The kings of Asia


When the fate of being crowned the monarchs of a continent rests on the final delivery of the last over of a cricket match, you know that particular moment gives both terms, ‘humdinger’ and ‘nerve-racking’, a whole new meaning. Also, given that the two sides contesting the nail-biting finale were the lesser fancied teams out of the four participants – if the numbers posted by the bookies before the tournament are anything to do by – the significance of those dying moments became all the more humongous. Plus, since the home side was one of those vying for continental supremacy, with the ‘winner takes all’ cliché bulging out of each of those six balls of the Aizaz Cheema over, one could cut the tension in the atmosphere, in and around, the Sher-e-Bangal Stadium with a knife. In the end it was Cheema who had the command over his nerves, and pulled out as good a final over under pressure as you would see to script Pakistan’s second Asian Cup triumph in their history.
At the start of the tournament it was arguably the Sri Lankans who were the favourites to lift the Asia Cup, following their exploits Down Under where they gave the number one side in the world a veritable jolt on their home turf. However, with a grand total of zero points in three matches, and also being the only side to be bulldozed by a bonus point margin, Sri Lanka were a good many light years away from even qualifying as their pale shadow. Their batting came to the plate intermittently, with the Holy Trinity of Mahela Jayawardene, Kumara Sangakara and Tilekaratne Dilshan producing a mixed bag at best. Even the Lasith Malinga led bowling attack was run of the mill; and Malinga himself was regularly dispatched to all the proverbial corners of the park. After an impressive showing in Australia, the Asia Cup capitulation has come as a jolt for the Lankans ahead of England’s visit, but there is no need to clatter the alarm bells. They need to get the tournament out of their system and focus on an England side that is vulnerable in the sub-continental conditions – especially in the jurisdiction of tests.
The time it took Sachin Tendulkar to finally score that coveted hundredth ton, meant that the monkey that had stationed itself on the maestro, had grown old enough to have grandchildren by the time it was finally thrown off his back against Bangladesh. Even so, there’s a strong case against this monkey-throwing procrastination being a major reason in the Indian side being dumped out of the tournament. The ages Tendulkar took in traversing the nervous nineties and the seemingly endless eighties against Bangladesh, eventually proved to be the difference between India scoring well in excess of 320 and being restricted for 290. A score of around 330 would’ve given even this new-look Bangladeshi batting powerhouse an intimidating precipitous mountain to climb. And of course had India not come second best in that particular match, they would’ve had been in the final, and would’ve pretty much had fancied their chances against anyone.
All the same, the great man taking his time to reach the milestone might not have had been that big an issue, had the Indian bowling not proven itself to be as menacing as a butterfly in a tranquil spring morning, again. Sans Zaheer Khan India’s bowling borders on a charity ensemble, and their bowling in the powerplays and the last 10 overs is cinch of scoring spree. The disparity between the batting and bowling lineups of India is so gigantic, that it’s almost as if two different sides take to the field in each innings. India need to track down some bowling talent, and fast, or else their dominance even in the sub-continent would fade away eventually; with the struggles away from home being well-documented.
India have easily the most daunting batting TNT in the sport, and in Virat Kohli they have arguably the best young batsman in the limited-overs format. Kohli’s 183 against Pakistan, which made a mockery of the mammoth 329 posted by Pakistan, was one of the greatest ODI innings of all-time. It’s one thing scoring a huge century in ODIs but a completely different prospect doing it in a stiff run-chase in a clutch game against the archenemy. The Indians would need to produce quality bowlers to complement their flamboyant batting contingent, if they want to plan ahead for a successful showing in Australia 2015.
My word has the Bangladesh Premier League worked wonders for the Bengali Tigers! How a team, that for ages has been the punching bag for all the test playing nations and even as recently as December allowed Pakistan to roll them over in second gear, managed to conjure up such a blockbuster showing like a bolt from the blue is beyond words. Playing with quality international stars and dealing with the pressure cooker scenarios day in day out has completely rejuvenated a team that has long been dubbed as the Tigers but have only recently learned to roar… and how! In players like Tamim Iqbal – who scored four half-centuries on the trot – and Nasser Hussain they have two of the most dexterous ODI batsmen, especially in the sub-continent and should be the batting cornerstones for Bangladeshi success for the time to come.
Shakib-al-Hasan – the man of the tournament – is easily one of the best cricketers in the world right now. And with his economical spin bowling, being coupled with explosive batting, he is an archetypal modern day limited-overs cricketer. Watching him bat, and pulverise some of the most extolled bowlers in world cricket, is an exhilarating sight and expect the youngsters in Bangladesh to queue up in their quest of being the next Shakib-al-Hasan. Mushfiq-ur-Rahim proved himself to be a commanding leader, a competent wicket-keeper, with a few dynamites to offer in the lower order as well. Bangladesh have a formidable spinner in Abdur Razzak, and all they lack is a genuine speedster; with the only paceman of noteworthy speed Shahadat Hossain being as accurate as an AK47 being controlled by a blind man. It was his wayward final over that allowed Pakistan to take their total up to 236, which might just have proved to be the difference in the end.
Anyway, there’s no denying that Bangladesh have finally come of age, and you’d have to be a stone-hearted, dead from the inside sculpt of numbness to not feel for their emotions after the final. Cricket was already big in Bangladesh, but their groundbreaking run in the Asia Cup would absolutely blow the lid off the cricket following for a country finally managing to progress towards the centre, after having spent ages prowling around the periphery of cricketing fulfillment.
One would feel that winning your second ever Asia Cup after 12 long years would shush the critics and satisfy the fans, but that’s not how we function here in Pakistan unfortunately. There are still murmurs in the background of an overhaul, and the fans – although ostensibly in ecstasy in the aftermath of the final – have qualms over the performance not having had been ‘vintage Pakistan’. We seem to be forgetting that in major international tournaments there is nothing more important than the final result; and for a team that has just been crowned the monarchs of Asia – the continent wherein the previous World Cup traced its finalists from – a complete revamp might not be what the doctor – or anyone with half a cricketing brain, for that matter – would want to order.
Granted there are a few creases that need to be ironed for us to rubberstamp our authority as being a permanent fixture in the upper echelons of world cricket, but we have overcame one of those creases during the tournament – arguably the most significant one for the last decade or so. Nasir Jamshed has quite possibly solved Pakistan’s opening conundrum and Hammad Azam has showcased enough to suggest that he might have what it takes to being that lower order finisher that we lack without Abdul Razzaq, with the added quality of medium-pace as well – which our all-round prodigy will have to work upon.
Barring half a mediocre showing in the second half against India, Pakistan were easily the best – albeit not the most flamboyant – side in the tournament. Our bowling, again, apart from the India match, was the principal protagonist of our success, and Cheema’s impressive spell in the final has vindicated his presence amongst possibly the most daunting bowling repertoire in the game. The middle order batting had its moments – some of them quite remarkable as well – but the likes of Younus Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq are still under the scrutiny gun apropos their longevity and their near and long-term future. Umar Akmal is still in stuck in that no man’s land between ‘promising talent’ and ‘established batsman’ as the entire nation collectively awaits the completion of this protracted transition.
Misbah’s captaincy has also been questioned, for some bizarrely inexplicable reason, despite winning the biggest trophy in Asian cricket. There are murmurs of Misbah being relieved of his captaincy in the limited-overs format with Hafeez, and Shahid Afridi being peddled as replacements. While such a manoeuvre, after a successful conquest, makes absolutely no sense to this scribe at all, it might stop Afridi from beating up fans at airports and might make him feel better after having not been “feeling well” off-late.
It is too early to gauge Dav Whatmore’s impact on the team just yet, the yardsticks should come out after the Sri Lanka tour in May. Pakistan have a couple of plans to draw out their long-term line of action, with a special eye on that tour and the T20 World Cup in September.