on the up ahead of the Asia Cup. Even so, the tournament will pose a unique challenge for Pakistan.
While Pakistan is clearly the top T20I side in the world right now, having won every single one of the T20 series that they have participated in since Sarfraz Ahmed took over the shortest format in 2016, the Asia Cup would go back to the customary ODI format after a brief stint with T20 two years ago. And even though Pakistan is clearly on the up in the 50 over format as well, they are not quite as strong as T20s –, especially under the given conditions.
Like the T20s, Sarfraz’s leadership has helped turned around Pakistan’s fortunes in the ODIs as well. But it hasn’t been quite as wide encompassing as the 20 over format. The highlight of the ODI successes for Pakistan was the Champions Trophy win in England last year when the team returned from the dead. It has clean swept Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, in the UAE and Zimbabwe respectively, but has been whitewashed by New Zealand Down Under earlier this year as well.
It is safe to say that Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe aren’t exactly the strongest ODI sides in the world, especially these days. The Champions Trophy win – barring the final – was set up largely by the Pakistani bowling, which exploited the English conditions perfectly to topple more fancied batting lineups, leaving the batting little to do.
The UAE decks, meanwhile, would provide the conditions for batsmen to dominate, which India might capitalise on.
The upcoming Asia Cup looks increasingly like being a one on one competition between India and Pakistan, with the possibility of the South Asian rivals squaring off thrice in the tournament if there is an Indo-Pak final. But it is true that Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and even Afghanistan have the batting that can go berserk if things fall into place for them – one of which would be the batting-friendly conditions.
India has the strongest side on paper, and the conditions would suit their strengths as well. On the other hand, Pakistan has the advantage of the UAE being their de facto home for the past decade.
Even so, that is one of the reasons why the challenge for Pakistan would be unique, with the additional burden of expectation to add to the age-old Indo-Pak rivalry.
Should Pakistan back up the Champions Trophy win with an Asia Cup title, they would further solidify their credentials as one of the – if not the – favourites for the World Cup next year.