It has been almost 21 years since the last time Pakistan batted with such authority, command and impunity during a more than a 250-run ODI chase. Saeed Anwar and Inzamamul Haq razed Australia to dust at the Rawalpindi Stadium in October 1994, cantering to 251-1 in 39 overs.
At the Premadasa on Wednesday, Ahmed Shehzad, Azhar Ali, Mohammad Hafeez, Shoaib Malik and Sarfraz Ahmed threw caution to the wind to put to bed all those harrowing doubts, apprehensions and jitters the camp undergoes chasing targets.
As Umair Qazi points out on in his blog WellPitched, it was the third time in Azhar Ali’s embryonic 10-match captaincy span that Pakistan managed to gun down a 250 plus score. Now compare this to the last four years under former skipper Misbahul Haq and the games under stand-in captain Shahid Afridi.
In 37 chases sans games against Associate nations, Pakistan successfully chased down a score in excess of 250 only twice. A staggering statistic that lays bare the inability of a far more experienced and nourished batting line-up in hauling down scores to the one under Azhar.
In arguably the most batsmen-dominated ODI era, Pakistan were shackled by an outdated paradigm that cluttered the approach of their batsmen.
Over at the R Premadasa, Pakistan didn’t get bogged down from the outset of the 257-run chase. Azhar and Shehzad’s 75-run opening wicket partnership gave them crucial momentum. Hafeez then took his time to get to grips with the conditions but Shehzad continued to flay the bowlers from the other end.
The 23-year-old scored 65 runs in front of the wicket; charging down bowlers more than once, he dictated terms with remarkable composure.
However, there was no icing on the cake for him as he perished to his own impetuosity — five runs shy of his seventh ODI ton.
Hafeez fell after a telling 70-run contribution; his departure with 54 runs still left in the chase would have frozen the Pakistan of old. The onus would have been on ensuring that no further damage is done and the target milked down in singles and twos.
But Malik — possibly playing the best cricket of his life — was in no mood to be shackled; on the sixth ball that he received he danced down the track. The mistimed shot was parried by the long-off fielder over the ropes.
Undeterred Malik camped on the back foot on a short ball and sent the ball soaring over midwicket. Two more maximums sealed the win — as emphatic a chase as any by the men adorning the green shirts of Pakistan.
The Azhar and Waqar Younis-led team management deserves rich accolades for their stellar work when Pakistan were on the verge of crashing out of the ICC Champions Trophy even before boarding a flight to England — the venue of the tournament’s 2017 edition.
The jury is still out on whether the transformation is due to Azhar’s adherence to Waqar’s plans or his own comprehension of the new ODI requirements.
Has Waqar finally found a receptive captain? Since in an interview with The Express Tribune last September, the head coach had desired an aggressive, uncluttered approach from his batsmen.
“There is no doubt that we need to be aggressive in our approach,” Waqar had said. “Our batsmen are scoring in the region of 270, but modern requirements and rule changes have made it necessary to post a 300-run total in ODIs.”
Till Azhar took over, Waqar was perhaps barking up the wrong tree.
The need to overcome fifth match woes
Pakistan can still garner more from the series, the fifth match in Hambantota might now be a dead rubber but for the Greenshirts it offers a chance of further consolidation of their Champions Trophy berth.
After the Premadasa win, Pakistan’s ODI ratings stand at 90.4. They are now two points clear of West Indies on 88.4 points. A win in the final match will take Azhar’s men to 91.7 points and give them a three-point cushion over the West Indies.
In case of a loss, Pakistan will end up with 89.7 but would stay at the crucial eighth spot in the rankings — enough to qualify for the tournament provided they don’t play any more games before the September cut-off.
Historically, the final match of a five match bilateral ODI series has been a tough one to negotiate for the Greenshirts. In a total of 38 five-match ODI series to date, Pakistan have lost the fifth match 23 times, including the last three.
Hopefully the new Pakistan would ratify this failing too on July 26.