May 31, 2019. That was the date when Pakistan’s World Cup campaign began. And it was the day they regretted the most when they crashed out of the tournament on Friday.
In that game, Pakistan were up against the West Indies, another team that has carried the ‘unpredictable’ tag. They were blown away by excellent short-pitched bowling from the Caribbean side, getting bowled out for a mere 105. West Indies chasing down the target in just 13.4 overs damaged Pakistan’s net run-rate irreversibly, and when the league was done and dusted, that one result would stand out as the reason Pakistan failed to make the grade.
Despite that hammering, there was one huge positive: the performance of Mohammad Amir, who picked up the three Windies wickets to fall.
Amir was not included in Pakistan’s initial squad. And that was no surprise as the left-arm pacer had picked up just five ODI wickets in 14 innings since 2018.
Despite almost entirely missing the England ODI series in May with chickenpox, Amir booked a late berth in the squad thanks to Pakistan’s shambolic bowling performance in that series – and what an inspired decision it turned out to be!
The 27-year-old took 17 wickets in the World Cup, striking once every 25.7 deliveries. His bowling in the death overs was especially fantastic, with only Mustafizur Rahman and Mitchell Starc taking more than Amir’s nine wickets between overs 41-50 in the league stage.
Amir was not the only Pakistan left-arm fast bowler making waves at the World Cup – the teenage Shaheen Shah Afridi showed the world why he’s one of the most highly-rated young pacers around.
Despite picking two wickets on his World Cup debut against Australia, he was dropped for the clash against arch-rivals India. It didn’t take time for Pakistan’s think-tank to realise their mistake, and to bring the youngster into the eleven for the game against South Africa. While he took just one wicket against the Proteas, it was the start of something special.
In Pakistan’s last three matches, Afridi had bowling figures of 3/28, 4/47 and 6/35 against New Zealand, Afghanistan and Bangladesh respectively. The last of these was particularly special as it was the best bowling figures by a Pakistani in World Cup history.
If Afridi’s displays were promising signs for Pakistan’s ODI future, there was continued evidence of Babar Azam’s excellence at the international level. The number three batsman was, by far, the Men In Green’s best batsman, scoring 474 runs at an average of 67.71.
Babar’s moment came when Pakistan were chasing a tricky target of 238 against New Zealand. It was a must-win game for Sarfaraz Ahmed’s side, and they needed their best batsman to lead from the front.
Coming to bat with the score 19/1, Babar played with a sense of calm and certainty. He played the conditions and the bowlers splendidly, scoring an unbeaten century to win the game for his side. While the Lahore-born batsman has been a top-class performer for a few years, this knock could be the defining one of his career.
Let’s rewind to the 2017 Champions Trophy. After suffering a 124-run loss against India in their first game, Pakistan decided to bring Fakhar Zaman in for the match against South Africa. The left-hander scored 31 from 23 balls. While it wasn’t a match-winning innings by itself, it was exactly the type of aggressive knock that rejuvenated Pakistan’s campaign.
Zaman scored half-centuries in the matches that followed against Sri Lanka and England, before a hundred against India in the final led Pakistan to their first ICC ODI title in 25 years.
The 29-year-old showed consistency in the couple of years that followed, coming into the World Cup with an average of 51.3. He had also formed a fine partnership with Imam-ul-Haq since the latter’s debut in late 2017. Since the start of 2018 up until the start of the World Cup, this partnership averaged 57.6, with seven 50+ stands, including four centuries, in 21 innings.
In fact, ahead of the World Cup, Zaman and Imam’s partnership had a major impact on Pakistan’s results. When their partnerships resulted in 50+ runs, Pakistan had a win percentage of 89. When they failed to get to 50 together, the win percentage fell to 36.
At this tournament, they crossed the 50-run mark just twice, against England and South Africa, and Pakistan won on both occasions. In every other match, they failed to cross the 30-run mark together, and Pakistan lost three of those six.
Zaman couldn’t repeat his Champions Trophy heroics, ending the tournament with just 186 runs at an average of 23.25. On the other hand, Imam’s century in the last match against Bangladesh boosted his numbers; the opener had scored just 205 runs in the previous seven innings.
FIELDING FALTERS ONCE AGAIN
Fielding has often been Pakistan’s kryptonite, and it was the case again at this World Cup. No team dropped more catches (19) than the Men In Green. Having taken only 68.3% of their catches, they were the least efficient team in this regard.
Interestingly, though, Pakistan dropped the most catches in the matches against South Africa (6) and Bangladesh (4), but they won both games. While it might not have cost them as much as it did during the 2015 World Cup when Rahat Ali dropped Shane Watson in the quarter-finals, it’s indisputable that they need to improve drastically on this front.
Unpredictability has been synonymous with Pakistan cricket for an eternity and it was no different here. If they capitalise on the consistency of Babar, the talent of Shaheen, the fires that still burn bright in Wahab Riaz and rehabilitate those, like the openers, who have had lapses in form, they could still shed the ‘unpredictable’ tag and set up well for the ODI challenges that lie ahead. Else, it will be a case of ruing missed opportunities once again.