Pakistan are a team which have an element of surprise around them and are known to turn the tide when cornered. A year ago, marred by the infamous spot-fixing scandal, it appeared Pakistan cricket's downfall had started. But their players showed their character and bounced back to script a series of impressive wins, most notably a 3-0 Test whitewash of England in the UAE.
By beating the No. 1 Test team, Pakistan got an elixir to leave behind all criticism and shame. After the Test series followed the one-dayers against England, but England set the score equal by clinching the series 4-0. What followed is quite common in the subcontinent: the swords were drawn and the team was berated, performances put under scrutiny.
Now the Asia Cup - to be held in Bangladesh from March 11 - gives Pakistan a chance to prove to their detractors that their recent resurgence was not a fluke. With the experienced Dav Whatmore appointed as coach, Pakistan are strong contenders for the Asia Cup title.
Shahid Afridi remains Pakistan's most mercurial player, captain or not. In 2011, he took 45 wickets from 27 matches – including leading Pakistan to the Word Cup semi-finals – while scoring 462 runs at 22. His batting hasn't clicked much in recent times, but his whippish legspin has been immense for the team. On the slow and low tracks of Bangladesh, Afridi will be a major threat to the opposition. Mohammad Hafeez's all-round game has helped Pakistan win games over the past year and he too is a vital player with bat and ball. At the top order, Asad Shafiq offers stability with a bit of dash.
As the Asia Cup is being played in Bangladesh this time, Pakistan will surely relish the subcontinental conditions and this will play an important factor in their campaign. Pakistan's real strength is their bowling attack comprising of Umar Gul, Wahab Riaz and the spin duo of Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman. Moreover, the return of Afridi has given them more bowling options and added to that, their opener Hafeez can be deadly with his offspinners in spinner-friendly conditions.
Pakistan's pace attack led by Gul is doing a decent job and more importantly, what has been impressive about this team is that they are playing as a unit. Misbah-ul-Haq as captain has showed maturity, sharpness and patience to deal with success and failure. He is not bogged down by pressure and the players have accepted him as their able leader. Another aspect that holds Pakistan in good stead is their fielding, which will go one notch above with the appointment of foreign coaching staff.
For Pakistan, the matter of concern is their batting; the openers have not always given the right kind of start and their middle order isn't always capable of sustaining in case of top-order collapse. The veteran Younis Khan and Misbah in the middle order bring some sense of assurance.
However, in the four ODIs against England, it was the batting which failed Pakistan. Before the start of the Asia Cup, the batsmen would desperately want to regain their form in order to bring back balance to their side. The form of Hafeez, Younis and Umar Akmal are matters of concern, though Misbah's show with the bat has been consistent.
Pakistan have played Bangladesh nine times in the Asia Cup, winning each of these matches. In 10 face-offs with India in the Asia Cup, Pakistan have come up trumps four times, with four losses, one abandoned game and one match ending without a result. They have had the least success against Sri Lanka, winning just three of 11 Asia Cup matches since 1984.
What can trump Pakistan v India? This match, scheduled for March 18, will be the most anticipated of the series, and based on the way these two teams faced off in the World Cup quarter-final last year, expect fireworks. A tigerish Pakistan bowling performance in Mohali could have knocked India out except for Sachin Tendulkar’s chancy 85 and a late cameo from Suresh Raina, and chasing a stiff target, Pakistan failed to hold their nerve. Afridi has said the upcoming clash is not about revenge, but when have Pakistan shied away from India?
Happy hunting ground?
It sure is, for Pakistan have won five of six matches at Mirpur's Shere Bangla National Stadium. Those wins have included success over India in 2008 and a crucial World Cup quarter-final rout of West Indies last April.
Though they are coming off a 4-0 ODI defeat to England, Pakistan remain a challenging team because of their experience of the conditions and their strong bowling attack. If the top order fires in unison, a strong target is a definite possibility. The team's challenge lies in maintaining their consistency over a span of ten days.
Misbah-ul-Haq (capt), Mohammad Hafeez, Nasir Jamshed, Younis Khan, Umar Akmal, Hammad Azam, Asad Shafiq, Shahid Afridi, Azhar Ali, Sarfraz Ahmed (wk), Saeed Ajmal, Abdur Rehman, Umar Gul, Aizaz Cheema, Wahab Riaz.