By Sajid Sadiq, Chief Editor, PakPassion.
It’s a fact that Pakistan’s preparations for the ongoing ICC World Cup were far from ideal. The two ODI series’ against Australia and England which preceded the World Cup were supposed to provide good practice to the side which had previously won the Champions Trophy in England in 2017. This was regarded as an opportunity for players to get themselves in shape and also to serve a statement of intent to the world that this side were strong contenders for the World Cup. The team management in their minds were also looking to get in a position where they could have a good idea of what players would be ideal for the challenges ahead.
But the word planning and Pakistan are seldom incompatible and the shocking 5-0 and 4-0 losses to Australia and England respectively put paid to whatever the team management had envisioned as part of their preparation.
Along the way, Shadab Khan who is Pakistan’s primary spin-weapon picked up a viral infection which threatened his participation in the World Cup and Mohammad Amir, supposedly on probation to prove his worth to the side also came down with a bout of Chickenpox and could not play in any of the four completed games against England.
With the World Cup squad deadline fast approaching, the selectors were put in an unenviable quandary and what can only be described as an act of desperation, brought in the hitherto discarded fast-bowler Wahab Riaz into the final 15 for the World Cup, where he would join the now recovered Mohammad Amir to spearhead the Pakistan fast-bowling attack.
The Pakistan World Cup squad was now ready to take on the world with a few positives and a lot of areas of concerns. The positives for Pakistan were focussed around the unlikely area of batting which seemed to have come into its own with multiple scores of 300+ against a very strong England bowling attack. Given news that pitches in the World Cup would be graveyards for the bowlers, this bode well for Pakistan who could finally boast a robust batting line-up.
The bowling for Pakistan, on the other hand, was a problem as they looked ahead to their first World Cup game against the West Indies. Mohammad Amir had hardly played international cricket for months and Wahab Riaz, adjudged as unsuitable for Pakistan only a month ago, had a reputation for waywardness which was unlikely to provide sleepless nights to the opposition.
And so, Pakistan sleep-walked into their first match of the World Cup against West Indies. What transpired in that game was nothing short of a disaster as West Indies’ fast-bowlers put the Pakistan batting through the cricketing version of trial by fire. Short-pitched deliveries delivered at high speeds sent Pakistan to 105 all out. The West Indies batsmen then completed the job in just 13.4 overs to condemn Pakistan to a humiliating 7 wicket victory.
The confidence that the Pakistan batting had somehow mustered in their earlier ODI series against England appeared to be in tatters. Pronouncements of further disasters became common as Sarfaraz Ahmed and his men prepared for their next and possibly toughest challenge against England.
The label of being an unpredictable side seems to have been overused on Pakistan. But the manner in which the side played against England in their second game of the World Cup even shocked many who have come to expect the unexpected from Pakistan. Put into bat first by Eoin Morgan, Pakistan batsmen not only exceeded all expectations but, in the process, put up what was then the highest score of the tournament. A target of 349 was a daunting one for any World Cup side but this was England, a team known to have batsmen of the calibre of Jason Roy, Joe Root and Jos Buttler.
In the recent past, Mohammad Amir had been the target of much criticism about his attitude and lack of intensity. The Mohammad Amir that bowled to England on 3rd June was none of that as was his partner Wahab Riaz. Both bowlers answered the call of the hour with excellent spells and with some useful help from the old-timers in Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik took Pakistan to a memorable and surprising 14 run victory against England.
With momentum on their side, as had been seen in the Champions Trophy, this Pakistan side was capable of great things but the washed-out game against Sri Lanka possibly deprived them of crucial points which hopefully would not have dampened their spirits as they look forward to bigger challenges ahead.
Given the format of the tournament and the vagaries of the British weather, there is little doubt that Pakistan will need to bring their A-game to all remaining matches if they have any chance of making the semi-final stage of the tournament. Along the way, they will come across some top teams, but the challenge of Afghanistan is one that they will need to take on with great care.
Afghanistan may not be ranked highly in ICC’s Rankings for ODI teams, but their fearless brand of cricket is one that Pakistan would be well advised to take note of and prepare accordingly. The manner in which the proud Afghans nearly disposed of Pakistan in the Asia Cup in the UAE last year and the ease with which they defeated their neighbours in a recent practice game should be a good indicator of the quality of cricket that spectators can expect when the two Asian sides meet at the Emerald Headingley Stadium on the 29th of June.
On that day, expect no mercy from either side where the fire of Fakhar Zaman’s bat will be met in equal measure by the mystique of Rashid Khan’s spin bowling, to be followed by all-out aggression from Hazratullah Zazai’s blade as he takes on Pakistan’s bowlers. Whatever the outcome of the World Cup for both these sides, the intensity of competition that they will bring to Leeds will surely leave memories which may be spoken about for many years to come.