By Rehan Ulhaq
“100 will be enough,” joked Former Pakistan pacer and UAE coach Aaqib Javed before the start of the crucial Asia Cup match at Dhaka on Monday. But for most Pakistan fans that wasn’t a joke, considering the team's batting frailties. When Pakistan were reduced to 18 for 3 after 5 overs, chasing 130, the feeling was only reinforced. But thanks to some sensible batting from Umar Akmal and Shoaib Malik, the target was reached with plenty to spare in the tank.
Umar Akmal, who has long been Pakistan’s hope of a world-class batsman, he has never fully reached his potential. But the most encouraging thing for Pakistan fans was the way he took responsibility during the recently concluded Pakistan Super League, where he finished as the leading run-getter. Against UAE, he was faced with a situation where he had to curb his natural instincts and steer Pakistan to a winning position after yet another top order malfunction.
He was joined at the crease by Shoaib Malik, who has had a month to forget in the PSL, axed from captaincy by Karachi Kings, short of wickets, short of runs and short on confidence. The two started the rebuilding process rather nervously, often ignoring singles on offer and who can blame them? Pakistan have had more run outs over the last year than rainy days in the country. The two senior batsmen stabilized the innings but never quite got going, and it still felt like UAE were in control until the 16th over.
Malik had already hit a boundary in that Mohammad Shahzad’s over off a full toss. Shahzad then decided to pitch one short and Malik’s ungainly pull resulted in a top edge. It was a catch any decent fielder will take 9 out of 10 times but, Usman Shahzad dropped it. The shoulders in the UAE team dropped, the captain looked frustrated and momentum was about to change. UAE further managed to shoot themselves in the foot as, in the very next over, Rohan Mustafa bowled back to back full tosses which Malik dispatched gleefully towards the mid-wicket boundary for a four and a six respectively. With Pakistan requiring 27 off 18, UAE’s captain and the only wicket taker in the innings, Amjad Javed needed to step up but his first three deliveries were smashed for 16 runs by Umar Akmal, and he too started the over with a juicy full toss. Pakistan managed to chase the total down with 8 balls to spare and both Akmal and Malik completing their half centuries.
Earlier UAE recovered from a poor start to reach 129. Pakistan’s pace attack looked world-class with Amir leading the attack, Mohammad Irfan and Mohammad Sami did a terrific job as sidekicks and it all appeared rosy for Pakistan before the spinners came into the attack. It wasn’t until the 7th over before UAE broke the shackles against debutant Mohammad Nawaz, who went for 10 runs in his first over in international cricket thanks to a six of the last ball by Shaiman Anwar. Anwar held the UAE innings together but the real impetus was provided in the end by Amjad Javed, Muhammad Usman and Naveed, the three adding 58 off 40 balls faced between them.
UAE however were perhaps 10-15 runs short thanks to two magical death overs by Mohammad Amir who conceded 5 runs in his last 2 overs with 10 dot balls. In total Amir bowled 21 dot balls out of 24 and finished with figures of 2/6 in his 4 overs -- ridiculously good figures in the shortest format of the game.
This victory against UAE might only cover up the cracks in Pakistan’s armor temporarily, as the top order still looks extremely fragile and Khurrum Manzoor’s selection still does not make sense at all -- he wasn’t picked up by five PSL franchises but was picked for the international team completely out of the blue. Pakistan’s major problem in the recent past has been a lack of planning and choosing quick fixes over long term logical solutions. For example if the batting fails, a bowler is removed to be replaced by an all-rounder to strengthen the batting instead of backing the strength, which is, undoubtedly, their bowling. And if the top six batsmen fail, you can’t rely on your number 7 and number 8 to fix it.
At least Umar Akmal remains the most important cog in the team, and if he fires, Pakistan look a very efficient team. Whereas if he fails, the batting looks well below par. The positives however are very apparent -- the pace attack looks very threatening, all the three fast bowlers consistently were bowling in the mid 140s and with Wahab Riaz resting on the bench this is Pakistan's most exciting bowling lineup in nearly five years.
Pakistan still have to get past Srilanka and Bangladesh to set up a mouthwatering final with India. Sri Lanka have bigger problems than Pakistan at the moment, with an unsettled unit losing against Bangladesh on Sunday. The bigger threat to Pakistan’s chances is the young Bangladesh team, who lest we forget, whitewashed Pakistan in ODIs and T20s the last time the two teams met in this country.
Perhaps for the first time in a clash between these two nations, Bangladesh will be the favorites. There will be no surprise though if Pakistan manage to go all the way, as after all this cricket team has a history of playing much better with the underdog tag and with clouds of uncertainty hanging over their head.