The battering received by the Champions Trophy holders during the group stage of the Asia Cup at the hands of their arch-rivals India was indeed a sobering event for Sarfraz Ahmed and his men. In the post-match press conference after that humiliating loss, a clearly unhappy Pakistan head coach Mickey Arthur had promised an introspective correction of many of the shortcomings of his team.
The next game against Afghanistan in Abu Dhabi looked no better for Pakistan as they struggled against a side at the number 10 position in ICC’s ODI rankings. The fact that Pakistan actually made it through that game intact was due to an innings of great responsibility and measure by the veteran Shoaib Malik. Whilst the relief at winning the game against Afghanistan was justifiable for Sarfraz, it would have been foolish of him to think that the glaring problems unearthed in the earlier meeting with India were confined to history.
The problems with Pakistan’s openers, middle-order and their new-ball bowlers’ inability to make early inroads were very real and were not something a few encouraging words or a miraculous net session could fix in a hurry. The earlier game against India had highlighted these issues and the Afghanistan game brutally exposed the same shortcomings. The Super 4 game against India was therefore nothing but an accident waiting to happen for the beleaguered and below-par Pakistan side.
Once again, fate smiled on Sarfraz as he called right at the toss and chose to bat at the DSC. From the manner in which the Pakistan openers came out to play in the first few overs, it appeared that the intent was to avoid a repeat embarrassment of their first meeting with India in the Asia Cup. Scoring runs seemed to be a secondary objective. Whilst this was a strategy that their opponents accepted with glee, the confusion in the thought-process of the Pakistan think-tank was exposed in spectacular fashion.
It would be totally unfair to ignore the fact that the Indian bowlers bowled with accuracy and to a plan and were led by a very competent captain, but the skillsets of some of Pakistan’s top players did come into question.
Fakhar Zaman’s run of bad luck has now assumed nightmarish proportions and any feelings of relief when he scored his first run after two games would have disappeared with the manner of his dismissal and his inability, once again, to review that decision. Fakhar wasn’t the only one afflicted with bad luck as Babar Azam demonstrated when his captain called and then sent him back for a non-existent single.
It is Pakistan’s good fortune that in Malik they have a batsman of substance who can read and react to any match situation with great confidence. Just as he did in the game against Afghanistan, when calmer heads needed to prevail, it was the presence of mind of Malik that helped Pakistan to a position of some respect where at one stage things looked like going south in a terrible way.
The important of Malik when playing ODIs against India is plainly underlined by his very impressive 1,782 runs scored at an average of 48.16. In his score of 78, the 36-year-old all-rounder demonstrated exactly why coach Arthur was not willing to leave him out of the ODI squad and why Malik’s presence will be of paramount importance if Pakistan are to come anywhere near lifting the 2019 World Cup Trophy. Whilst Sarfraz’s 44-run effort did offer some belief that a middle order of substance did exist for the team, the strike rate was far below what was required, and it was really the departure of Malik that more-or-less ended all hopes of a score that Pakistan’s malfunctioning bowling line-up could defend.
Pakistan limped to a below-par 237 for 7. It was an innings that was at times painful to watch and that relied heavily on Malik's 78 and cameos from his teammates. It was an innings that lacked fluency or direction and the reality was that it looked a total that was unlikely to pose a challenge for the strong Indian line-up.
Much was expected of Mohammad Amir who, after being rested in the Afghanistan game, should have been ready for another chance to redeem himself. Perhaps the word final next to the game description is what could have fired him up, but his peace offerings to the Indian openers were clearly not what was needed. Amir may well have become used to disappointments, but to expect 18-year-old Shaheen Shah Afridi to not be affected by the cruel manner in which Pakistan fielders continue to drop catches off his bowling would be unnatural.
Pakistan’s former fielding coach Steve Rixon had created a culture of excellence in the fielding department but whether the new coach, Grant Bradburn, can maintain or indeed restore that important aspect of the team’s success is something only time will tell.
The bowling effort from Pakistan, like the batsmen, was below-par and lacked any consistency or penetration. India's openers played it perfectly, bided their time and then attacked when Pakistan's morale dipped.
The positives for Pakistan ahead of the do-or-die game against Bangladesh are few and will require some imagination to conjure up for even the most optimistic amongst their fans and supporters. The list of poor performances since the Champions Trophy triumph continues to grow and options to improve the situation are at a low point. In a strange way it is very likely that Pakistan will be able to dispose of Bangladesh and make their way to the final of the Asia Cup and meet India once again. However, if Pakistan qualify for the final, to expect a repeat of The Oval heroics given the current form of most Pakistan players will require a lot of good fortune and a dramatic change of mindset.