Pakistan open their Asia Cup campaign on the second day of the tournament against Hong Kong. They are taking the match against the minnows as an opportunity to gain momentum which can be carried into tougher contests.
That’s the key to success for them. Pakistan’s Champions Trophy triumph last year taught them the significance of carrying momentum in multi-team tournaments.
Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed spoke about it at the end of his side’s week-long training camp in Lahore. “Momentum is very important,” he said. “During the Champions Trophy, we carried forward the momentum which we had gotten against South Africa and Sri Lanka. We will try to do the same here… We will try to gain momentum in our first match [against Hong Kong] and go into the contest against India with full preparation.”
Three days after their tournament opener, Pakistan will be up against their arch-rivals India. Due to the dearth of Indo-Pak matches these days, it is the most-anticipated contest. The Champions Trophy final, which Pakistan won convincingly by 180 runs, last year remains to be the last encounter between the two. But, that match is in the past and it won’t have much effect according to Sarfraz.
“Every match against India is important,” he said. “That match [Champions Trophy final] is in the past. It was almost one and a half years ago. So, I don’t think we should consider it that much. If we play India in the final, then we will be playing them thrice. All professional teams put the past behind and look forward. Both teams will do the same.”
Of all the six teams, Pakistan are the most-aware of the local conditions in the UAE as they have been forced to host their home fixtures. They might have a profound Test record, but their one-day record doesn’t make for good reading. On the two grounds – Dubai and Abu Dhabi — that are to host the tournament, Pakistan, post-attack on the Sri Lankan team, have won only 17 out of the 40 matches there.
During his media talk last week, Shoaib Malik had pointed that it is due to the difficulty of batting under lights. Sarfraz echoed his sentiments. “The weather is hot, so it becomes difficult to bat in humid conditions under lights as the fast-bowlers get to swing the ball in humidity,” the 31-year-old said. “We will try to access the conditions. We have two-three sessions under lights. Of course, every side will look to bat first and put runs on the board due to the hot weather.
“Pitches are on the slower side in the UAE, so spinners will have a role to play. Our batsmen and bowlers are in top form. We will look to score more than 300 if we bat first because we possess a bowling unit that can defend that total. We are not focusing on one area, we will focus on all three aspects of the game and try to put a good show.”
Keeping the hot and humid conditions in mind, Pakistan included as many as six fast bowlers in the squad, so that no one pacer has to bear the brunt with the World Cup only eight months away. They have a full-fledged cricket season ahead with series against New Zealand and Australia in the UAE and an away series against South Africa followed by the fourth edition of the PSL.
Naturally, every match becomes crucial for them. “This [Asia Cup] is the beginning of our road to the event as we don’t have much time in between,” he said. “We haven’t played well in New Zealand and that’s because of the loss of early wickets. It hindered us from recovering from the collapses. We have tried to sort that problem.
“The foreign coaches have instilled professionalism in the side. We have gotten more fit. Previously, our team average [on the yo-yo test] used to be 17. It was 18.7 this time. The five rounds that we did in nine minutes, we are now doing them under eight. A lot of things have improved like the rotation of strike. Our batting [line-up] is chasing 280-290 now. The boys are young like Fakhar Zaman, Imam ul Haq, and Babar Azam, and they are still learning. What is good is that the boys are trying to keep up with modern standards like staying at the wicket and keeping the scoring rate at 100 or above.”
Sarfraz has been under criticism for his below par performances with the bat. Since the Champions Trophy, he has averaged just 17 with only one fifty against New Zealand in New Zealand in nine innings. Pakistan’s chairman of Selectors, Inzamam ul Haq, had underscored the necessity for Sarfraz to improve his batting while announcing the 16-member Asia Cup line-up last week. Inzamam’s concern was brought up to the Pakistani skipper. “I am trying to improve my performance and I try to play at any number where my team needs me,” he said. “In Zimbabwe, I only got to bat in the T20Is and my performance is [in] front of everybody. If [the chief selector] feels that I am not performing up to the mark, then I will try and improve.”