Azam, Shinwari hand Pakistan victory

Pakistan were tipped to win the 1st ODI comfortably against a weak Sri Lankan side. Babar Azam and Usman Shinwari obliged.

The National Stadium in Karachi was not at its full capacity. This was disappointing, since the people of Karachi had for years complained of giving all international matches to Lahore. Had this game been played in Lahore, we would  have had a full capacity crowd hours before the game. May be that’s something for the Pakistan cricket board to think on when hosting international cricket in the future. Back to the cricket then. Pakistan won the toss and decided to bat first on a sunny afternoon in Karachi. The pitch, as usual, was benin. And against a Sri Lankan pace attack that has been struggling to pick wickets, both openers got Pakistan off to a safe start. 83 for the first wicket between Fakhar Zaman and Imam-Ul-Haq before Imam was trapped leg before by the leg spinner.

Fakhar Zaman strolled his way to fifty. Not a typical Fakhar Zaman innings but he will take the runs. Soon after getting to his fifty, Zaman mistimed a lofted drive to mid off. 104/2 Pakistan were when Haris Sohail joined Babar Azam. And then we saw the usual consistency and class of both the batsmen. They put on a partnership of 114 runs for the third wicket. It was dominated by Babar Azam but Haris supported him well. Haris Sohail was out run out in the 40th over after a mix up with his partner. Captain Sarfaraz Ahmed too was dismissed in the same fashion. But not before Babar Azam completed a neat century, his 11th in ODI cricket and 3rd this year. He also brought up 1000 ODI runs in the current calendar year, becoming the fastest Pakistani to do so.

Babar Azam was dismissed for 115 while attempting a big hit over mid wicket. Iftikhar Ahmed finished the innings off with a quick fire 32 off 20 deliveries. An innings which included 2 sixes and 2 fours. Pakistan finished off on 305/7 in their allotted 50 overs. Much less than what they should have got on that surface and against that bowling attack.

Sri Lanka’s innings started with early trouble. Usman Shinwari knocked the right hander off with a beautiful in dipper. And at pace. Muhammad Amir joined the act, removing the other opener with a well disguised slower ball. Wickets continued to tumble as Usman Shinwari picked two more. Imad Wasim followed it up with a wicket soon. Sri Lanka were reduced to 28/5 and the match appeared to be all but gone from Sri Lanka’s grasp. With nothing to lose, Shehan Jayasuria launched an assault on Shadab Khan. Smashing him down the ground for a flurry of boundaries. Dashun Shanaka was in the act as well. Smashing Shadab for a six over mid wicket. Both the batsmen played some scintillating shots, putting pressure on the bowlers and the captain. They brought Sri Lanka back into contention, courtesy a mammoth 177 runs partnership. Usman Shinwari broke the partnership by dismissing Jayasuria caught behind by Sarfaraz. Wickets tumbled as Shinwari brought up yet another fiver fer against Sri Lanka. Shadab Khan and Wahab Riaz cleaned up the tail picking up two and one wicket each.

Pakistan will be happy with the win and why shouldn’t they be? But the manner in which they won was far from convincing. As has been the case over the past one year, Pakistan have struggled to back up good bowling starts. They have struggled to finish oppositions off after picking 4 or 5 early wickets. This was seen against Bangladesh in the Asia Cup last year. It was also seen twice in the test series against New Zealand at home last year. Australia managed to draw the test at Dubai when Pakistan should have won it easily. And then, New Zealand ended up scoring 237, after they were reduced to 80/5 in the World Cup fixture. All this has one common factor in it. The inability of the Pakistan bowlers to deliver the finishing punch on the opposition. Either the bowlers relax or the captain doesn’t go for the kill.

It has to be one of these two reasons. You just cannot let the opposition cross 200 when you have them at 28/5. Or for that matter, cannot let the opposition get to 237 when you have them at 80/5. This has hurt Pakistan in both test and ODI cricket. And this has to be fixed quickly. There are no excuses for this.

Another negative, which is exclusively relevant with yesterday’s game, is the form of Shadab Khan. He has been off colour since the Asia Cup last year. The economy rate, in particular, has been very high. And one gets the impression that he is shying away from using his googly. This, as it appears, has got to do with the captain forcing him to not use the googly too often. But it has back fired. Sarfaraz should allow Shadab to express himself with the ball because that is when he becomes deadly dangerous. He should also be provided with catchers to encourage him to pick wickets. Pakistan’s tactics with the bat were also questionable. Sarfaraz should never have come ahead of Iftikhar Ahmed in the 40th over. That move cost Pakistan about 25 runs. Sarfaraz should never be batting in the last 10 overs when you have the likes of Iftikhar and Imad Wasim in the bank.

The big positive from yesterday’s game was the form of Iftikhar Ahmed. Because he can bowl useful off spin and that was on show yesterday, he gives balance to the side. His experience at the domestic level is gold. And that is where he can be a very good finisher for Pakistan at number 6. A position where Pakistan have struggled to find a consistent option. With an average of 51 and a strike rate of 90, Pakistan have a proper batsman at number 6. And he should be given a long run because he could be very useful for Pakistan in one day international cricket. The other positive for Pakistan is the mix of left and right handed batsmen in the ODI XI. With this combination, Pakistan more often than not, have a left right batting pair at the crease. And it is a nightmare for fielding captains in ODI cricket.