Ten months before Pakistan won the Champions Trophy in 2017, the death of Pakistan’s limited-overs cricket had been pronounced, and who cared what they did with the ashes? Pakistan had spent the summer prancing about England, getting pummelled ODI after another by a team that had just a year earlier failed to make the final eight at the 2015 World Cup.
So how, ten months later, did Pakistan beat that same England side in the semi-final of a Champions Trophy that England were all but nailed on to win?
It sure as heck didn’t happen because Pakistan got their domestic act together; the very prospect of that happening, even as the PCB have launched a fresh initiative to restructure the circuit, feels faintly surreal. Four games before they beat India in a final that left fans in the country more gobsmacked than delirious, they had succumbed to a predictably crushing defeat against the same opponents, the perennial faults in their ODI game on full display in Birmingham almost to the point of caricature.
It was supposed to be a turning point, especially when a few months later they whitewashed Sri Lanka to stretch their ODI streak to nine, and Mickey Arthur’s promises to have brought Pakistan – sometimes kicking and screaming – into the modern era seemed somehow to have worked, even if it appeared to have happened a little too quickly to be trusted.
That was about as good as it got, though. Pakistan are ranked sixth in the ODI rankings, having failed to qualify for the last four of the recently concluded World Cup and replaced the entire backroom staff as a result. They would win just one ODI against a top eight ODI side in all of 2018, and a 3-2 ODI series loss to South Africa at the start of this year was followed by nine consecutive defeats by Australia and England.
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Since the start of 2018 until before that improbable four-match winning streak at the tail-end of the World Cup, Pakistan had won 11 of 35 completed games, seven of those coming against Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Hong Kong. It was reminiscent of the side that barely sneaked into the final automatic qualification spot for the Champions Trophy, not the one that scorched everyone in their path to win it.
The promises that were made, and the ones fans imagined had been made, in those heady days in the summer of 2017, did not come to pass. As such, the tournament became a yardstick to measure performance again, but with no one, not even the coaching staff, having the foggiest idea how they came away with the title, there was no model to replicate. Hasan Ali came into the event almost unknown and walked away as the player of the tournament and the world’s best ODI bowler. Shadab Khan’s star continued to rise, and in Fakhar Zaman, Pakistan believed they had the modern opener they were robbed of when Sharjeel Khan was banned.
But an innings like the one Fakhar Zaman played in that final was an outlying freak, not a replicable model, certainly not with the technical deficiencies still obvious in the left-hander’s game. Yet you get the impression Fakhar still goes out to bat every match with that innings in mind, which is hardly ideal preparation for any game. His is, after all, a game that relies heavily on confidence, and Sarfaraz Ahmed believed Misbah, the man who replaces Arthur, was the right man to instil it.
“Mickey Arthur and Misbah are two very different kinds of people, obviously,” Sarfaraz said ahead of the first ODI against Sri Lanka. “He had his own style of coaching while Misbah has his. Misbah is just in so he’ll obviously bring his own philosophy to the role but he’s given players the same message. For example, he’s told Fakhar Zaman to play his natural game, because that’s what he’s in the team for.”
Hasan Ali has regressed in the last year, too. After 68 wickets at under 21 in his first 33 matches, he has managed just 14 in his last 20, each coming at just under 69 runs per scalp. Sarfaraz’s own batting has been under the microscopes, especially with Rizwan breathing down his neck now, while no one is quite sure whether Mohammad Amir, newly retired from Test cricket, will be the spearhead he was at the World Cup, or the struggling journeyman he appeared for the two years prior.
There are bright spots if you squint hard enough, though. Imam-ul-Haq has cemented his name at the top of the order, a position Pakistan found a particularly pesky puzzle for several years. Babar Azam is no longer a batsman with great potential – how many of those have there been in Pakistan – but the first name on the team sheet and one of the best batsmen in the world across formats. Now, he is also Sarfaraz Ahmed’s deputy, and Sarfaraz believed he could already rub shoulders with the game’s elite.
“Babar Azam can be in that category the [of Smith, Kohli, Root and Williamson] way he is progressing. In truth, he even ranks among them now. If he can keep up his form, he’ll begin to be talked among that list by everyone very quickly.”
As for Pakistan’s own outlook towards the format, Sarfaraz chose to take it one step at a time. “We need to bring consistency to our ODI cricket, and for that, there are a few areas of our game we need to work on. We’re going to try to ensure it doesn’t ever get to the point where we actually need to be worried about qualifying for the World Cup again.”
Nobody could the team, then, of setting their sights too high, but a reminder of what happened when they last tried that is a memory still fresh enough for the players to recoil from. Pakistan haven’t become the team they looked like on that heady day at the Oval, but you might want to hold off on the cremation ceremony.