Champions Trophy 2017: Pakistan’s fortunes this time around will rest on Shoaib Malik’s form
An altogether well-rounded group with not too many flash-bang match winners is one way to describe the Pakistan squad for the Champions Trophy. But with Pakistan, nothing is impossible.
The ICC World Cup in 1992 seems a distant memory for many but it is indelibly etched in the minds of Pakistan supporters for good reason. This was the tournament in which Pakistan were finally able to show to the world that they too could stand tall in the 50-over format and be recognised among the top teams in the world.
A lot of promise emanating from that victory in Melbourne turned out to be nothing more than hopeful thinking as Pakistan have not been able to repeat their world-beating performance in One-Day internationals since 1992.
Captains, players and officials have come and gone but the trophy cupboard is bare for a country which has boasted some of the top batsmen and bowlers ever to grace a cricket field. The Champions Trophy, although lacking the same stature as the World Cup, has always been another venue for Pakistan to showcase their credentials as a top team but seven editions later since its inception in 1998, the situation remains the same.
The recent state of Pakistan’s ODI readiness is not one that inspires much confidence in any positive expectations in the 2017 edition of the Champions Trophy. To start with, Pakistan are just ahead of the West Indies in 8th position, a low ranking in ODIs which is a cause of embarrassment for players and fans alike. To add to their misery, recent spot-fixing allegations have resulted in one of their main batsmen, the flamboyant Sharjeel Khan, being discarded with selectors being forced to make choices they could probably have done without.
So, back in the fold are names like Ahmed Shehzad and Azhar Ali, who had a torrid time as the previous ODI Captain. Whilst both players are not known for the types of explosive starts that have become a habit for some of the top teams of the world, the solidity that may be needed at the top of the order for others to flourish later could well come from this pair. Of course, the selectors have provided a reasonable backup for the captain and coach in terms of the 27-year-old Fakhar Zaman who impressed many with his aggressive batting in the recently concluded Pakistan Cup.
Babar Azam’s rise in ODIs has been phenomenal and after 26 games, he already has five hundreds to his name. Along with Mohammad Hafeez, he could provide stability and strength in the top order which has been a huge concern for Pakistan in the past.
But if Pakistan desire stability then they need to look no further than their re-motivated veteran all-rounder, Shoaib Malik, who also happens to be Pakistan’s leading appearance maker at the ICC Champions Trophy with 15 games to his name. This will be his sixth appearance in the tournament where he also holds the record of hitting Pakistan’s highest score at the tournament — his knock of 128 coming against arch-rivals India in 2009.
Malik in his current form may seem to hold the key to how far Pakistan can go in this tournament but Mickey Arthur and Co will expect big things from Umar Akmal who has flattered to deceive during his career and also from their captain Sarfraz Ahmed. The gutsy cricketer, termed ‘oxygen for the team’ by the retired Test captain Misbah-ul-Haq, seems to have captured the imagination of fans and experts as he has injected a new aggressive flair in a team which needs all the help it can get in this facet of the game.
Of course, the real question for the Pakistan batting line-up will centre around their ability to get to the 300+ scores which seem to be the benchmark set by the top teams of today. The likes of Ahmed Shehzad, Azhar Ali, Babar Azam, Imad Wasim and Umar Akmal will be looked upon for such scores but the recent history of Pakistan ODI cricket does not support such high hopes.
The bowling line-up is as strong and threatening as ever and all the selected bowlers, with the exception of Wahab Riaz, seem to be enjoying a good period in their careers. Mohammad Amir’s skills are never far away from a match-winning level but he will have some excellent support from the likes of the ebullient newbie pacer Hasan Ali, who seems to have an endless supply of variations to his bowling.
Junaid Khan will be making yet another comeback to the Pakistan ODI squad and his experience in English conditions will be a source of comfort for Sarfraz as well. However, the bowler many will have an eye on is the fast-improving and effective leg-spinner Shadab Khan. He recently debuted against the West Indies and impressed all with his control and wicket-taking abilities and along with Wasim, Malik and Mohammad Hafeez can provide some much-needed all-round support for Pakistan.
An altogether well-rounded group with not too many flash-bang match winners is one way to describe the Pakistan squad for the Champions Trophy. But, as the history of Pakistan cricket shows, it is not what they are on paper that counts but the team that shows up on the day of every game they play that will determine how far they will go.
The seam bowlers will trouble the opposition, the spin-bowling all-round quartet are talented cricketers, each of whom can turn in a match-winning performance. But the batting remains the Achilles heel for Pakistan. If the batsmen can put up decent scores, then Pakistan has enough armoury in the bowling department to surprise the best.
With Pakistan, as the saying goes, nothing is impossible, but in addition, always expect the unexpected.
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