Terms ‘do or die’, ‘last stand’ and ‘must-win’ seem to find their way into any narrative that includes Pakistan in recent times. The 1992 World Cup is one such example where Imran Khan’s ‘Cornered Tigers’ managed to convert a near-hopeless situation into a string of victories that eventually lead to the historic victory in Melbourne.
Of course, the more recent one is the remarkable rise from a position of near-elimination and humiliation in the 2017 Champions Trophy where Sarfraz Ahmed and his team managed to conjure a few good performances to get them to the final of the tournament. The rest, as the bewildered India side found on 18 June, 2017, is history.
As a proud Sarfraz Ahmed lifted the Champions Trophy on that day at The Oval, it appeared that a new era of consistency and excellence in Pakistan cricket was upon us. From then on, Pakistan would compete head-to-head and toe-to-toe with the very best and look like champions from ball one of any tournament or series instead of gate-crashers at someone else’s party.
Yet, more than a year since that memorable day in June, the Men-in-Green find themselves in familiar and uncomfortable territory once again with their backs to the wall and in a must-win situation.
After a spate of below-average performances and two defeats against an Indian side which is devoid of their batting mastermind, Virat Kohli, Pakistan now stand at the precipice of a neat calamity in the Asia Cup as they prepare to take on Bangladesh in a knock-out clash. The winner of this game to be played in Abu Dhabi will have the unenviable task of facing the now-tournament favourites, India, in the final to be played on Friday in Dubai.
For the neutrals, the Bangladesh-Pakistan clash promises to be a mouth-watering coming together of the current seventh and fifth ranked ODI teams. For Bangladesh, defeating Pakistan to make it to the final of the tournament will be a confirmation of their ‘giant-killing’ skills. For Pakistan a defeat against Bangladesh will signal a fall to a new and disturbing depth which apart from embarrassment could, as history dictates, also see a few heads roll in the process.
To use another cliché, the stakes could never be higher for Pakistan’s beleaguered group of cricketers. The near-hero like status at home that they gained as Champions Trophy winners will suffer a humiliating reversal at the hands of millions of their fans who assumed that the Asia Cup Trophy was there for the taking and expected some high-quality performances from a largely young but talented squad.
The journey to such a position of desperation that Pakistan find themselves in as they prepare to take on Bangladesh in the final Super Four clash has been a curious one.
The capitulation to their arch-rival in their group game by eight wickets may well have introduced enough self-doubt in a team that seemed to pride itself on its fighting abilities. The results of that debacle were obvious in the manner in which a less-fancied Afghanistan stretched Pakistan to the limit where Shoaib Malik’s calm shoulders came to their rescue to avert an embarrassment and utter humiliation from their other neighbour. Possibly affected by this performance, Pakistan seemed to sleep-walk into another mauling by India. This time a nine-wicket loss which left the Pakistan captain wondering if his side simply did not have the skills to match those of their historic rivals.
The reasons for Pakistan’s fall from grace from runaway tournament favourites to a side looking to scrape through to the final are difficult to understand. A charitable explanation would revolve around the loss of form of some of their very bright talents such as that afflicting the aggressive Fakhar Zaman. But the main cause of their worry must be the inability of their new-ball bowling attack to make any impressions on the opposition. The main culprit in that aspect would be Mohammad Amir who remains wicket-less in the three games that he has played so far in the tournament.
His inefficacy could well be having a domino effect on his junior partners but Pakistan are fortunate enough to have a young man of the like of Shaheen Shah Afridi, who has the power to turn things around. For him to do that, he will definitely need the support of his fielders who, for some inexplicable reason, are spilling catches at an alarming rate. The Pakistan spin-attack, led by the ebullient Shadab Khan and supported by Mohammad Nawaz, has failed to impress apart from a brief period in the game against Afghanistan, as have the so-called big-hitters in the middle-order who were supposed to provide the attacking component that the batting line-up needs so badly.
Pakistan Head Coach Mickey Arthur would be hoping that strong words could turnaround the fortunes for his side, in the same way as they did after their disastrous defeat to India in the initial stages of the Champions Trophy, but even he knows that there is no margin for error now. A resurgent Bangladesh will be fancying their chances against a demoralised Pakistan side and unless the Champions Trophy-holders can put a performance of some merit on Wednesday, they could be facing the spectre of an early flight home as opposed to one last chance for attaining glory on Friday in Dubai.
Pakistan are quite often at their best when the chips are down and in must-win situations and they will undoubtedly have to be at their best against a dangerous Bangladesh side. If there are any signs of mediocrity from Pakistan, they will be facing an embarrassing flight back to their homeland and with lots of questions to answer.