Pakistan’s dream run at the Champions Trophy has been driven by their bowlers. It makes sense because they have traditionally been a bowling side. But that 'tradition' needs to change if they wish to complete their dream run and win their first ICC event in eight years.
Their bowling, in fact, has been below par over the past few years. It’s all too foggy now, but somewhere along the way, Pakistan transitioned from producing pace-bowling spectacles to relying mostly on spin to win matches. The consensus was that the fast bowling wells were running dry.
There were sporadic bursts like Junaid Khan’s dream tour of India in 2012.
Misbah-ul-Haq’s ODI captaincy template was dealt a severe blow when both Mohammad Hafeez and Saeed Ajmal were reported for suspect bowling actions and consequently suspended from bowling. That presented Pakistan with an opportunity to rely a little more on pace. The win over South Africa at the 2015 World Cup was, after all, a quintessential ‘pace is pace yaar’ win.
Even then, the batting was nothing to write home about. Wasim Akram expressed his frustration on TV after Pakistan’s loss to India in that World Cup by complaining that the Pakistani batsmen had forgotten how to play on the front foot.
Leading up to this Champions Trophy, there was a sense of disappointment with Pakistan’s pace bowling stocks. Wahab Riaz was hot one day and cold for quite a few days after that. Mohammad Amir’s glorious and short-lived distant past kept creating expectations that he was unable to meet. Junaid, too, was a shadow of his 2012 self.
But here, in 2017, things started falling in place. A relatively inexperienced bowling attack came together, and against all expectations, struck gold. Pakistan’s bowling did not let the opposition cross even 250 in their last three games in an age when 300 is considered to be a par score. Pace and reverse swing, wild celebrations and ominous stares at the batsmen; it has been a complete package. The kind that will make you stop whatever it is that you are doing and tune in to watch them bowl. When was the last time you did that on a consistent basis with this Pakistan bowling?
The batting still didn’t have enough to show.
Pakistan’s run rate in the first 10 overs (4.96) had been marginally better than that of India (4.84) over the past two years coming in to this tournament. India’s top four, however, have the capability to rotate strike and press on. The Pakistani batsmen, however, find ways to bungle.
Who knows what would have happened if that game against South Africa was not cut short by rain? They still needed around 100 runs with seven wickets in hand. It doesn’t take long for 100 to look like 200, especially when Pakistan are chasing. They literally hopped across the finish line on one leg against a Sri Lankan side that missed run outs, dropped catches and played shoddy cricket. Pakistan’s ticket to the semi-final was the fact that they weren’t as shoddy as Sri Lanka.
Fakhar Zaman’s addition to the team gives the batting a completely different outlook. He does not shy away from playing his shots at all and that addresses Pakistan’s Achilles heel in modern-day cricket: slow batting in the first 10 overs. But what happens if Pakistan lose him early?
This is where both Azhar Ali and Hafeez need to step up against India. The fact that Pakistan have had to chase low totals in their last three games can be used to justify the way Azhar and Hafeez batted then. Zaman’s strike rate of 118 will be almost nullified if Azhar and Hafeez continue to bat with their current tournament strike rates of 71 and 75 respectively. What doesn’t help, at all, is that Babar Azam has also been a little off colour. He came in to this tournament having piled on 1,322 runs at a strike rate of 90. Here, he has scored at a strike rate of 69.
Low totals and pitch conditions aside, it is unlikely that these numbers will see Pakistan through in the final. Simply because in this template, numbers one, three and four end up putting too much pressure on Shoaib Malik and Sarfraz Ahmed. Pakistan are unlikely to tinker with their batting order now and the battle for Sarfraz to bat higher up the order needs to be fought at another time. But if Pakistan are to challenge India then their top four must learn to bat together – just like their bowlers are hunting together and complementing each other.
Pakistan have defied everything so far. Time for one last act of defiance. This time from the batsmen!