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May 26, 2019

Wake up, Pakistan!


May 26, 2019

Last Friday in Bristol, Afghanistan gave Pakistan what should be their last wake-up call ahead of the ICC World Cup. The ease with the Afghans beat Pakistan should ignite some real last-minute soul-searching for Sarfraz Ahmed and Co.

As if the 4-0 drubbing against England wasn’t enough, Pakistan fell short of the Afghans, supposed to be one of the easier teams to beat in the World Cup, in the first of their two World Cup practice games before the big one against the West Indies on May 31 in Nottingham.

Though it was just a practice game, Pakistan should be well aware of the fact that they fielded, more or less, their top side in it and were still unable to really trouble the determined Afghans. They were busy taking out positives from the series defeat against England but should now really know that their team has to raise their game if they are to stand any chance in the World Cup.

Despite the fact that England almost brushed them aside in the ODI series, Pakistan were happy that their batting, long regarded as the team’s Achilles heals, clicked. It was seen as a good omen before the World Cup.

But on a batting wicket in Bristol where Pakistan chose to bat first, they were unable to handle the Afghan bowling attack. Pakistan could just manage 262 despite a brilliant 112 from 108 balls by the in-form Babar Azam. The Pakistanis couldn’t even last the entire 50 overs and were bowled out in the 48th.

Pakistan took the field in Bristol after having lost ten ODI games on the trot. They desperately needed a win against the Afghans to boost their confidence and then maybe another one against Bangladesh in their second and last warm-up game to be played at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff on Sunday (today).

But to win a match especially against a hungry and determined team like Afghanistan isn’t easy. Pakistan have learnt it the hard way.

On a wicket that offered some turn, Pakistan were unable to counter Afghanistan’s impressive spin battery. Babar Azam was the only Pakistani batsmen who could tackle the Afghan attack. Openers Fakhar Zaman and Imam-ul-Haq will have to really pull up their socks and start showing more consistency.

While Imam has mostly done that, Fakhar’s is another story. The big-hitting opener was one of the biggest stars of Pakistan’s stunning 180-run triumph in the final of the ICC Champions Trophy against India at The Oval two years ago. A lot was expected from him but during the last two years Fakhar has just proved himself to be an unpredictable batsman. Unstoppable when he is in full flow but more of a pushover when he is not. Unfortunately for Pakistan, Fakhar’s match-winning knocks have been few and far between since his heroics in the summer of 2017.

One of the major reasons why Pakistan were unable to counter the Afghan threat was their inability to build up on a reasonably good start in Friday’s game. Pakistan weren’t badly placed at 203-4 in the 38th over and should have easily reached the 300-run mark. But a middle-order collapse made sure that Pakistan would not be able to post a substantial total.

The Pakistanis will need a much better showing from their middle-order that includes the highly-experienced duo of Shoaib Malik and Mohammad and the likes of Haris Sohail and skipper Sarfraz Ahmed.

The captain will have to lead from the front. He cannot hide behind his team-mates. Imran Khan didn’t do that 27 years ago when Pakistan made a disastrous start to their World Cup campaign in Australia.

When Pakistan were getting ready to depart on their English sojourn, Imran told Sarfraz to be brave in his captaincy. Unfortunately Sarfraz has so failed to do that. The onus is now on him to show the sort of leadership qualities that made Pakistan hand him the team’s captaincy in all three formats of the game.

One of the biggest reasons why Pakistan are going through a frustrating summer in England is their bowling attack’s toothless showing. Pakistan landed in England as one of the world’s best bowling sides but its attack was cut down to size by England’s batsmen in the what was one-sided series.

Pakistan’s bowlers even failed to intimidate the Afghans. Baring one good spell from Wahab Riaz in which he was able to attain considerable reverse swing, the Pakistani bowlers were unable to trouble Afghanistan’s batsmen.

The ease with Hazratullah Zazai smashed the Pakistani pacers in all corners of the park during a 28-ball 49 aptly underlined the fact that Pakistan’s bowling is not up to the mark. Later, Hashmatullah Shahidi guided his team to a three-wicket win an unbeaten 74. He did that with an enviable ease.

While Wahab’s impressive spell towards the end of the match was a heartening sign for Pakistan, Amir’s continuous inability to take wickets should be a big cause for concern.

Amir was one of the architects of what was one of their most memorable ODI wins in recent years - their victory against India in the Champions Trophy final. But since then Amir’s graph has dipped alarmingly. His indifferent form forced the national selectors to initially ignore him while deciding Pakistan’s 15-man squad for the World Cup.

Though they kept him in their World Cup plans by including him in the squad for the limited-overs series against England, Amir almost missed the World Cup because of a bout with chickenpox. He recovered in time to be included in the World Cup squad but it was evident that Amir is yet to regain his form. He bowled six overs in Friday’s game and went wicketless. Amir bowled with an average speed of 82.6, which is slower than his normal pace. He will need to do much better otherwise Pakistan would struggle to counter their opponents on what are likely to be batting-friendly wickets during the World Cup.

One of the reasons why Pakistan were unable to utilise their last 10-12 overs on Friday was the absence of their key pinch-hitter - Asif Ali. He missed the game because of his daughter’s funeral. Asif is going to be an important player for Pakistan because he seems like the only batsman in the line-up who can score at a brisk pace at the end of an innings.

There were great expectations from the young duo of Shaheen Shah Afridi and Mohammad Hasnain but so far neither of them has really managed to impress in England. The two were selected ahead of the likes of Junaid Khan and Usman Shinwari and both of them really need to show more sting. So does Hasan Ali. Once regarded as one of the most exciting young cricketers in international cricket, Hasan Ali has become an inconsistent performer. Pakistan need much more from him.

Pakistan have one more opportunity to regain some confidence ahead of the World Cup as a forceful showing against Bangladesh in Cardiff today will surely lift their morale. But just like Afghanistan, Bangladesh won’t be an easy nut to crack. They have arrived in England fresh from a tri-series triumph in Ireland where they defeated West Indies in the final.

Most of their senior players like Shakib Al Hasan, Soumya Sarkar, Tamim Iqbal and Mushfiqur Rahim have been in good touch while rookie Abu Javed made his presence felt with a match-winning spell of 5-58 against Ireland recently.

Pakistan will need to put their best foot forward. They will have to show the sort of self-belief which helped them win the Champions Trophy two years ago. Otherwise the prospects look bleak for them in the coming weeks.

Khalid Hussain is Editor Sports of The News

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