The term ‘damp squib’ took a new meaning on the 19th of September. At least for Pakistan who brought what was regarded as their strongest squad to the Asia Cup, being played in the blazing heat of UAE. The game against India — despite their vehement denials to anyone who listened — was supposed to be the game that would truly put them ahead of their arch-rivals.
So the anti-climax of sorts, as orchestrated by the almost-inexplicable manner of Pakistan's batting dismissals, seemed to put an end to any hopes of a continuation of Pakistan’s superiority in a pretty spectacular fashion.
Of course for India, the emphatic victory in Dubai came in front of a crowd which reminded many of a full-house at the Wankhede in terms of the fervour and the sheer noise which accompanied every run scored by an Indian batsman or saved by an Indian fielder. The deafening roar which rose from the DSC when a Pakistani wicket fell could have easily been heard in neighbouring Sharjah.
Given India’s below-par performance against Hong Kong the night before, to many, the game on Wednesday was one for Pakistan to lose. This seemed to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, given how the Champions Trophy winners went about their task on Wednesday.
Sarfraz Ahmed’s day at the DSC began well. His body language was one of a captain who was looking forward to a high-tempo performance from his team and he translated that feeling at the time of the toss by electing to bat first after calling correctly.
This juncture also marked the end of Sarfraz’s good day at office, as nothing went right for Pakistan after winning the toss. The Pakistan openers came out to play a very odd, cautious and curious style of cricket. It seemed like a mixture of ‘hesitant’ and ‘not-so-sure’, mixed with a degree of incompetence. The opening partnership between Fakhar Zaman and Imam-ul-Haq yielded very little and soon it was down to Babar Azam and Shoaib Malik to provide some semblance of respectability to what appeared to be a disastrous position.
Azam’s progress in ODIs is indeed one of the greatest positives in Pakistan cricket at the moment and he continued to show why the faith in his abilities by Mickey Arthur is fully justified. His stroke-play and excellent temperament are improving with every innings and he was one of very few bright sparks against India. Malik, for his part, is the only survivor of the ‘veteran’ pack with the absence of Mohammad Hafeez. Malik's 43 under trying circumstances once again displayed his importance in a team that has a shortage of experienced players.
The inept and carefree batting performance from the rest of the Pakistan line-up was comical at times as witnessed by some of the rash shots attempted at crucial junctures in the game. It was almost as if the Pakistani batsmen were trying to outdo each other in having the most bizarre and unprofessional dismissal. Strange shots, lacklustre running between the wickets and a lack of a gameplan was the order of the day.
What also did not help Pakistan was the batting form of their captain. In 10 ODIs played by Sarfraz since the Champions Trophy he has a grand total of just 110 runs and which equates to a poor average of 15.71. His move to the Number 5 position on Wednesday was supposed to be an attempt to move things along for Pakistan at a time when wickets were falling quickly. However, all he managed to do, was to accelerate the demise of his side’s innings by playing recklessly at a time when stability and leadership was required.
Defending a modest total of 162, the hopes for Pakistan’s unlikely revival rested in most part on a ‘big match’ performance by Mohammad Amir, much in the same way he had played his role in the Champions Trophy final last year. Unfortunately for Pakistan and most worryingly for Amir, he could not make any in-roads into the Indian innings. It was said that UAE pitches are made to measure for spin attacks, but Pakistan persisted with their pacers who failed to deliver, or more accurately found no friends in the Dubai pitch. The feeling that Pakistan went into the Asia Cup one or two specialist spinners short was an overriding one as the Indian batsmen took well to the pace attack on offer.
With a minimum of three further games to play including another one against India, skipper Sarfraz and Head Coach Mickey Arthur have a few important points to ponder and tough decisions to make. Mohammad Nawaz is in the squad and is a good spin option which could be the difference in the coming days. Imam-ul-Haq has enjoyed a honeymoon period so far, but it came to a spectacular end against India when faced with a rather more challenging bowling attack. It is not beyond reason that Shan Masood could take his place soon if his lacklustre performances continue.
For those inclined to look at history as guide, Pakistan’s loss to India in the first Champions Trophy game and their subsequent turnaround to win the title could well be the way things go in the Asia Cup in 2018. However, a lot of lateral thinking and improvements in player performances and mindset will need to happen if lightning is to strike twice for Pakistan.