It was a sight for sore eyes to see the Pakistan players performing the victory lap at Sharjah - smiles restored after nearly a year of misery. This tournament might not have featured the best of oppositions, with a disillusioned Sri Lanka side, a rebuilding Zimbabwe and minnows Kenya involved, but this victory is certainly morale boosting and a definite step in the right direction.
Pakistan cricket had reached a point where many questioned if there was any talent left in the domestic circuit, and whether the national side would ever be able to rise out of the hole they had dug for themselves. The senior members of the World Cup squad had made it difficult for the selectors by not retiring; thinking perhaps, in case of a poor performance by the youngsters, there would be severe public backlash asking for their return.
The Pakistan team, especially the youngsters proved they had the desire and hunger to win, something that was lacking in recent Pakistani squads, and this motivated them to perform brilliantly at Sharjah. The discipline and effort put in by the new-look side was remarkable, and the improvement on the field was there for all to see. Pakistan's fielding was simply outstanding, with the likes of Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik leading the way.
The most remarkable improvement though was the dramatic improvement in the over-rates. Pakistan has been guilty of slow over-rates for ages, being docked overs in crucial encounters in the past, which helped in their defeats. The over-rate at Sharjah was not only up to par, but far beyond that, with the quota of 50 overs being completed with at least 15 minutes or so to spare. The inclusion of three spinners definitely helped, but it was very pleasing to see Rashid Latif hustle through between overs and position himself quickly down the other end, setting the tone for the others to follow. The wicket-keeper is responsible for setting the pace on the field, as Adam Gilchrist does so well for Australia, and Rashid's effort in spite of being captain is commendable. The new rules of the ICC with regards to slow over-rates proved to be very effective as all sides involved were good in that department.
It was also very healthy to see Javed Miandad's role as coach, guiding the youngsters throughout their knocks, rather than taking the back seat role as other coaches of Pakistan have done in the past. The effort put in by him is clearly evident, with the Pakistan side chasing in a more methodical fashion, showing greater commitment on the field, and above all coming into the matches with a definite game plan. The best example of the planning was the manner in which Sri Lanka's Marvan Atapattu was worked out, in the match against Sri Lanka, where his strong areas were covered and he eventually got out due to frustration.
Another dimension of the Pakistan game that has emerged in the Sharjah Cup was the dramatic change in the bowling strategy. The young men persevered with line and length, rather than trying to blast out the opposition and that meant no side got off to a flying start against them. The reduction in the number of extras conceded was also pleasing, indicating discipline, a factor that was ignored by even the most experienced bowlers in the past.
However, it is important to remember that the true test of this side lies ahead, in the tours to Sri Lanka and England, and this victory certainly does not warrant any room for complacency. While the players deserve great praise for their effort, Pakistan cricket has a long way to go before they can establish themselves as one of the top sides in international cricket. Their performance in test matches will indicate their true mettle, as the longer version of the game is always the best test of a player's character.
It is important to assess the positives that have come out of Sharjah, and try and work on any weaknesses observed. It was a delight to see the Pakistan side going through an entire tournament without changing the opening combination.
While Hafeez looked solid in the early matches, the faith the team management showed in Taufeeq Umar paid off in the final. These two players must be given an extended run and allowed to settle in as a pair. Pakistan however, does need a reserve opener in the squad, and Naved Latif does not appear to be the correct option. His technique leaves a lot to be desired, plus he is not exactly electric on the field. The names of Imran Nazir and Imran Farhat come to mind, and the selectors must consider them for upcoming tours. The middle order looks settled, and Misbah's single knock showed enough reason for him to be retained in the squad.
The all-rounders have been competent as well, with Hafeez, Naved-ul-Hasan and Shoaib Malik performing well. While Shoaib Malik has improved in both departments of the game, Naved-ul-Hasan looked impressive, quite capable of taking the new ball if required. The effort of Razzaq must not be ignored as well, as he silenced his critics in style. His bowling though, still lacks the penetration, but to be fair he got a limited opportunity to bowl in the tournament.
The bowling deserves special praise, as the young guns hardly let the national side feel the absence of Wasim, Waqar and Shoaib Akhtar. Sami reveled in his role as the leading strike bowler, while Umar Gul was impressive with the new ball as well. Umar has the right idea, where he seeks to dry out runs on one end, allowing the captain to attack with Sami. Gul needs to work on his physique though, which would help him gain that extra yard of pace, which would be needed against more competent batsmen. Pakistan's back up in the pace bowling department needs to be worked on, as the selectors need to identify other bowlers in case of injury to the front line pacemen. Zahid was not given a chance to prove himself so it is difficult to assess the back up strength at the moment.
Danish Kaneria was the most improved player as far as I am concerned. Aside from turning the ball, he was more consistent with his length, and seems to have developed a very potent flipper. His googly was always impressive but the flipper has added a significant wicket taking ability. Wrist spinners are always far more difficult to handle compared to the finger spinners, and Pakistan had been lacking in this since the exclusion of Mushtaq Ahmed. Saqlain in my opinion, is well past his prime, as many batsmen have begun picking the drifter, his main weapon. Kaneria though is much tougher to pick, and if given an extended run, could develop into a very handy weapon for the Pakistan side.
It may not be the biggest victory in the history of Pakistan cricket, but it has certainly come at a very opportune time. Pakistani fans had begun to lose faith in the side, and this victory has injected a great deal of enthusiasm. Hats-off to the Pakistani youngsters, they have brought joy to the nation and have proved to the senior members that they are certainly not indispensable, a thought that may have led to their downfall.
Ed: If readers wish to correspond with the author, please email Taha Noor