Things were looking set for Pakistan in the summer of 2017. Then, the team swam against the tide to win the ICC Champions Trophy title in England in an astonishing manner.
It was a high seldom experienced by Pakistan in recent times. Very few gave them a chance of winning the coveted title but they did it.
The 180-run triumph in the final against India was epic. Rookie opener Fakhar Zaman rose like a meteor and hit a match-winning ton. Mohammad Amir was back at his brilliant best and floored the likes of Virat Kohli with an effortless ease. Youngster Shadab Khan became an overnight star. Skipper Sarfraz Ahmed seemed the answer to all of Pakistan’s leadership problems.
By claiming the Champions Trophy – considered to be a tough title to win – Pakistan had joined the list of hot favourites for ICC World Cup 2019. O so it seemed.
Two years later, things have changed. In typical Pakistani fashion, precious little was done to capitalise on the team’s Champions Trophy triumph. While other title contenders were busy shaping up their World Cup squads, Pakistan went into hibernation. There was no planning to ensure that the team was ready for the World Cup.
Senior players like Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Hafeez were aging stars back in 2017. They are now two years older. Sarfraz’s star was on the rise when he won the Champions Trophy, now he is a captain who seems one tournament away from not just losing the team’s command but also his place in the squad.
The likes of Hasan Ali, then regarded as one of the most exciting young players in the cricket world, seem to have lost their sting.
Amir has been out of form and thus out of the team. He should be back for the World Cup but whether he will return to his winning ways remains to be seen.
Shadab has been dogged by hepatitis and might take time to regain his rhythm.
And I must say that we are putting Mohammad Hasnain under too much pressure. He is too young and inexperienced to be burdened with the heavy load of expectations.
It was evident that Pakistan’s ODI squad wasn’t on the right track when the team punched below its weight in last year’s Asia Cup in the UAE. The batting lacked depth while the bowling appeared toothless at times. This year’s home series against Australia in the UAE was another disaster for Pakistan. They were blanked 5-0 by the Aussies. While the series whitewash lifted the Australians, it further dented Pakistan’s morale ahead of the year’s biggest assignment – the ICC World Cup.
Then came the current series against England. It’s not that Pakistan crumbled against the hosts. It’s just that they fell short three times in a row. They allowed England to go 3-0 up despite posting 340-plus totals in all three games.
Unlike the past, their top-order batters didn’t disappoint with Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq and Babar Azam scoring centuries. This time it was the bowlers, supposed to be Pakistan’s biggest strength, who failed to deliver against a much-fancied England batting line-up. Pakistan’s fielding hasn’t been up to the mark either. There have been too many dropped catches in the series against England. The ground fielding has been quite disappointing.
That Pakistan are not in their element was aptly illustrated during a crucial juncture in the must-win fourth ODI at Trent Bridge on Friday night. Ben Stokes and Tom Curran were busy in their rescue act after England had experienced quite a collapse. Curran should have been run out at 6 but Sarfraz didn’t even appeal. After the reprieve, Curran went on to make 31 to play a key role in a 61-run partnership with Stokes that gave England a narrow three-wicket win for a series victory.
Having suffered eight consecutive defeats, Pakistan really need to regroup and rethink their strategy. They must be hoping that once players like Amir and Shadab are back, things will get better for them. Well, there are no guarantees.
Amir wasn’t included in Pakistan’s World Cup squad because of his below-par performance. He has taken just one wicket from his last five ODI outings. I hope he will return with a lot of fire in his belly but, as I said, there are no guarantees. He certainly is a big match player and will have a point to prove. Whether he can do it immediately after recovering from a bout of chickenpox remains to be seen.
Similar is the case of Shadab Khan. The 20-year-old leggie last played an ODI back in January. He has been out of action for several weeks and just recently recovered from hepatitis C. To expect him to just walk in the line-up and reverse the tide for Pakistan would be expecting too much.
What Pakistan need at the moment is for their established players like skipper Sarfraz Ahmed to stand up and deliver. They should take cue from Ben Stokes. Chasing a victory target of 341, England lost four wickets for just 15. It was a sort of collapse that can break the back of any team facing a big run-chase. It was then that Stokes stepped forward and to responsibility. He finished the match with an unbeaten 71. Pakistan’s key players have time and again failed to perform similar roles when their team needed them the most.
Pakistan will also have to find a cure for their below-par showing with the ball. They consistently failed to defend big totals. Azhar Mahmood, Pakistan’s bowling coach, has been around for quite some time. He will need to come out with answers. So does Mickey Arthur. Pakistan’s high-profile coach appears clueless whenever his team gets stuck in a losing spree like the ongoing one.
It’s a race against time. Pakistan, who play their opening World Cup match against equally unpredictable West Indies on March 31, need to quickly fix their problems because the clock is ticking.
With a 1992-like format, this year’s World Cup is going to be one helluva dance floor. Whether Pakistan can dance on it remains to be seen.
Khalid Hussain is Editor Sports of The News