It’s a near full-house at the Sheikh Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi and Afghanistan are on their way to making a match out of their Asia Cup Super Fours clash against Pakistan. It’s evening and the floodlights are on. But the heat is still a bit too much to bear. And so is Pakistan’s display in the field.
Their new fielding coach Grant Bradburn must have been watching in dismay as his charges drop one catch after another. As winners of the ICC Champions Trophy and as the number-one ranked team in the Twenty20 International format, Pakistan consider themselves as a top-tier side. But with that sort of fielding display, you shouldn’t.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Pakistan have exposed their underbelly in back-to-back Asia Cup games in Dubai and Abu Dhabi last week. After a walk in the park against minnows Hong Kong in a one-sided encounter, it has all been very much downhill for Sarfraz Ahmed and his men. Pakistan were thrashed by the Indians in Dubai and were almost conquered by the spirited Afghans in Abu Dhabi.
During the game against Afghanistan, there was this feeling in the cramped press box of the Sheikh Zayed Stadium that Pakistan were walking in the direction of a banana peel. They dropped five catches allowing the Afghans to score 257. Then they lost the big-hitting opener Fakhar Zaman in the very first over. The target started to look even bigger following his early dismissal. Even a 154-run stand put up by Imam-ul-Haq and Babar Zaman was unable to take Pakistan past stormy waters. Things were still dicey for Pakistan with ten needed off the last five deliveries. The experienced Shoaib Malik came to the rescue as he hit a six and a four to seal the fate of the match in Pakistan’s favour.
In the end, the Pakistanis were celebrating but I’m sure that they were fully aware of the fact that they came very close to what would have been a really embarrassing defeat. And not just that. Had they lost on Friday night, Pakistan would have needed to win both their remaining Super Fours games against India (on Sunday) and Bangladesh (on Wednesday) to have a real chance of reaching Friday’s finale in Dubai.
When Waqar Younis entered the press box during innings break, somebody from the media asked him what he thought about the run-chase. “Himmat rakhain, kur laingay,” he said with a smile. He meant that show some faith because Pakistan will get there. To even ask such a question shows the trust we have in Pakistan’s ability to chase down such average targets even on flat wickets.
And the players’ buttery fingers and their less than reliable batting prowess aren’t the only two concerns for coach Mickey Arthur in the lead up to next year’s ICC World Cup in England. Even Pakistan’s bowling, the team’s strong point, is proving to be a bit of a headache. That’s primarily because Mohammad Amir, Pakistan’s pace spearhead, has been going through a lean patch. Unable to take any wickets in his last four outings, that included three games against minnows Zimbabwe and Hong Kong, Amir was finally dropped from the playing eleven for the game against Afghanistan. Shaheen Shah Afridi, the young pacer who replaced Amir, bowled reasonably well, but dropped two catches.
Arthur will need to come out with a solution to the various problems facing his team very quickly. On Sunday (today), Pakistan will be facing old rivals India in their second Super Fours game at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium. We all know what happened when the two teams last met at the venue on Wednesday. Sarfraz downplayed that defeat saying that it was a timely wake-up call for his team. In a way he was right. The match was inconsequential considering both Pakistan and India had already qualified for the Super Fours. But given the fact that the game was witnessed by millions of fans all over the world made it an important match. You cannot have any excuse for failing to put up a respectable fight in a match of such magnitude.
Today’s game won’t be inconsequential. Lose it and you are one step away from making an exit from the tournament. Pakistan would need to show some spine. Batsmen like Fakhar Zaman, who came into this event with big reputations, would finally need to fire. It’s a big game and the Pakistanis would need to give their best. I’m sure this time they won’t disappoint.