Pakistan's start in the Bank Alfalah Cup could best be described as absolute brilliance one day then a shoddy performance the next. Back-to-back matches against two quality oppositions are never easy, but it was really some masterful swing bowling by the Kiwis in helpful conditions that undid them on Sunday.
Against Sri Lanka the Pakistan young guns proved their victory in Sharjah was not merely good luck but they had the capability to pulverize the full strength hosts in their own backyard. A cautious start laid the platform for a decent score, which in the end proved to be more than enough under the conditions.
The Rangiri Dambulla ground was certainly not up to par for ODI cricket, with conditions tilted towards the bowlers, and shot-making rather difficult. Even though Hafeez and Faisal Iqbal weathered the early storm, their performance in the middle overs left a lot to be desired. Caution is understandable against the swinging new ball, but both showed little intent even against the second string Sri Lankan spinners. A lot of work is still needed to perfect the art of rotating strike, to make sure they don't pressurize the likes of Youhana and Younis Khan when they come in after.
Pakistan's bowling and fielding in the opening match could be called brilliant, with Shoaib Akhtar proving he isn't a spent force by any means. However, I believe they are committing a tactical blunder, when it comes to handing Shoaib the new ball, and bringing Umar Gul in as first change. Umar is a seam bowler very much in the mould of the great McGrath, and is not as potent when he operates first change. The seam is worn by then and since he lacks pace, gets taken for runs as was the case against New Zealand.
With Umar and Razzaq operating in the middle overs there is very little pressure on opposition batsmen and they can stabilize the innings. Pakistan would do better to let Umar partner Sami with the new ball and have Shoaib come in to attack on one end, while Razzaq does the hold up job.
If they do want to persist with Shoaib Akhtar opening, then it is better to drop Umar Gul for Kaneria, to provide greater variety. The pitches in the second round in Colombo are likely to be slow turners, unlike the moist 'seamers' at Dambulla, so Kaneria could prove very useful.
The Pakistan batting may have done reasonably against the Sri Lankan attack, but failed when they encountered New Zealand's top quality pace attack under similar conditions. For the first time the youngsters were up against a quality attack and wilted under some trying conditions unable to cope with swing and seam. I shudder to think what will happen during their England tour unless they learn to cope with such wickets.
Problems exposed need to be addressed immediately, they could not handle the swing of Shane Bond who beat them on almost every ball of his opening spell. Only Younis Khan displayed an adequate technique in countering his sharp inswing.
Faisal Iqbal looked quite ordinary, and it may be time for either Faisal Athar or Yasir Hameed to get a chance in the next match.
Youhana got out to very loose shots in both matches, and must be made to realize he is the cornerstone of Pakistan's batting line-up, and must cut down on some of the flair he is so well known for.
Taufeeq Umar was a little disappointing, after having done all the hard work weathering the new ball attack he got out to a very loose shot. Taufeeq looks in reasonable form but has a terrible habit of giving it away when well set. He is a naturally defensive player who takes his time, and must realize that playing aggressive shots is not his job. He needs to stay out there, rotate strike and allow the stroke makers in the line-up to play around him. Instead, he seems to suddenly feel pressure when the going is tough and in trying to emulate a Saeed Anwar, starts playing risky shots.
The defeat to New Zealand should not lead to wholesale changes, or cries to bring back more experienced players, but does offer the team a chance to reflect on their mistakes and strategy. Young players will only learn if they get a chance to play the best bowlers in the world, and cannot be expected to massacre them at first sight, especially when conditions are as difficult as in Dambulla.
Hopefully, we will see a much improved effort under the batsmen friendly conditions in Colombo.
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