LAHORE: With the Pakistan team to arrive in England, well before any other World Cup side, coach Mickey Arthur believes his side can go all the way in the tournament.
Addressing the media for the final time before their departure, Arthur and captain Sarfaraz Ahmed expressed complete satisfaction in the squad selected to mount a World Cup challenge, with Sarfaraz declaring “all fifteen players” as trump cards.
“We leave very, very well prepared,” Arthur said. “We leave with a team that has both the talent and attitude to be successful. Our preparation over here has been outstanding, and our preparation leading into the World Cup is brilliant with a series against the world No. 1 side in their own conditions.
“That will give us an opportunity to test ourselves and to test our combination, and to head to the World Cup with a lot of confidence. We know if we play to our potential, we have the ability to go all the way.”
The warm-up against England next month, followed by the World Cup, comes against the backdrop of an alarming fall in Pakistan’s ODI form since the start of 2018. In that period, Pakistan have managed just four wins in 22 matches against teams they will face at the World Cup, a run that included whitewashes by New Zealand and Australia, with a torrid Asia Cup and a 3-2 away loss in South Africa sandwiched in between.
Sarfaraz, however, believed it was time to look ahead rather than reflect on that run.
“We should leave what happened in past in the past,” he said. “Seven or eight of our players were rested for the Australia series. Yes, we did make some mistakes in the past, but we won’t repeat them. I can assure you that we have prepared hard and we will stretch ourselves to the limit to ensure things go our way at the World Cup.”
Arthur sounded the alarm over Pakistan’s fitness standards when he became a coach in 2016 and set a non-negotiable benchmark that has arguably become the defining feature of his time at the helm. Now, with three years of hard work finally being put to the test at a World Cup, he said he was delighted with the attitude of the players towards fitness, saying that every player was making impressive progress.
“We’ve got the base in terms of our fitness,” Arthur said. “All our players are at a level they need to be. For us now, the focus shifts onto skills and execution because we’ve done the hard work. Fitness doesn’t guarantee you success, but it guarantees you a better chance of recovery. We’ve got 20 games in the UK. We need to recover quickly and it gives you a better chance of runs and wickets, and we’re very happy that we’re well prepared in that department.”
For all the positive talk, the excitement has been dampened significantly by the news of Shadab Khan’s unavailability for the series against England. A virus is set to keep him out of action for at least four weeks, with ESPNcricinfo understanding he is a major doubt for the World Cup. The 20-year old is arguably the one player Pakistan don’t have a suitable replacement for, what with him being a world-class leg-spinner in addition to the ever-improving strides he is making as a batsman.
Yasir Shah replaces him for the ODIs against England, but a paucity of leg-spin options means he is also a front-runner to take Shadab’s spot at the World Cup, should it come to that. In the recently concluded series against Australia, Yasir took four wickets at just under 71 with an economy rate of 5.66, but Arthur said he saw signs of improvement as the series went on.
“We wanted a wrist spinner [for the England series],” Arthur said. “Wrist spinners are in vogue in cricket at the moment, all teams have good wrist spinners.
“The key for Yasir is to challenge both edges. If Yasir’s challenging both inside and outside edges of the bat, he becomes a different beast. If he only challenges the outside edge, players can line him up and hit him one side of the ground. That means he has to bowl his googly more often. In the UAE, the wickets were especially flat and didn’t turn. If we get on a wicket that just grips a little bit, Yasir is a bowler we still feel can be a weapon for us. But time will tell on whether we decide to pick him for the final World Cup squad.”
Sarfraz was candid on Pakistan’s plans for the batting order in England, saying he would bat in the top five, while calling Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik the “backbone of this team”, and revealing they would play together. That was a point of discussion among fans in Pakistan following the release of the World Cup squad, with concerns that a middle order comprising Babar Azam, Haris Sohail, Sarfraz, Hafeez and Malik would lack the necessary power hitting.
Asked whether he viewed his side as underdogs or favourites for the World Cup, Sarfaraz decided humour would be safer than hubris. “When we go as favourites, we stray into trouble,” he smiled. “We have a good team, but going with the underdog tag seems better.”
Pakistan open their tour of England with a match against Kent at Beckenham on Saturday.