Mickey Arthur has dismissed India’s thrashing of Pakistan in the group stages of the Champions Trophy as “an aberration” and insisted his side have the bowling to “expose” India’s middle order.
The two sides contest the final of the competition in London on Sunday with Arthur, the Pakistan coach, encouraged both by the progress of his younger players and the way in which they have bounced back from that 124-run defeat in their first game in Birmingham.
And while he accepts India are “a fantastic team” who have the advantage of more “exposure to massive pressure situations”, he is confident his side will not suffer a repeat of the big match nerves which appeared to afflict them in the earlier match.
To that end, the focus of Pakistan’s preparation has changed a little. Whereas, before the Edgbaston game, their attention was largely on India – what to expect and how to beat them – they have now decided it is better to concentrate on their own strengths rather than lingering over the details of the daunting challenge that awaits.
“The way the players have dragged themselves off the canvas after the beating at Edgbaston was amazing,” Arthur said. “After the defeat against India, we had some honest conversations and the guys took it on the chin. It’s great to get to the final after where we were and credit goes to the players who have been outstanding the way they’ve prepared. I don’t think we’ve exceeded expectations at all.
“We dissected India a lot before the game at Edgbaston and we’ve sort of backtracked a little bit. Now we’re sort of solidifying what we did really well, confirming what we’ve done well and building on that. So this match is going to be about us rather than the opposition. We’ve made the focus us as a team.”
One of those strengths is their seam bowling. In Hasan Ali they have the tournament’s highest wicket-taker (10), while Junaid Khan is not far behind (seven). Mohammad Amir has recovered from a back spasm and is expected to share the new ball with Junaid.
While they will be up against an impressive batting line-up – India’s openers, Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, are the two highest run-scorers in the tournament, while Virat Kohli is fifth – Arthur hopes they can claim early wickets which he believes can “expose” a potential weakness.
“Our strength has been the ability to take wickets,” Arthur said. “We’ve been able to take wickets consistently through the middle periods.
“If we can get amongst them with the new ball, we can expose the middle order that hasn’t batted much this competition. That’s pretty much our aim and focus.
“We can restrict them or defend against them. We have the attack to do that, providing we can strike up front.”
There are a couple of potential flaws in that plan. The first is that, while Pakistan’s attack has taken more wickets than any other team in the competition – 31 – they have taken very few – just two – in the first Powerplay. They are, in this match, up against a side who have lost just one wicket in the first Powerplay all tournament and who have posted four century stands between them. So while the aim of claiming early wickets is sensible, it is a great deal easier said than done. Especially on what is expected to be an excellent batting surface.
The other flaw in the plan is that, while it is true that the likes of Hardik Pandya, Kedar Jhadav and MS Dhoni have not scored many runs in this competition, it is largely because they have hardly batted due to the prolific form of the top three. In the few opportunities they have had, they have looked impressively fluent. Dhoni made 63 (from 52 deliveries) in his only innings against Sri Lanka, while Pandya (29 from 11) and Jhadav (25 from 13) have batted selflessly and effectively.
To focus on such factors might well be negative, however, and one of the key changes in Pakistan’s outlook since that first match is increased positivity. Out have gone two of the more experienced players – Wahab Riaz, who is injured, and Ahmed Shehzad, who has been dropped – and in their place have come youngsters who are unscarred by previous setbacks and are apparently fearless about the occasion or the opposition.
So while Kohli may have forgotten more caps than Shadab Khan (six caps), Faheem Ashraf (one), Fakhar Zaman (three), Rumman Rees (one) can boast between them, Arthur believes the fear that anxiety that stifled the team ahead of that first game has been replaced by a sense of excitement ahead of the final. And whatever happens on Sunday, he believes that bodes well for Pakistan’s future and the 2019 World Cup, in particular.
“The youngsters have been great,” Arthur said. “They’ve come in with no fear of failure. They’ve come in committed to the way we want to play our cricket. Every one of the youngsters that have come in made an impact straight away. That’s a real confirmer for us. They’ve been outstanding.
“I guess what it does is solidify the direction we want to move in. That’s the most important thing for us. But it also gives us an insight into the thinking of these younger players, and to see them come in and be very, very brave and very committed to the way we want to play our cricket has been very, very refreshing for all of us.
“The guys are under no illusion as to what the expectation is on them, but they’re genuinely excited. I said before the Edgbaston game, I thought they were really, really calm, but they’re very, very excited now, and there’s a hell of a good vibe in that dressing room.
“The focus after the final is certainly going to be on the 2019 World Cup. It’s going to be about creating a squad and some depth so that we can come here in 2019 and give it a shake. But it will also be about buying into the way we want to play our game. This will just be a nice confirmer for the players that we’re definitely on the right track.”
He does feel, however, that his players’ progress would be accelerated if they had more opportunity to play in “high-pressure” situations. While India’s players benefit from their experience in the IPL, Pakistan’s players – who are not currently involved in the IPL – have only recently had their own comparable domestic T20 competition in which to gain such experiences. As a result, Pakistan are now “catching up with the rest of the world”.
“I think one of the differences between the sides has been exposure,” Arthur said. “Exposure to massive pressure situations.
“Let’s be under no illusion: India are a fantastic cricket team at the moment. They’re going in the right direction. They’re playing some brilliant cricket. But exposure to high-pressure situations is what India have had above Pakistan.
“The PCB has changed that a little bit now with the PSL, which has been a very successful competition. That exposes more and more young players to pressure situations, and I think the more we can expose our guys to those situations, the better results we will get.
“We can see our style and method catching up with the rest of the world because we’re being exposed to it now. In the PSL we’re getting all our top players rubbing shoulders with some of the best players around the world, so that is rubbing off on our cricket now, which is filling a void that had existed for a period of time.”