The Asia Cup finally arrived for Pakistan and Hong Kong as they met in the second match of the tournament in Dubai.
For Hong Kong who defied the odds to take the sixth team slot in the ACC-organised trophy, the realistic aim of participation in the tournament seems to be centred around ensuring that they give a good account of themselves against the better ranked ODI teams.
In that respect, their first match against Pakistan was never expected to go the distance despite some brave talk by their captain ahead of the game. Of course, Hong Kong would have been encouraged by the history of minnows upsetting established teams and, in that regard, they could have been forgiven for believing that they could spring a surprise on Pakistan when they least expected it.
For Pakistan though, despite their protestations to the contrary, the focus of all their preparations seems to be aimed towards that one match that the world of cricket is awaiting for with baited breath on 19 September. Of course, any encounter between India and Pakistan comes with a health warning for the audiences and players alike and it stood to reason that each Pakistani player in the Hong Kong game would have had one eye on the upcoming game against the arch-rivals.
There was bound to be pressure therefore on Pakistan players and for a period of 4 overs after Hong Kong won the toss and elected to bat, it appeared that things were not going as smoothly as expected for the Champions Trophy winners.
But once the floodgates opened up with the fortuitous departure of Nizakat Khan when he was run out, the Hong Kong innings took the expected path of self-destruction under pressure from some quality bowling. The Pakistan ODI bowling attack is considered possibly the best in the business and they did not disappoint their fans once they got into a flow and rhythm.
The pitches of the UAE are known entities to most of the Pakistan players who apart from their international duties, have also been taking part in the Pakistan Super League tournament every year since 2016. It was therefore logical to expect them to make full use of their local knowledge and the hapless Hong Kong batsmen found it tough going to counter such intensity.
Whilst it’s understandable to not get too carried away with Pakistan's bowlers’ performances against an inexperienced side playing in alien conditions, it would be grossly unfair to not praise the bowlers for an excellent and disciplined performance. Such displays of professionalism may be expected from a world-class side but a look back at the history of Pakistan cricket would prove that this has not always been the case.
There is a sense of purpose and intensity in the current Pakistan side under the tutelage of their much-revered Head Coach. It is therefore no real surprise that Faheem Ashraf, Hasan Ali and Shadab Khan produced bowling displays par excellence which could have been a challenge for any top-quality side.
In the process, like in the case of Bangladesh in the tournament opener, they delivered a strong message for their future opponents and set the bar high for themselves as well.
The manner in which the Pakistan bowling attack conducts itself, as if almost on cruise-control seems to indicate a unit which is clear about their role and objectives. Such control only comes about after careful planning and the wrist bands they now wear with the words ‘Championship Mindset’ etched on them are a but a clear example of their dogged determination to succeed.
The Pakistan batting was also very business-like during their chase of the modest 117 for victory. Whilst many of their fans would have liked each ball to be hit higher than the tallest building in Dubai, the Burj Khalifa, the likes of Fakhar Zaman and Imam-ul-Haq ensured that they gave themselves good time in the middle which could come handy in the subsequent matches.
To the disappointment of a very sparse crowd, Fakhar did not score big but his innings of 24 in 27 balls contained glimpses of his fine form. Babar Azam for his part looked in sublime form as well and should have drawn some confidence from his stay in the middle. Imam-ul-Haq, despite some criticism of his position in the team supposedly based on influence from his uncle, Inzamam-ul-Haq played a mature hand in the run-chase and stayed to the end along with Shoaib Malik to finish the job.
The eight-wicket victory for Pakistan was a simple and succinct reminder to their rivals about their will to take this tournament seriously. Sarfraz Ahmed indicated that he wasn’t completely satisfied with the team’s performance and would strive to address the areas of concern which shows that the attention to detail by this Pakistan side is impressive. Whilst the Hong Kong team had the potential to be a banana skin and could have sprung a surprise, the manner in which they approached the game and its outcome are simple indicators of the success of Mickey Arthur’s drive to make Pakistan a focused and professional unit.
Tougher challenges lie ahead for Pakistan, but their start in the Asia Cup was a professional one and will have set them up nicely for the big clash against India.