PAK­ISTAN: how they pitched up

Mickey Arthur has a tough streak that is un­com­pro­mis­ing, even when for­mer cap­tains are pub­licly call­ing for his head

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT -

PAK­ISTAN are never far from con­tro­versy. But right now they are mak­ing the head­lines for all the right rea­sons. A ma­jor tour­na­ment claimed on the back of a rasp­ing set of fast bowlers, a young leg-spin­ner and an in­tox­i­cat­ing open­ing bats­man. Ev­ery­thing Pak­istan cricket is renowned for. ZAAHIER

ADAMS asks the ques­tions whether this was merely a mi­rage over two glo­ri­ous weeks or have the ‘Cor­nered Tigers’ found their teeth again ...

Weren’t Pak­istan in melt­down only two weeks ago?

Yes, they were. As the dif­fer­ences in places go, they were in hell and now they are re­sid­ing in a sport­ing Jan­nah (heaven). It’s been well doc­u­mented how this team had strug­gled to qual­ify for the Cham­pi­ons Tro­phy, were ranked No 8 – last of the com­pet­ing teams – on the ICC of­fi­cial ODI rank­ings, and been hum­bled by its arch-neme­sis In­dia in their open­ing game. But that’s not even the half of it. Add the ex­tra spice of not be­ing able to play home games for a decade, had sent back one of their pre­ciously few X-fac­tor bats­men, Umar Ak­mal, due to fit­ness is­sues prior to the tour­na­ment and lost their most ex­pe­ri­enced fast bowler, Wa­hab Riaz, to in­jury in that In­dia hu­mil­i­a­tion, and this masala should have been to hot for even the most ar­dent Pak­istan fan to con­tinue be­liev­ing.

Are Arthur and Ahmed a dream team?

Un­doubt­edly the poi­soned chal­ice of cricket coach­ing and cap­taincy posts in world cricket. It was a ma­jor sur­prise when Mickey Arthur signed up for the job. Why would a man known for not want­ing to watch the fi­nal overs of a nerve-tin­gling ODI dur­ing his time with South Africa, and more fa­mously for drop­ping Aus­tralian crick­eters from a Test match for not do­ing their “home­work”, want to di­rect a team renowned for its reck­less­ness and ill-dis­ci­pline? Surely, this was a recipe for dis­as­ter? But Arthur, for all his like­able­ness – ar­guably the nicest man in cricket – has a tough streak that is un­com­pro­mis­ing even when for­mer cap­tains are pub­licly call­ing for his head like Mo­ham­mad Yousuf did af­ter the In­dia de­feat. He’s also a metic­u­lous plan­ner and is able to pro­vide Pak­istan with the sort of di­rec­tion they often lack. The mar­riage is nowhere near a per­fect match, but Arthur ad­mits the in­take of “a lot more chill pills” and his undy­ing faith and be­lief in a highly tal­ented but flawed group of crick­eters has helped this Pak­istan team find a way to be suc­cess­ful. Safraz Ahmed, mean­while, is born from the soil Pak­istan are no longer al­lowed to play in­ter­na­tional cricket on. A street-fighter in the mould of the great Javed Mian­dad, but blessed with less tal­ent to not have the ego that es­corts it. A leader that plays for his team first and fore­most – a char­ac­ter­is­tic not often ac­com­pa­nied with Pak­istani cap­tains – he car­ries his men on his back and hauls them through the tough sit­u­a­tions like in that in­cred­i­ble eighth-wicket part­ner­ship with Mo­hammed Amir against Sri Lanka in Cardiff that booked Pak­istan’s place in the play­offs. Most im­por­tantly, the pair seems to share a healthy re­spect for each other both on and off the field, which bodes well for a longterm re­la­tion­ship.

Is Amir back to his best?

Per­haps Mark Ni­cholas said it best: “His God was ready to for­give but not to re­ward.” It was a ref­er­ence to Amir’s come­back af­ter serv­ing a five-year sus­pen­sion for his ill-fated part in the spot-fix­ing drama that en­gulfed the English sum­mer of 2010. Upon his ini­tial re­turn to in­ter­na­tional cricket, Amir found the edge with the same reg­u­lar­ity as be­fore but only to see his team­mates spill the chances be­hind the wicket. Even on Sun­day when Pak­istan vir­tu­ally could do noth­ing wrong, Azhar Ali – who re­fused to train with Amir af­ter the bowler was al­lowed back into the na­tional set-up – put down a straight­for­ward chance off In­dian cap­tain Vi­rat Kohli’s out­side edge at first slip. Only this time the “Cricket Gods” par­doned Amir and blessed him with suc­cess just one a ball later. Pak­istan bowl­ing coach Azhar Mah­mood be­lieves Amir is only “bowl­ing at 70% po­ten­tial” and that he “needs to put his foot on the throt­tle and just go”. He cer­tainly did in the fi­nal, when his feet hardly touched a blade of grass en-route to the crease, be­fore let­ting the ball zip both ways off the sur­face.

Is Za­man the real deal?

Ab­so­lutely. For the mo­ment that is. He plays with the sort of flair that en­com­passes the “fear­less brand of cricket” Arthur wants from his charges. At 27, he’s been around long enough on the Pak­istan do­mes­tic scene to av­er­age 51.48 over the course of his List A ca­reer too, so Za­man def­i­nitely un­der­stands his high-risk gameplan that in­volves bel­liger­ent cuts, pulls and marches down the wicket to meet the bowler head on. Go­ing for­ward, though, the op­po­si­tion will be much bet­ter pre­pared to counter his style through video an­a­lysts and bowl­ing coaches, be­cause as Kohli said “eighty per­cent of his shots were high risk” so Plan A will not al­ways prove suc­cess­ful. It’s up to this hugely tal­ented in­di­vid­ual and Pak­istan’s coach­ing staff to im­prove the other ar­eas of his game, par­tic­u­larly ro­ta­tion of strike and run­ning be­tween wick­ets.

Can they win the World Cup in 2019 ?

Logic dic­tates that Pak­istan should not be able to re­peat this mar­vel­lous achieve­ment two years later again. But if we were ad­her­ing only to so-called “logic”, Pak­istan would have no right to lift this Cham­pi­ons Tro­phy in the first place. Equally, their vic­tory at The Oval on Sun­day was no fluke. They beat the World No 1 South Africans, Sri Lanka and a buoy­ant home na­tion Eng­land just to reach their mo­ment of des­tiny be­fore de­liv­er­ing a near-per­fect per­for­mance against In­dia. Four mas­sive vic­to­ries on the trot from a team that is sup­pos­edly in­con­sis­tent. By some form of fate they have also dis­cov­ered a bal­ance in their team that was pre­vi­ously lack­ing. A solid-dy­namic open­ing pair (Azhar and Za­man), a classy No 3 (Babar Azam), ex­pe­ri­ence in the mid­dle-or­der (Shoaib Ma­lik and Mo­hammed Hafeez), com­bat­ive all-rounder and wicket-keeper (Imad Wasim and Safraz), who are com­pli­mented by the most-at­tack­ing bowl­ing unit con­sist­ing of pace and legspin (Mo­hammed Amir, Hasan Ali, Ju­naid Khan and Shadab Khan). Freed now from the weight of pos­si­bly hav­ing to qual­ify for the next World Cup, Arthur can fo­cus solely on fur­ther de­vel­op­ing this group and some other fresh faces (Rum­man Raees and Fa­heem Ashraf) into re­ally em­brac­ing this pos­i­tive mind­set blow­ing through Pak­istan cricket at the mo­ment.

TOP OF THE WORLD: Pak­istan’s Sar­fraz Ahmed and team­mates cel­e­brate win­ning the ICC Cham­pi­ons Tro­phy.

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