Being written off is like a free hit for Pakistan cricket. It has been so, for as long as one can remember. Once you tell them they don’t stand a chance, they go on to do the seemingly impossible.
The squad, the team management, the captain, all seem irrelevant then. The rankings, form book and history go out of the window as well. And without a care in the world, Pakistan pull off the miracle, often without appearing to break a sweat.
That has been the case for Pakistan in the ongoing Champions Trophy. Burdened by the entire nation’s expectations against India last Sunday the team capitulated like a house of cards. When Pakistan were being asked to avoid the formality of even taking the field against the World No 1 South Africa on Wednesday, the bottom ranked side in the tournament pocketed the win to now being a single victory away from the semifinals.
Qualifying from a group featuring two of the top three sides in the world, would be no small accomplishment. That it could come after the obliteration on Sunday, would be an even bigger achievement. And the match that Pakistan need to win to ensure a place in the final four is against the team that isn’t among those top 3 sides.
That’s where the expectations creep in again. And the ensuing pressure is possibly the biggest foe that Pakistan would be facing tomorrow against Sri Lanka.
Before we get ahead of ourselves – as we so often do – it’s important to reflect equally at what went right against South Africa and what didn’t. The bowling from the opening duo of Mohammed Amir and Junaid Khan to the spin trio of Imad Wasim, Mohammad Amir and Shadab Khan, and Man-of-the-Match Hasan Ali – was absolutely top-drawer.
Reducing the top side in the world to less than 220 at a time when 320 is being comfortably chased elsewhere, was obviously what set the platform for the win. It was equally complemented by the fielding effort, which captain Sarfraz Ahmed jokingly put down to the team “not doing anything” for fielding practice ahead of the game, since the practice session was rained out.
But it’s also equally important to accept that Pakistan looked more than just wobbly chasing a total that most other sides would even fancy in T20s on a batting deck. And that’s Pakistan’s Achilles’ heel – and has been for some time.
Fakhar Zaman looked more than impressive up top, and might be able to fill Sharjeel Khan’s void, for as long as he remains out of the game. Pakistan have needed that injection of positivity up front, that a top order of Azhar Ali, Ahmed Shehzad and Babar Azam does not give.
Azhar was the only batsman that showed up against India, and hence would be persisted with, since no one else seems to be scoring many runs. But it doesn’t need a microscope to analyse that he’s not a limited-overs batsman. He has to play out of his comfort zone to maintain a strike rate of anywhere around 85-90, which is significantly higher than his career strike rate.
Babar of course is already highly rated – and understandably so. But it’s important for both him and his supporters to not get carried away with the impressive stats that he has mustered – the lion’s share of which has been against the West Indies. He needs to show a bit more urgency in his run-getting, all the while continuing to muster those runs, for him to establish himself as a modern-day batsman.
Hafeez is a burden on the side when it comes to his batting. He takes more time that modern cricket allows you and more often than not fails to post any meaningful total either. If Hafeez’s bowling makes him indispensable – considering he wasn’t used at all against India – maybe it’s a good idea to bat him lower down the order, where he has no choice but to bat at a higher tempo.
Shoaib Malik is possibly the only established batsman in the side with the skill-set needed to keep pace with the demands of modern cricket. But after him, the lower order pales significantly with a conspicuous lack of big-hitting talent.
Sarfraz wastes himself lower down the order, since he is not a big hitter himself. His ideal position should be in the top three, where he can score quickly in the first Powerplay. A top three of Azhar, Fakhar, Sarfraz, followed by Babar and Malik, then the trio of Hafeez, Imad and Shadab, would yield better results for Pakistan.
Ideally one of the latter trio should be replaced with Faheem Ashraf, even if solely for his batting skills, considering that he has failed to impress with the ball. With Hafeez, Imad, Shadab, Hasan, Amir and Junaid, Pakistan already have six bowlers who can easily bowl 10 overs, in addition to Shoaib Malik and even Azhar Ali. Pakistan need a batsman who can clear the boundary with ease at the 6-8 positions, and as things stand Faheem Ashraf appears to be the one that we have.
Even so, all these strategies would be inculcated in the team in the long run – if at all. It’s hard to see Pakistan do too much different against a Sri Lankan side they would fancy their chances against. But the Lankans themselves are coming off a staggering batting show against India, and would be backing their batsmen to perform again.
As is the case with most Pakistani matches, this would be a contest between the opposition’s batsmen and their bowlers. The bowlers lost that particular battle against India, and won it against South Africa.
Therefore, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Sarfraz win the toss and putting the opposition into bat tomorrow. But if the team really wants to catch Sri Lanka off guard and make a statement in the tournament, they should bat first, post over 300 on the board and let their strength take care of the rest. Pakistan can’t put everything on the bowlers, especially at a time when they haven’t been that consistent either.