On Friday morning, at the Sher-e-Bangla stadium, the Pakistan team had a kickabout ahead of their net session. On the sidelines, Shahid Afridi gingerly lowered himself onto a chair inside the team tent. Then, after the players were sufficiently warmed up and the cricket session started, Afridi eased himself up and walked off the training ground with Pakistan team physio Richard Feher by his side and an ice pack in his hands.
If Afridi was disappointed on missing out on training, it would pale next to what Pakistan’s management would feel if the all-rounder’s hip flexor doesn’t heal in time for the final.
Afridi is uncertain for Saturday’s final as he is carrying what team officials say is a grade one injury. He jarred the muscle during Pakistan’s last match against Bangladesh and was clearly limping when he was run out to a direct hit, attempting a sharp single. Afridi has since been under the physio’s surveillance and while he had said on Wednesday that he was confident of playing, there is no guarantee of that happening. As such, the question on everybody’s mind’s is whether he can make it.
The official reaction, however, is guarded.
“We will assess his situation tomorrow morning and will take a call,” said team manager Zakir Khan. However, even if Afridi is not hundred percent, the temptation to play Pakistan’s biggest match-winner would be massive. Without his 18-ball 34 not out against India and 25-ball 59 against Bangladesh, the defending Asia Cup champions would have been back home by now.
While Afridi’s may appear to be the most pressing injury concern for Pakistan, it isn’t the only one. Opener Ahmed Shehzad, who struck a century in Pakistan’s record chase against Bangladesh three days ago, is nursing a left shoulder injury. His partner Sharjeel Khan, however, is recovering well from a leg injury that ruled him out of the Bangladesh game. Among the bowlers, pacer Umar Gul has a stiff back.
‘Plan B in place’
But captain Misbah-ul-Haq is keeping a brave front. “We have back-up plans. Obviously, the replacements won’t be like Afridi but they can do the job for us,” he said. If the injuries take their toll and if Pakistan do lose players for the final, they will clearly be underdogs against a side who have reached the final with an all-win record in the group stage.
Beyond the injury concerns, three factors might decide the outcome of the final. These would be the spin contest between Saeed Ajmal and Ajantha Mendis; how well Pakistan’s batting tackles Lasith Malinga and finally whether Kumar Sangakkara continues his good form.
The spin duel first. The 36-year-old Ajmal has been concentrating on his economy this tournament and has picked eight wickets while giving away just 4.51 an over, despite bowling many spells at the death. Mendis, on the other hand, is on a comeback trail and he, too,has had a successful outing so far, picking up nine wickets from three matches at an economy rate of 4.84.
The last time the two teams played — in the group stage — Pakistan lost the match essentially to Malinga’s death-overs bowling. At 242 for four in the 43rd over chasing 297, they were in cruise control. Then Malinga changed everything with a five wicket burst over 14 deliveries as Pakistan fell12 runs short. Pakistan like to build their innings upfront to allow them a late charge. It would be interesting to see if they change their plans as a counter-ploy to the Malinga-factor.
Sangakkara is the highest scorer of the tournament with 248 runs, including a century and two half-centuries. The Sri Lankan master will once again mark his guard with the intention to bat through the innings.
Spare a thought for Mahela Jayawardene as well. The experienced middle-order batsman is going through a form slump with just 36 runs in four matches. In three of the four games, the fall of his wicket has triggered a collapse. Sri Lanka need him to get into the groove to hold together the middle order.
Pakistan have won the Asia Cup four times and Sri Lanka have won it twice. But this is a new game and at Sher-e-Bangla National Cricket Stadium; they’ve prepared a new pitch for the final which looks like it may not support the spinners as much as in the previous games. Unfortunately, the final may not be played out in front of a big crowd. Bangladesh is still in mourning over their team’s limp show.
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Pakistan will continue to get better, says Abbas
Despite his official designation as Pakistan’s chief cricket consultant, Zaheer Abbas doesn’t have a problem offering advice to the young Indian batsmen, should they approach him. And ask Mohammad Azharuddin and Sourav Ganguly, and they will doff their hats to the Pakistan legend. Both had sought him out for help during their playing days and were immensely benefited. In an interview with The Indian Express, Abbas spoke about his new role, managing Shahid Afridi and Indian batting. Excerpts:
What’s the role of a consultant?
My job is to detect the problems and try to resolve them as soon as possible. Pakistan batting has had its shortcomings. There’s room for improvement. But the process has started and things have already improved. We will continue to get better, but it will take some time. So it’s a challenge which I’m thoroughly enjoying. It’s a great challenge for me to show some knowledge. The boys need to understand each and everything, and they’re doing so. So far the results are good. It’s an exam everyday but the whole process will take a year or so. The way we are progressing, I’m very hopeful.
Is it tough to work in a completely different cricket culture as the game has changed so much from your era?
Nothing has changed, if you ask me. You still have to bat for 50 overs. And if you’re able to bat for the full 50 overs, you improve your chances of winning. It’s a matter of keeping the scoreboard ticking. The main thing is to take singles.
So there’s no generation gap?
Why generation gap? We were part of the Packer revolution. We were the first set of players to use coloured clothing and white ball. Things change with time. You have to keep pace.
Why are you so averse to playing lofted shots?
The basic idea about playing your shots in cricket is to find the gaps. It’s not that they’re barred from playing lofted shots. I’ve suggested them to play every ball on its merit. If you spend some time in the middle, you can improvise. You can play lap shots and ramp shots, or whatever you like. But you’ve to follow a simple rule to score runs — make the most of the bad balls and respect the good ones.
You must be happy to see Shahid Afridi back in form. Any specific advice for him?
Afridi is a confidence player. All he needs is an arm around his shoulder. He usually bats in the last 10 overs. I just keep telling him, if you give yourself a little bit of time, no harm done.