Shoaib Malik will be playing his sixth Champions Trophy – the most by any cricketer © Getty Images
Pakistan cricket has always been associated with great symbols – their unpredictability, and boldness to unleash young surprise packages to name a couple. Now, however, those associations seem more diluted. There are more challenges than ever before with the team fluctuating around the bottom three spots in the ICC ODI rankings. They were on the verge of losing a berth in the Champions Trophy and barely managed to qualify.
Pakistan have won all the major titles – World Cup, World T20, Asia Cup – but the Champions Trophy crown has eluded them. The closest they came was in 2009 when a crucial catch dropped by Younis Khan halted their progress into the final. Pakistan’s record in the 2013 edition was rather modest – knocked out losing all three games, and losing to India meant they lost their unbeaten record in the tournament against India.
Pakistan are slotted in the same group as arch-rivals India, Sri Lanka and South Africa, the only Full Member they beat in the 2015 World Cup. They have already had to do away with one captain [Azhar Ali] and they go into the Champions Trophy ranked No. 8 but the next couple of weeks present them a rare opportunity. The young players coming into the squad – legspinner Shadab Khan, fast bowler Hasan Ali – and even Sarfraz Ahmed, the newly appointed captain will, once and for all, know if they can cut it with the best in the world.
Champions Trophy history
1998 – first-round exit
2000 – semi-final lost
2002- first-round exit
2004 – semi-final lost
2006 – first-round exit
2009 – semi-final lost
2013 – first-round exit
Pakistan beat West Indies 2-1 in their most recent ODI series, a tournament that was played with the added pressure of getting a rankings boost ahead of the September 30 deadline for direct qualification into the 2019 World Cup. Shoaib Malik and Babar Azam made match-winning hundreds and Mohammad Hafeez was the highest run-getter in the series with 201 runs at an average of 67.
“The return of my swing will make a huge difference in conditions like England,” Mohammad Amir said. Amir will lead the bowling attack, which remains the team’s biggest strength. The 18-year old legspinner Shadab had a fantastic introduction to T20Is, picking up 10 wickets in four games, and has been backed to replicate that performance in 50-overs as well. Pakistan will also look for impactful performances from Junaid Khan, who made his ODI comeback against Australia earlier this year, and Wahab Riaz, with his sheer pace.
The spotlight will be on 18-year old legspinner Shadab Khan and new captain Sarfraz Ahmed © Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Pakistan’s limited-overs batting has been strewn with unbelievable collapses. To add to that, concerns regarding the strike-rates of their batsmen have also risen and cost them games recently. The team appears to be struggling to adapt to the pace of one-day cricket, where power-hitting has become a major aspect. In the period between 2012 and 2015, Pakistan’s scoring rate in the first 10 overs hovered close to the 4.5 runs per over mark, only gradually improving over the last two seasons and climbing to over 5. Their scoring rate in the last 10 overs has also shown similar improvement after a period of prolonged struggle. They have already lost their best power-hitter, Sharjeel Khan, in the wake of the PSL corruption case, while Umar Akmal was removed from the squad after failing a fitness test. With the batting unit lacking in firepower, their bowlers will be under a significant amount of pressure.
- Malik is set to feature in his sixth Champions Trophy tournament, the most among current players. He made his tournament debut in 2002, and since then has played all editions of the tournament. He has scored 326 runs and taken 10 wickets in 15 Champions Trophy games.
- The last time a Pakistan batsman scored a century in the Champions Trophy was in 2009 when Malik made 128 against India in Centurion. Saeed Anwar, who struck two of them in Nairobi in 2000, is the only other batsman from Pakistan to have scored a century in the tournament.
- Among the current Pakistan bowlers, Junaid Khan has dismissed Virat Kohli the most in ODIs – three times, all during the 2012-13 series.
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo’s Pakistan correspondent
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.