Hurting Pakistan takes on a team thirsty for success

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04 Jul 2019 | 11:42 AM
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Somesh Agarwal

Hurting Pakistan takes on a team thirsty for success

Unless a miracle, Pakistan's World Cup dream are all but over

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It started out as yet another global showcase of Pakistan’s erratic, even risible, unpredictability, before lighting up the internet with a progressively eerie similarity to its 1992 World Cup. But if that one ended in a Cup triumph for Imran Khan and his “cornered tigers”, the 2019 encore is likely to end without a podium finish on Friday, thanks largely to England’s back-to-back victories against India and New Zealand. 

Even by Pakistan’s mercurial standards, what it needs to achieve for qualification into the semis is nothing short of a miracle:
- If they bat first they need to beat Bangladesh by around 315 runs to ensure that their NRR is above that of New Zealand
- If they chase, they are out without even a bowl being bowled 

Hence, Pakistan needs to win the toss and bat first. Lose the toss, be asked to chase, and Sarfaraz Khan and his men have nothing to play for. 

There is value in keeping the ball in your court: Pakistan’s campaign started on the worst possible note - it took the West Indies quicks just 21.4 overs, mostly comprising short balls, to dismantle their batting. They came back strongly to stun hosts and prohibitive favourites England, and when their third game, against Sri Lanka, was washed out, the parallels with the 1992 campaign started to surface. 

Their loss to Australia and India in subsequent games did hurt their supporters, and trigger the kind of abuse that had captain Sarfaraz pleading “Criticise, but don’t abuse”; but the path was still similar to 1992. Pakistan then brushed aside South Africa and New Zealand in their next two games. 

Cricket has changed since the 1992 World Cup though; the game is not a battle of just the primary skills of batting and bowling anymore. Players from all teams are predominantly fit and strictly professional in their work ethic. 

Pakistan’s eighth game, against Afghanistan, proved this. In a low scoring game, the Afghans managed to squeeze every bit of talent and courage out of themselves to produce an edge of the seat thriller. Pakistan on the other hand, went in expecting to win easily and help their run rate, but panicked under pressure and were scratchy.

Pakistan chasing ensures high quality entertainment to all the viewers - their middle order has the capability to goof up no matter how comfortably placed they are. They had two run outs in the latter half of their innings, and if not for some dogmatic thinking from the Afghanistan skipper and Wahab Riaz’s spirit that hauled them across the line, they would have been out in the last game itself. 

A big loss to WI in the first game, losing against top teams like India, Australia and not being able to finish games quicker even while chasing a low total ensured that Pakistan’s campaign was always at the mercy of other teams – and that is the case with this edition of the Cup. They needed England to lose at least one of its two final games to stand a chance; England nailed both and, in the process, hammered home what is likely the final nail in Pakistan’s World Cup coffin. 

The same dish served in a different package: Pakistan’s reliance on its fast bowling has been apparent for eternity. Their fast bowling unit rarely fails to deliver, and once again was on fire in this tournament. Mohammad Amir, a last minute inclusion in the squad, is among the highest wicket takers in the tournament with 16 scalps. Shaheen Afridi, brought in when Hasan Ali was not able to deliver on the promise he showed during the Champions Trophy in 2017, has 10 wickets to his name and is among the bowlers with the least balls per dismissal in this tournament (23). 

Wahab Riaz’s spirit is unparalleled. He is a player who always puts his hand up for a fight - his spell to Shane Watson during the Quarter Finals of the 2015 World Cup was one for the ages. Against Afghanistan on Saturday, when all the batsmen around him were fidgety, he showed no signs of nerves and, despite batting with a broken finger, even took on Rashid Khan to ensure the win. 

Outside these three however, Pakistan’s fourth and fifth bowling options have struggled.

The key takeaway from this chart is that Shadab Khan and company have not been able to maintain the pressure created by the quicks. 

As it is often the case, Pakistan’s batting has let them down in this tournament. Their openers have a combined average of 27, which is at the lower end of the spectrum. Even their middle order (4-7) have managed a combined average of only 30.7, which is the third lowest in the tournament. 

Emerging stars such as Imam ul Haq have shown only glimpses of potential; experienced batsmen like Mohammad Hafeez have failed to convert starts into substantial innings and have often been casual, as exampled by the number of times Hafeez has thrown his wicket away to part timers. The only bright spot in a dull batting display has been Babar Azam. He averages 63 in the tournament, more than 30 runs ahead of the others.

To revert to the point about fitness, Pakistan’s fielding has let the team down. They have dropped as many as 16 catches in 8 games, next only to NZ who shelled 17 in 9 games – but the numbers for the Kiwis are not truly indicative, since their fielders have the habit of going for blinders even the best fielders in other teams wouldn’t attempt. Chance for chance, Pakistan has been the worst catching unit in this competition – and that has blunted the edge of their bowling attack. 

A team with a fierce desire to prove themselves: A 22-year-old Saifuddin, apparently pissed at accusations that he declared himself unfit to avoid playing against Australia, reminded us of the good old days when a bloke called Lance Klusener used to come to the party when a win was nowhere in sight. The commitment of players such as these shows the intense desire the Bangladesh cricket team has to succeed. 

Since the 2015 World Cup, Bangladesh has played only 20 odd ODIs against Australia, England, India, Pakistan and South Africa. It is an axiom, not just of cricket but of any sport, that to improve you have to play against your betters – and Bangladesh has just not been given that opportunity. 

And yet, in this World Cup, they comfortably beat South Africa and the West Indies, responded to Australia’s huge total valiantly to top 300 against an attack led by Mitchell Starc, and ran India close until the very end. This is par for the side, which has a habit of fighting tooth and nail in ICC tournaments, which is when they get the opportunity to play the big boys. Reaching the quarter finals in the 2015 WC, and the semifinals of the Champions Trophy in 2017 are an indication that Bangladesh cricket has come a long way – and a hint to the powers that given more opportunities, they will go even further. 

The Torch Bearer: Shakib Al Hasan was the number one all-rounder prior to this World Cup. Halfway into the tournament, he was and still is the front-runner for the Man of the Tournament award. With a tally of 542 runs – just two runs shy of table topper Rohit Sharma -- and 11 wickets, he has been the most valuable player by a distance. With the class of Shakib, the grit of Mushfiqur and the touch of Liton Das, the Bangladesh batting has been one of the eye-catchers of this tournament. 

Quantifiably, Bangladesh’s batting lineup is on par with that of giants such as Australia and even India -- no wonder their fans always have their back and celebrate no matter what.

If Only: Bangladesh could have easily made it through the top four if they had the bowlers to support the two champions Mustafizur and Shakib. While the two spearheads have taken 26 wickets at an average of 28.8 and a strike rate of 29.1, the others have taken just 24 wickets at an average of 57.3 and strike rate of 54.5. 

An indication of the lack of collective bowling effort is the fact that they have leaked 300+ runs every time they have bowled first in this tournament. Post the World Cup, it imperative for the think tank to focus on getting the bowling act together before the next big tournament. A plus point is that their key players are still young – so Bangladesh has a strong base to build on, and only need to find and nurture a couple of good bowlers to become a side that can challenge the best.

Coming to the game on Friday, Pakistan will wish for a miracle. And the likes of Wahab Riaz, in all likelihood playing his last World Cup match, will want to leave a lasting imprint. For Bangladesh on the other hand, the cynosure will be on Shakib, and on what the premier all-rounder can do on his final outing in this Cup.

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