From being one of the favourites to lift the Asia Cup trophy in 2018, to fading away as also-rans in a space of a few games, Pakistan’s fortunes have fluctuated in the ongoing tournament. And how!
The Champions Trophy winners were found wanting in all departments with opponents in this tournament often demonstrating how far they have left Pakistan behind in terms of their approach and skills.
If Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed and head coach Mickey Arthur had any illusions of superiority over the other participants in this six-team tournament, those were quickly demolished by a lower-ranked team like Afghanistan. Any fig-leaf of respect which they had obtained by their heroics in England in the summer of 2017 were cruelly picked apart by India who demolished them twice in Dubai.
And when it came to the crunch match against Bangladesh in Abu Dhabi — a virtual semi-final — the abject failure of Pakistan's batting to come to terms with a very talented and spirited opposition was far too much to handle.
The journey to what can only be termed as a humiliating low in Pakistan’s ODI fortunes began with an embarrassing eight-wicket loss to India in Dubai and whilst a tight run-chase against Afghanistan did provide some forlorn hope to millions of Pakistan supporters, it was clear that this team was far from the quality needed to beat the best and well-rounded teams in the tournament.
Pakistan's batting has historically been its Achilles heel and it was only during the Champions Trophy in 2017 that hope of a new dawn started to emerge. In Fakhar Zaman, the century-maker in the final at The Oval, it appeared that Pakistan had finally found a batsman who could take the attack to the opposition. The failure of Fakhar to live up to that tag at the Asia Cup has probably been the most shocking — and for some the most disappointing — aspect of how things have turned out in the past few months for Pakistan.
The hope that the Pakistan think-tank would have had was that the veteran Shoaib Malik would act as a guiding hand for the talented youngsters in the team. However, what seems to have transpired since the Champions Trophy victory is that Malik has become the key player for Pakistan’s ODI line-up. Not even in their wildest dreams would Pakistani fans have imagined how alarmingly their team’s batting capabilities would degrade since that memorable day in England in June 2017.
Pakistan’s bowling attack, which was considered the epitome of perfection by many experts, also seems to have suffered a dip in form. A lot was made of Mohammad Amir’s ‘big game’ mentality, but all the audiences saw in the Asia Cup was a mere shadow of the talent that was supposed to rise to the heights of the legendary Wasim Akram. The young and precocious talents of Shadab Khan and Hasan Ali were supposed to give Pakistan an advantage, but the series of disappointing performances from the duo in the UAE turned them from heroes into objects of ridicule.
Whilst the wrath of Pakistan’s ardent supporters was directed at individual players for their insipid display at the Asia Cup, there was also an overriding feeling that the planning aspect of Pakistan’s campaign for this tournament was anything but shoddy.
The tactics, on the whole, from the Pakistan captain Sarfraz seemed driven more by panic than by serious pre-planning. The absence of aggressive intent on the field possibly cost Pakistan in crucial phases of games such as during the Super Four clash against Bangladesh, but before completely laying the blame at the captain’s door, the inability of the players to not be able to follow set plans is also worrying and does not bode well for the future.
And then there is the curious and inexplicable case of Junaid Khan’s absence from the playing XI for most of the tournament. Quite how an experienced campaigner and one who was selected for the squad to step-in when needed was ignored for so long — before possible exasperation with Amir’s form led to his selection for the match against Bangladesh — is a question only the Pakistan team management can answer.
Their collective wisdom would have taken a huge hit when they saw Junaid Khan calmly deliver nine overs, whilst giving away just 19 runs and picking up four wickets in the process. To many, his exclusion from the playing XI reeked of incompetence from all concerned. Selection decisions such as those which could have seen Junaid replace the failing Usman Khan Shinwari or Amir earlier in the tournament are what separate good management teams from the ordinary and the Pakistani version failed miserably on this account.
If there was any silver lining for the beleagured Pakistan batting line-up, it came from the performances of Imam-ul-Haq, who showed the resolve to stay out there and fight a lone battle when things were not going his team's way. He did that in the game against Afghanistan and also in Pakistan's final showing against Bangladesh. His selection caused a few eyebrows to be raised due to his relation with Pakistan chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq, but to most observers, he has more than justified his selection and it would be to Pakistan's great advantage if he is able to improve on his performances in the future.
So, Pakistan head home earlier than they and their fans will have expected and miss out on a chance to gain revenge on India in Friday's final. Their Asia Cup showing leaves more questions than answers about this squad and will also raise several queries about the competency of some of their players. The selection committee, the team management and the skipper better buckle up as they face a bumpy and uncomfortable ride in the coming days and weeks.