Sunday's seven-wicket victory against Ireland was Pakistan's befitting tribute to late Bob Woolmer - one of the finest coaches I have come across. I still feel the pain of that dreadful loss to Ireland and its aftereffect eight years ago in the ICC Cricket World Cup in the West Indies.
Couple of players Shahid Afridi and Younis Khan are still in the team and Bob's memories must have rolled back into their minds when Umar Akmal smashed the winning boundary at the Adelaide Oval, which booked Pakistan's place in the quarter-finals.
Ireland was by miles a better Associate side in this ICC Cricket World Cup. Ireland had proved its credentials by beating two Test nations, West Indies and Zimbabwe, in its earlier pool matches. To be honest, I wasn't expecting third upset from it against Pakistan in a match which was a must-win for both the sides to progress into the quarter-finals.
Irish captain William Porterfield did the right thing to bat first after winning the toss in a hope to put scoreboard pressure on Pakistan, which is notorious in chasing even small totals. But, he was up against a Pakistan pace quartet, which to me, is the best in this ICC Cricket World Cup. Despite losing fast bowler Mohammad Irfan due to an injury before the match, his replacement Ehsan Adil hit the right areas and never looked as if he was making his ICC Cricket World Cup debut.
Pakistan's confidence returned with victories against Zimbabwe and South Africa. In both these matches, Misbah-ul-Haq's pace bowlers had successfully defended less than 250 runs, a feat which is tough to achieve with only four fielders outside the 30-yard circle on relatively smaller grounds.
Partnerships are key to any big totals. Porterfield formed the nucleus of the Irish total of 237 with a superb century, but rest of the top-order batsman couldn't bat around their captain for longer periods.
The key to Pakistan's success was it was not easy to hit its fast bowlers from the word go, especially when the ball got old. That was the reason the hard-hitting O'Brien brothers, Niall and Kevin, fell early as they couldn't force the pace of runs against a pin-point accurate Pakistan pacers.
So much was the accuracy of Ehsan Adil, Wahab Riaz, Rahat Ali and Sohail Khan, that Ireland nosedived to 55 for five in the last 11 overs and it was game, set and match for Ireland at the half-time.
Who doesn't make mistakes in life? But what's important is how quickly you learn and rectify these mistakes. And cricket is no different. Fielding the right combination is not easy.
There are number of factors which coaches and captains consider before fielding the final playing XI. Pakistan did struggle early in the pool matches just because they couldn't slot in Sarfraz Ahmed in the final XI. The moment they believed specialists are the key to success, everything now seems to fall in place. Playing with seven batsmen just shows the negative mindset of the team and if you go with five specialist bowlers, you send the strong signal of aggression to the opposition.
Sarfraz's elevation to the opener's slot in the last two matches gave Pakistan's middle-order enough cushion. Sarfraz reminds me of Javed Miandad's art of rotating the strike. Whenever batsmen takes singles and twos, it not only disturbs and frustrates the bowlers but disallows them to explore the weak areas of the batsmen. And that's what exactly Sarfraz did on Sunday. The rotation of strike gave confidence to Ahmed Shehzad as they both raised first century opening stand for Pakistan in this tournament.
Ireland's gentle military medium-fast bowlers were no threat to Pakistan on an ideal batting wicket. Their bowlers didn't get enough purchase from the wicket.
Great batsmen are those who finish off the game and do not lose concentration after scoring 50s, 60s or 70s. Sarfraz has all these ingredients. He adjusts his strokes so quickly that it makes life difficult for even a good bowler. Once he completed his maiden ODI hundred, he played three consecutive dot balls as Pakistan needed just one run for the victory.
It might have looked a bit odd to some, but it was a sportsmanship of Sarfraz as he wanted his senior partner Umar to score the winning run as he had helped him reach three figures for the first time in his career. This is how you need to compliment your team-mates, which, in turn, enhances team spirit and unity in the side. Good gesture Sarfraz, it was master-stroke!
There's a talk of a 10-team ICC World Cup in 2019 and I am all in favor of it.
For Associate teams like Ireland, what the ICC needs to do is to arrange regular One-Day International series against Test nations, say minimum of 10-12 ODIs in a year, instead of just organising international matches among the associate countries. It could help lower-ranked sides, especially Ireland, to be in the top eight of the ICC Rankings and qualify directly for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019.
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