In his exclusive blog for PakPassion.net, Yasir Arafat writes about Pakistan's successful Champions Trophy Campaign, the brave selection decisions by the Pakistan team management during the tournament, Azhar Mahmood's role behind the superior performances of Pakistan's fast-bowlers, Sarfraz Ahmed's captaincy and the measures which can be taken to prevent injury to the fast-bowlers.
By Yasir Arafat (1st July, 2017)
Pakistan Champions Trophy Victory against all expectations
Let me start by congratulating Pakistan on a fantastic performance and victory in the Champions Trophy. To be honest, I and many others did not rate Pakistan’s chances or expected them to lift the trophy at The Oval. A few months ago, we were all wondering if we could even qualify for this tournament with the West Indies and Pakistan involved in a neck-to-neck race to earn enough points in the ICC ODI rankings. At one point, it appeared that both teams were vying to play worse cricket than each other but thanks to the Almighty we were able to garner enough points to qualify due to good focus shown by the team.
The defeat against India was a blessing in disguise
Once the tournament was underway, there was still no indication that the team would attain so much success, especially if you look at how we performed against India in the opening game. Whilst the margin and manner of defeat to India was very disheartening, there was one positive aspect of that defeat which helped Pakistan for the rest of the tournament. It was a blessing in disguise as once the team was able to bear the mental pressure of this game, the rest of the games became less difficult. With this mental hurdle crossed and the experience of that disappointment behind them, the Pakistan team was able to gather itself and defeat the number one ranked ODI team in South Africa and the tournament favourites England. Of course, the extraordinarily confident manner in which Pakistan competed against India in the final was for all to see as well.
Pakistan team management were spot on with the changes to the team
Obviously, it wasn’t just the mental side of the game but also some tactical changes in the shape of personnel changes that helped Pakistan in their quest to win the Champions Trophy. One important change was the introduction of Fakhar Zaman at the top of the order that completely changed our batting outlook. It gave a positive intent to our batting and this was something missing in our batting for a while especially as Ahmed Shehzad’s performance was lagging a bit and did not do justice to his reputation as an aggressive player. In total, Pakistan debuted three youngsters and this was a hugely bold step in a major tournament. If you compare Pakistan with the rest of the teams in the tournament, you will see that we were the only team brave enough to put our faith in new players. Thankfully, all of our debutants excelled with their performances and in that regard, I would like to single out Faheem Ashraf as he showed great skills during his game against Sri Lanka. If he continues to work on his batting skills, he can become an excellent all-rounder which is great for the future of Pakistan cricket.
Mohammad Amir’s performance at the Champions Trophy was key to our victoryThere was a lot of pressure on Amir to perform after his comeback to international cricket. It started with the tour of England in 2016 where he was very unlucky to have catches dropped off him and seemed to continue through the tours of New Zealand and Australia. In fact, it got to the point during the recent tour of the West Indies that there were rumours that Amir would give up Test cricket to concentrate on the shorter formats of the game. There was also relentless pressure from some quarters in the media on him to perform although people seemed to have forgotten how well he did in the 2016 Asia Cup. To me, Amir is the same bowler we always had but there is a period of five years which he lost where he obviously played no cricket and which he has to make up for. Coming to the Champions Trophy, Mohammad Amir’s contribution to Pakistan’s victory was immense. He put in a valuable batting performance with Sarfraz Ahmed in that crucial game against Sri Lanka and then when it came to the final, he delivered those hefty blows to the Indian batting line-up which contributed heavily to the Pakistan victory. To me Amir is back to his best and has done a great job for his side during the Champions Trophy and I would like him to continue to be focused and perform in the same manner for the future as well.Negative and ill-informed journalism destroying careersLet me start by saying that some of the so-called experts who sit on TV shows or also write in the media are responsible for destroying promising careers of many players. They sit in the comfort of TV studios or behind their computer screens and declare players as injured or too old to play and so on. We need to control this type of negative journalism as it discourages senior and newer players. The journalists, those from Pakistan, should understand that these are our players and undermining their confidence is not beneficial for our team in the long run. It’s easy to make an off-hand negative statement about a cricketer but what people should realise is that it affects the confidence of the player and can set him back quite badly.Junaid Khan defied critics and made a great impactJunaid’s involvement in Pakistan’s Champions Trophy campaign was key for the team’s eventual success in the tournament. He is no stranger to good performances and he had some memorable spells recently in the tour of Australia as well. The fact is that players like Junaid who have always had the skills and talent, sometimes they just need encouragement from all of us to perform for the country. He bowled his heart out for the country and picked crucial wickets during the Champions Trophy. I hope people, including the experts, have learnt their lesson about undue criticism and writing-off players just because they have had one or two bad games in the past.Hasan Ali’s rise to the top has been phenomenalI have been watching Hasan since his first appearance in the PSL in 2016 when he was considered an emerging talent. Ever since that time, he has continued to impress and improve himself in every game he has played. His attitude, focus and energy is such that it appears that he wants to take a wicket every ball he bowls and when he is fielding, he wants every ball to come to him so that he can make an impact. This is the type of cricketer that our team has always needed and we are fortunate to have him within our ranks. If he can work a little more on his batting then he can do a lot of damage to the opposition as part of the late-middle-order and be counted as a good all-rounder for Pakistan.Rumman Raees’s skills have been impressiveTo walk into a semi-final of a major tournament to replace a bowler like Mohammad Amir, and also take wickets is something Rumman Raees did against England and that was impressive to say the least. I have seen him bowl in domestic cricket and also in the PSL and his skills are fantastic. He is the perfect example of the type of a skilled bowler that is needed in the shorter formats of the game as he can bowl bouncers, yorkers and slower-balls with ease. His confidence was such that when he came on to bowl in the match against England, it appeared that this was a bowler with 50-60 match ODI experience behind him. He did not bowl like someone making a debut for his country in a crunch game. To me, he has all the qualities that an international cricketer must have to represent his country and Pakistan are genuinely lucky to have him in their line-up.Sarfraz Ahmed’s captaincyOne of the key factors in Pakistan’s success revolved around the excellent leadership of their captain, Sarfraz Ahmed. As a radio commentator during the semi-final and final of the Champions Trophy, I had the honour to meet with Sarfraz and to see first-hand what a humble human-being and a dedicated captain he is. Apart from his fine character, he is aggressive in his approach to the game and he has plenty of experience in captaining sides and it showed during the tournament. He lead the Pakistan Under-19 side to a World Cup triumph and also has captained domestic sides with great success. In short, he has all the qualities of a good captain. Above all, he also puts in good performances with the gloves and bat as a captain which is all the motivation that his team needs to up their own game. Workload and injury preventionIt is quite worrying that fast-bowlers and players in general are getting injured far-quicker than what it used to be in the past. One reason could be the frequency and the fast-paced nature of games especially in the Twenty20 format. Regardless of the reasons for injury, it is important that each player looks after himself as per plans provided by the coaching staff but also looks at his own workload and the amount of cricket he plays when not representing his country. I recently had a chat with Hasan Ali where he mentioned the fact that he could be playing County cricket in England next year. My advice to him was simply to focus on the fact that he has to play for Pakistan in all formats of the game. That required him to save his energy for playing for his country and if he were to play in County cricket, then he would end up playing quite a few games and that would increase the chances of injury. What our players need to do is to pick and choose the types and number of games they have to play in a year without losing focus on their international duties. What is most important is the amount of rest and recovery time between games which will prevent unnecessary wear and tear on their bodies. Of course, if a cricketer is not playing enough international games in a year then they can balance the load by playing county cricket which is an education in itself.Azhar Mahmood’s phenomenal work with the bowlers has paid offWe have a habit of dumping blame on the coaches when the team does not perform well but the players seem to get the glory when they win matches or trophies. In light of our victory, it is very important that we recognise what Azhar Mahmood has achieved with the Pakistan fast-bowlers and we saw proof at the Champions Trophy that he has been excellent in his role as the bowling coach. To those who had shown impatience with Azhar’s work, let me say that coaching any player whether young or old, is a lengthy and complex process. One cannot judge the effectiveness of a coach from just one series or a few matches. If we recall that Azhar Mahmood took on this assignment during a tough series against New Zealand and Australia and he was the subject of some very unnecessary criticism. People even stooped to the level of talking about his salary and that he was not even based in Pakistan. I found that strange to be honest as on one hand, it was said that retired cricketers do not give back to their country and when someone like Azhar was making that effort, he was being put down for not living in Pakistan. In fact, hours of TV programs made by Pakistani channels were being devoted to such embarrassing criticism about Azhar. What these so-called experts did not bother thinking about was that Azhar Mahmood had served his country and since then had played county cricket as well as league cricket around the world and was a qualified Level-3 coach as well. It is such a great opportunity for our upcoming youngsters to have an experienced coach who can teach them about the modern trends in One-Day and Twenty20 games. The reason Azhar can do that as the current results show, is because he has himself played and gone through the same process. It is, then, easy for him to teach that to the Pakistan bowlers with the results speaking for themselves.Mohammad Hafeez unsung hero of the Champions TrophyIf there is one cricketer who I feel has been very unfairly dealt with by our fans and media then that has to be Mohammad Hafeez. He has been the subject of scathing criticism which has been unreasonable most of the time. Hafeez’s performances in the Champions Trophy have been excellent and when he was not scoring runs, he was contributing with the ball. And for those who still don’t see what value he brought to the team, just look at how well he performed in both the games against England and India. In the semi-final, he put in a valuable 31* to take Pakistan home in their run chase. Whilst the Pakistan victory in the final against India was made of some fantastic performances by Fakhar Zaman and Mohammad Amir, not many could deny the fact that without Hafeez’s 57*, Pakistan would have not put up the 338 runs which ultimately proved too much for a much-celebrated Indian batting line-up.PCB and inquiry committeesThere was news which was later denied by the PCB that a committee had been formed to investigate the defeat against India in the opening game of the Champions Trophy. Whereas, nothing came of that news or committee, the fact that the rumour had started seemed to indicate that there was some support for that course of action within the PCB. One wonders why the PCB would have even contemplated such an action during the tournament? Did South Africa, Sri Lanka, England and India also think of forming such committees? If there is a lesson that Sarfraz Ahmed and his men have taught the administrators, it has to be that the PCB needs to learn to trust its own teams and not treat them like criminals if they lose one game. It’s great that the players are being feted as heroes after their victory by the PCB now but they really should handle their players with respect and not subject them to public humiliation in that fashion when things are not going right.