CAPE TOWN – Independent Media cricket writer Zaahier Adams analyses how Pakistan turned from also-rans to world beaters and Champions Trophy victors.
Yes, they were. As the differences in places go, they were in hell and now they are residing in a sporting Jannah (heaven). It’s been well documented how this team struggled to qualify for the Champions Trophy, were ranked No 8 – last of the competing teams – on the ICC official ODI rankings, and been humbled by its arch-nemesis India in its opening game. But that’s not even the half of it. Add the extra spice of not being able to play home games for a decade, had sent back one of their preciously few X-factor batsmen, Umar Akmal, due to fitness issues prior to the tournament and lost their most experienced fast bowler, Wahab Riaz, to injury in that India humiliation, and this masala should have been to hot for even the most ardent Pakistan fan to continue believing.
Are Arthur and Ahmed a dream team?
Undoubtedly the poisoned chalice of cricket coaching and captaincy posts in world cricket. It was a major surprise when Mickey Arthur signed up for the job. Why would a man known for not wanting to watch the final overs of a nerve-tingling ODI during his time with South Africa, and more famously for dropping Australian cricketers from a Test match for not doing their “homework”, want to direct a team renowned for its recklessness and ill-discipline? Surely, this was a recipe for disaster! But Arthur, for all his likableness – arguably the nicest man in cricket – has a tough streak that is uncompromising even when former captains are publicly calling for his head, like Mohammad Yousuf did after the India defeat. He’s also a meticulous planner and is able to provide Pakistan with the sort of direction they often lack. The marriage is nowhere near a perfect match, but Arthur admits the intake of “a lot more chill pills” and his undying faith and belief in a highly talented but flawed group of cricketers has helped this Pakistan team find a way to be successful.
Sarfraz Ahmed, meanwhile, is born from the soil Pakistan are no longer allowed to play international cricket on. A street-fighter in the mould of the great Javed Miandad, but blessed with less talent to not have the ego that escorts it. A leader that plays for his team first and foremost – a characteristic not often accompanied with Pakistani captains – he carries his men on his back and hauls them through the tough situations like in that incredible eighth-wicket partnership with Mohammed Amir against Sri Lanka in Cardiff that booked Pakistan’s place in the playoffs.
Most importantly, the pair seems to share a healthy respect for each other both on and off the field, which bodes well for a long-term relationship.
Is Mohammed Amir back to his electrifying best?
Perhaps Mark Nicholas said it best: “His God was ready to forgive but not to reward.” It was a reference to Amir’s comeback after serving a five-year suspension for his part in the spot-fixing drama that engulfed the English summer of 2010. Upon his initial return to international cricket, Amir found the edge with the same regularity as before, only to see his teammates spill the chances behind the wicket. Even on Sunday when Pakistan could do nothing wrong, Azhar Ali – who refused to train alongside Amir after the tainted fast bowler was allowed back into the national set-up – put down a straightforward chance off Virat Kohli’s outside edge at first slip.Only this time the “Cricket Gods” pardoned Amir and blessed him with success just one a ball later.
Pakistan bowling coach Azhar Mahmood believes Amir is only “bowling at 70% potential” and that he “needs to put his foot on the throttle and just go”. He certainly did in the final, when his feet hardly touched a blade of grass en-route to the crease, before letting the ball zip both ways off the surface. This stirring performance should put to bed ghosts of his own that will hopefully allow him to fully unlock that potential first seen all those years ago.
Is Fakhar Zaman the real deal?
Absolutely. For the moment that is. He plays with the sort of flair that encompasses the “fearless brand of cricket” Arthur wants from his charges. At 27, he’s been around long enough on the Pakistan domestic scene to average 51.48 over the course of his List A career too, so Zaman definitely understands his high-risk game-plan that involves belligerent cuts, pulls and marches down the wicket to meet the bowler head on.
Going forward, though, the opposition will be much better prepared to counter his style through extensive work by their video analysts because as Kohli said “eighty percent of his shots were high risk” so Plan A will not always prove successful. It’s up to this hugely talented individual and Pakistan’s coaching staff to improve the other areas of his game, particularly rotation of strike and running between wickets, in order for Zaman to not feel the pressure of having to find the boundary.
Can Pakistan go on to win the World Cup in 2019?
Logic dictates that Pakistan should not be able to repeat this marvellous achievement two years later. But if we were adhering only to so-called “logic”, Pakistan would have no right to lift this Champions Trophy in the first place. Equally, their victory at The Oval on Sunday was no fluke. They beat the World No 1 South Africans, Sri Lanka and a buoyant home nation England just to reach their moment of destiny before delivering a near-perfect performance against India. Four massive victories on the trot from a team that is supposedly inconsistent.
By some form of fate they have also discovered a balance in their team that was previously lacking. A solid-dynamic opening pair (Azhar and Zaman), a classy No 3 (Babar Azam), experience in the middle-order (Shoaib Malik and Mohammed Hafeez), combative all-rounder and wicket-keeper (Imad Wasim and Safraz), who are complimented by the most-attacking bowling unit consisting of pace and leg-spin (Mohammed Amir, Hasan Ali, Junaid Khan and Shadab Khan). Freed now from the weight of possibly having to qualify for the next World Cup, Arthur, can focus solely on further developing this group of players and some other fresh faces (Rumman Raees and Faheem Ashraf) into really embracing this positive mindset blowing through Pakistan cricket at the moment.