Shoaib Malik is a living example of the notion that experience has no shortcut. Given a task to finish off a tricky chase against Afghanistan on Friday, Malik used his experience of two decades to see Pakistan through and thwarted what could have been a demoralizing defeat ahead of the super-four game against India. While wickets kept falling around him, Malik constructed a MS Dhoni-esque innings to scale the target that seemed out of Pakistan’s reach when 39 was needed off four overs (two of those to be bowled by number one ODI spinner Rashid Khan).
With required rate nearly 10 an over, Malik let others, Asif Ali, Mohammad Nawaz and Hasan Ali, go for the big shots and saved his power hitting for the last over in which he chased ten runs with a six and four off Aftab Alam’s first three deliveries. By trusting his boundary-hitting ability and taking the game to the last over, Malik, 51 not out off 43 balls, revoked memories of many chases manufactures by Dhoni under similar circumstances.
Malik has had productive three years. Since his comeback to the side after World Cup 2015, he has accumulated 1628 runs at an average of 49.33 and strike-rate of 97.19 in ODIs and 1162 runs at 48.41 and SR 140.84 in T20 Internationals. But the numbers don’t tell us how often he has seen through a chase.
It was only two months ago when he complemented Fakhar Zaman’s 91 with 43 not out off 37 balls to scale 184 against Australia in the tri-series final in Harare and last year when he scored an unbeaten hundred to win the series-decider against Windies in Guyana after Pakistan lost three early wickets. It improved the team’s chances to directly qualify for the World Cup. Pakistan had extremely poor tours to the United Kingdom and Australia in 2016 and 2017 winning only two out of 10 ODIs. Malik had a role to play in both wins with an 80-ball 77 in Cardiff and an unbeaten 42 in Melbourne.
Although Pakistan under the coach Mickey Arthur has been blooding youngsters, Malik, 36, remains an integral part of the team moving towards the next World Cup and his innings in Abu Dhabi, that was followed by a 154-run partnership between Babar Azam and Imam-ul-Haq, shows why an experienced hand is necessary to develop this young team.
There would have been no shame in losing to this Afghanistan side that now has the ability to challenge any team in the world especially in the Asian conditions but still the question that Pakistan needs to answer is how this game got so close?
Pakistan made too many errors. They kicked off chase in a worst possible way with Fakhar Zaman bagging a duck in the opening over and decided against reviewing the wrong LBW decision off Mujeeb Zadran’s bowling.
That Afghanistan managed to post 257 was largely down to Pakistan’s indiscipline as they dropped four catches, including Hashmatullah Shahidi on 52 who finished with 97 not out. The damage could still have been less had Hasan not overstepped when he bowled Shahid in the penultimate over after which the batsman hit four boundaries off six balls.
The bowling coach Azhar Mahmood seemed to have solve Pakistan’s problem of overstepping but it has reoccurred again in the Asia Cup in which they have bowled 4 no-balls in two games. Coming into the tournament, Pakistan had bowled only 4 no-balls in 16 ODIs.
It was also surprising to see Pakistan playing with a four-man bowling attack. It was a tactic that cost them dearly in World Cup 2015 and in Bangladesh where they were clean-swept 0-3 yet they thought they could win games with four bowlers and part-timers Malik and Haris Sohail, who combined bowled 10 overs without dismissing any Afghan batsman.
It is difficult to argue with a winner as the strategy worked against Afghanistan, the team with the weakest batting in the tournament, but it would be suicidal to go with four bowlers against India or even Bangladesh.
One of the biggest worries for Pakistan at the moment is Sarfraz’s form and his batting position. Since becoming captain, he has never batted at four in ODIs and at five only once in 27 matches. When he was asked this question last year, every time his answer was they do not want to change the combination where Babar is at three and Mohammad Hafeez four. But with Hafeez not part of the team now, it is baffling to see that Sarfraz still does not want to bat at four.
Sarfraz has only 118 runs at an average of 14.75 and strike-rate 70.65 since the Champions Trophy and that is largely because he has been forced to play his unnatural game at number six where attempting to get big shots he throws away his wicket.
Since 2015, Sarfraz has hit only two sixes off 252 balls in overs 41-50 in ODIs which shows how challenging for him is to provide impetus in the last powerplay. However, his percentage (40.16) of taking singles is the highest for any Pakistan batsman in that period. He ought to use his excellent ability of rotating strike to construct the innings by batting at four.