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Pakistan’s fairytale victory in the Champions Trophy in the summer of 2017 was achieved at a time when not many experts gave them a realistic chance of making it past the group stage.
This rise in stature of Pakistan’s ODI outfit was scripted on the back of some heroic performances by a group of talented yet inexperienced youngsters led by the likes of opening batsman Fakhar Zaman.
Fakhar’s century in the Champions Trophy final against arch-rivals India turned the game at The Oval in his side’s favour and set him up for a fruitful international career.
A surprise selection for Pakistan’s Test squad for the tour of Ireland and England, Fakhar, who has been regarded as a limited overs specialist, now has a new challenge ahead of him. True to his fearless style of batting, the opening batsman is unfazed about this new stage in his career.
“Cricket is played with the same kind of ball and bat around the world so there is nothing special about the challenge of playing in different formats as long as you have the skills.
“The main thing about Test cricket is that you have to adjust your game according to the match situation. I will have to do this to be successful in Test cricket and I will rein in my shots and, yes, if the situation demands it, and I feel confident about it, I will go in to my normal aggressive mode of cricket.”
The experts and media’s reaction to Fakhar’s selection for Tests has been one of surprise as many feel that he does not have the wherewithal to play this format.
It is a notion he is quick to dispel, saying: “To all those who have been critical of my selection for Tests, I will simply ask them to spend their time in praying for my success. Obviously, everyone has their own opinion and it is possible that in their view I am not suited for Tests, but only time will tell. If I succeed in this format, it will not only be great for Pakistan but even those critics will feel good about it.”
Pakistan head coach Mickey Arthur’s popularity ratings in Pakistan shot up by astronomical levels after his side took possession of the Champions Trophy but the losses to New Zealand in ODIs as well as the whitewash in UAE by Sri Lanka in Tests have subsequently made him a figure of some criticism.
Fakhar, on the contrary, believes that it is exactly the much-maligned management style of Arthur which has brought and will continue to bring stunning successes to Pakistan.
“I have been playing cricket at various levels for about ten years and I have yet to work under the guidance of a coach like Mickey who looks after his players so well. For Mickey, there is no effort below 100 per cent which a player should be giving for the team.
“I feel that the credit for the excellent performances by youngsters in our current team belongs solely to Mickey. This is because due to his guidance, there is simply no place for being lax about our job and we are always focused on giving our best for Pakistan. If it was up to me, I would like to play my whole career with Mickey Arthur as my coach.”
Whilst Pakistan have generally been good travellers to England, playing two Tests in early summer conditions where the ball will swing and seam prodigiously will be a huge test of resolve for a largely inexperienced batting line-up but Fakhar feels that Pakistan’s bowling may come to their rescue.
“Looking at our bowling strength, even our opponents will think twice before preparing wickets which could favour us as well. So, the seam and swing will not be a problem for us alone but will also affect the English batsmen. This is something our coaching staff have been paying attention to during our preparations with usage of the Dukes ball.
“I feel that we have prepared well for whatever conditions we will encounter during our time in Ireland and England.”
The scenes during the last Test at the Oval in 2016 when a beaming Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan, together with the rest of the Pakistan squad, did a victory lap after drawing the four-match series are now consigned to history books.
The retirements of those two stalwarts have brought concerns that the new and inexperienced batting line-up will struggle against England.
To Fakhar, the emergence of fresh new talent, however, should go a long way in alleviating any concerns about the gap left by their departures.
“We definitely have the batting talent which can fill the gap left by these two great batsmen. It is very normal in all sides that players retire and are then replaced by other able players,” he said.
“If you look at the newer members of our Test squad like Saad Ali or Usman Salahuddin, you will see that they have been selected after some excellent domestic performances and have good first-class records.
“It is our hope that our youngsters will not let us feel the absence of those retired players.”
Whilst Fakhar may feel confident about his side’s chances in the upcoming Test series against England, it is a fact that the likes of James Anderson and Stuart Broad will be more than a handful for Pakistan’s batsmen to handle on their own turf. But if Fakhar’s infectious optimism is to be believed, the preparations made by Pakistan ahead of this tour should see them tackle head-on the challenge posed by the English pace duo.
He said: “As far as Anderson and Broad are concerned, they will probably be a handful on their own pitches and we have been watching a few videos of them. As the time to face them draws nearer, we will study their videos in more detail to understand their strengths and weaknesses and work out a strategy to play them.
“I am convinced that we have the batting strength to not only play both of these bowlers well, but also to put up big scores against them.”