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Can Pakistan remain consistent for once?

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Pakistan_Cricket_ODI_Test_T20In cricket, 2017 will always be the year of Team India. There was no doubt that they dominated throughout the year, across formats. The way India dominated in limited-overs was helped by the fact that they played the most number of matches: India and Sri Lanka were the only teams who played 29 ODIs. India won 21, while Sri Lanka had a terrible time as they managed to win only five.

India took part in six ODI series in 2017, three at home and three away, including the ICC Champions Trophy, which they lost in the final. India played five T20I series and won four of those, losing only the one-off T20I in the West Indies. India ended the year as the No. 1 Test side, South Africa ruled the ODI charts, while New Zealand topped the T20I charts.

One team ended the year rather more unsung. They had their lows (Test defeat to SL in UAE) but there were highs too and those moments came when no one expected them to deliver.

Yes, Pakistan.

They have always been a side which attracted more controversies than positivity. Even this year, a couple of their players were banned for various reasons. However, 2017 can be considered an exceptional year where the problematic incidents can be kept aside and attention should highlight their consistency in the white ball game. It all began in the lead up to the ICC Champions Trophy 2017 in England.

Fairy-tale CT 2017

They entered the tournament as the lowest-ranked of the eight teams. Their skipper had led them for just one series prior to this. They had a catastrophic start, losing to arch-rivals India in their opening match by 124 runs. But, gradually, Pakistan picked up. Their mix of experienced and young players gelled well as a unit and they crossed their first major hurdle by beating the No. 1 side, South Africa. Their next match, against Sri Lanka, was a must-win; a win would take them to the semi-final. Pakistan successfully chased down Sri Lanka's target of 237 after Sarfraz Ahmed’s wicket was dropped. He remained unbeaten to guide them home.

Pakistan next had England in between them and a place in the final. They had never won the Champions Trophy before. England were thus far unbeaten in the 2017 event and, as hosts, they were the favorites to win both the semi-final and the tournament. However, the young/experienced combination ensured Pakistan went through. The likes of Hasan Ali, Shadab Khan, Rumman Raees and Junaid Khan derailed the English attack at Cardiff, the ground where England had lost only twice since 2006. England were bundled out cheaply for 211 runs and Pakistan chased it down with eight wickets and 77 balls remaining.

Sarfraz & Co. had just marched into the final, fighting against the odds, where they once again faced the Indian team. Their awful 124-run defeat in the opening match would have haunted them. However, what followed was nothing like what was witnessed in that first encounter. Pakistan's new opener Fakhar Zaman scored an excellent century and fifties from former captain Azhar Ali and Mohammad Hafeez meant the Men in Green posted a huge total of 338 runs. If their batting seemed a standout performance for a crucial ICC final, their best was reserved for the next innings.

The world-class batting line-up of the Indian team trembled within first 20 minutes of the match. Mohammad Amir made vital, back-to-back breakthroughs in his first two overs, removing Rohit Sharma and Indian Captain Virat Kohli, which left India struggling at 6 for 2. After the No. 2 side slowly recovered from Amir's storming beginning, he struck once again and dismissed the other opener Shikhar Dhawan at 33 for 3. Eventually, the Indian team was humiliated as they were bowled out for a mere 158 runs.

For the lowest-ranked side, with an inexperienced skipper, the likes of Fakhar Zaman, Faheem Ashraf, and Rumman Raees chipped in with heroic stuff at different points during the series and all of them debuted during the Champions Trophy. In 2017, till the defeat against India, Pakistan had a win-loss ratio of 0.5 (3 wins, 6 defeats). After their defeat to India in the beginning of the ICC event, they won nine ODIs in a row, including a 5-0 whitewash against Sri Lanka.

Since Pakistan does not play matches at home, their away record gets better year after year whenever they are in rhythm. In 2017, Pakistan played four ODI series (including the CT 2017) and won three, only losing a series to Australia. Even in the shortest format, Pakistan had their shining moments. They featured in three series and won all of them.

Pakistan hosted the World XI that included the players from South Africa, Bangladesh, Australia, Sri Lanka and West Indies. The two sides locked horns in three T20Is for the Independence Cup trophy. The hosts won all three T20I matches to become the winners of the series.

New caps step up for Pakistan

While cricket returned to Pakistani soil, their newest players revived the game, at least in the limited-overs formats. In 2017, Pakistan gave out six ODI caps. One of them was teenage leg-spinner Shadab Khan. He finished the year with 19 wickets at 25.47 and an economy rate below 5. He has batted twice, has scored a fifty from No. 8 and is yet to be dismissed.

Fakhar Zaman's debut series will always be remembered for his maiden ODI ton in the final that helped his country lift its maiden Champions Trophy.

21-year-old southpaw Imam-ul-Haq, Pakistan legend Inzamam-Ul-Haq's nephew, made his ODI debut in the Sri Lanka series, announcing his arrival with a century. He is one of those rare cricketers who bats wearing spectacles - an unusual sight these days. He played three ODIs in 2017 and finished with 147 runs at an average of 70-plus.

Usman Khan, who played his first international match (T20I) as a 19-year-old in 2013, made his ODI debut in 2017. He took 5 for 34 in his second match, all batsmen in the top 6. At one point, his figures read 3.3-0-12-5.

Meanwhile, Hasan Ali, who was still new in the international arena, unleashed himself. He finished the year with more ODI wickets than anyone: 45 wickets. A fantastic average of 17.04 was the best for anyone with 20 or more wickets in 2017. He also became the ninth bowler to take 3 five-wicket hauls in a single season and ensured there were two Pakistanis on the top of ICC rankings at the end of 2017. While Hafeez finished as the No. 1 ODI all-rounder, Hasan still remains the No. 1 ODI bowler.

Can Pakistan, for once, be consistent?

With nine ODI wins in a row under their belt, Pakistan walked into the ODI series against New Zealand on Saturday. Despite their recent success, knowing Pakistan's graph over the years, there were no surprises when the team fell apart in no time while chasing 316 runs. The failure of their batsmen aside, their bowlers were out of rhythm too in the first innings. Mohammad Amir, Rumman Raees and World No. 1 Hasan Ali, all were thrashed by the Kiwi batsmen, led by skipper Kane Williamson who scored a fantastic century.

If Pakistan entered the chase with any hopes of doing well, they were shattered when Tim Southee trapped Azhar Ali and Babar Azam off successive deliveries, reducing the visitors to 7 for 2. Meanwhile, Trent Boult, the only bowler from the either side to move the ball, dismissed Mohammad Hafeez a few balls later to leave Pakistan miserable at 13 for 3. The first hour of Pakistan's innings involved only one player at the crease for more than a few minutes: Fakhar Zaman, who witnessed his teammates one after the other depart to the dugout.

Pakistan, the Champions Trophy winners, suddenly looked no different from the dismal West Indian side that was hammered across all formats by the Kiwis a while back. Considering Pakistan's exasperating inconsistency over the years, many would have already prepared themselves for something like this. Draining an advantage of a winning streak is not a new trend for Pakistan.

The rain gods ruined the fun for the hosts at Wellington, well on their way to a massive ODI victory. While the rain stopped the play midway through Pakistan's batting, enough balls were played to ensure New Zealand won the match, according to the D/L method.

As New Zealand is a fast/swing bowler’s paradise, Pakistan cannot be written off for the second ODI.

The last time Pakistan won an ODI series in New Zealand was seven years ago, when the side included the likes of Younis Khan, Shahid Afridi, Misbah Ul Haq and the Akmal brothers, among other old players. With them in the team, every Pakistan match was big a deal.

Prior to the current series between Pakistan and New Zealand, there has been no buzz at all, upstaged by big series like Ashes and India-South Africa.

However, if New Zealand and Pakistan perform up to their standards, the contest can turn high profile. The better Pakistan plays, the higher the chances of the world watching.

 

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