Having a reliable opening pair is no less than a boon for any team. Opening batting is difficult; the new ball is hard and swings if the conditions assists. In ODI cricket, teams like India, Australia and South Africa boasts of an effective and impactful opening pair. Pakistan, for a long now, have experimented too much at the top but not managed to find a prolific pair, which can garner runs on a consistent basis. But in Fakhar Zaman and Azhar Ali, they are not just seeing a ray but some bright hopes.
After a dismal show against India in their opening game, Pakistan bounced back emphatically in the tournament and made it to the final. They beat the tournament favourites England in the semis and sculpted a spot in the final for the first time since its inception in 2008. In their second encounter against South Africa, Pakistan handed a young and talented Fakhar Zaman the ODI cap. Zaman was brought into the side at the expense of Ahmed Shehzad, it was a gamble but it paid off. Zaman made an immediate impact with a brisk 31 against South Africa while chasing a modest target. He looked composed at the crease and pounced on anything offered in his zone. Any width offered, Zaman was onto it in a flash and didn’t shy away from pulling the short ones.
Azhar Ali perished early in the innings against South Africa but the duo added 40 runs at the top, with Zaman accounting for 31 runs out of it and being the first one to be dismissed. Although the southpaw got some quick runs against South Africa, but it wasn’t enough for him to justify his selection and needed to get a big score under his belt. In the contest against Sri Lanka, which was also a do-or-die encounter, Zaman once again came out all guns blazing and got his team off to a flyer. While chasing a target of 237, Zaman scored a quick half-century and put up a 74 runs stand at the top alongside Azhar Ali. The latter got a good start but floundered on 34.
Pakistan suffered a dramatic batting collapse in the middle and the partnership between Azhar and Zaman was the second best from Pakistan’s innings, which eventually turned out to be crucial. Zaman’s fifty contained eight boundaries and a solitary six. His brisk knock also gave Azhar Ali enough time to settle down and get his eyes in. Pakistan chased down the total riding on Mohammad Amir and Sarfraz Ahmed’s match-winning partnership but the openers also did a commendable job.
Then came the crucial encounter against England, which was the first semi-final. Pakistan had a target of 212 in order to advance to the final. Zaman once again took charge and this time Azhar Ali too stepped up. They added 118-runs at the top after Zaman was dismissed for a determined 57. Azhar Ali went on to score a tenacious 76 and the foundation for a successful run-chase was laid by the openers. The duo batted with total composure and calmness on a pitch, where English batsmen struggled to get going.
Zaman and Azhar Ali rotated the strike well and scored boundaries off the loose deliveries. They placed their innings sensibly and their 118-runs stand was also the first century partnership by an opening pair barring Rohit Sharma-Shikhar Dhawan in the history of Champions Trophy since 2009. Eventually, Pakistan chased down the target with ease and won the game by eight wickets riding on the prolific opening stand.
Prior to Zaman’s One-Day International (ODI) debut, Zaman boasted of a magnificent List A average of 50.46. He made his way into the side on the basis of some incredible batting performances in the tournament. The duo of Azhar Ali and Fakhar Zaman has worked well for Pakistan so far and they both are unique in their own way. Zaman is more of an aggressive batsman, who loves to take on the bowlers while Azhar Ali is more of a conventional one, who likes to bid his time at the crease.
Pakistan have tried a lot of opening pairs at the top. In their recently ended tour to West Indies, Pakistan had Ahmed Shehzad and Kamran Akmal at the top, which worked for them in the first game but didn’t get runs in the next two. And in their tour to Australia before that, Pakistan tried the combinations of Azhar Ali-Sharjeel Khan and Mohammad Hafeez-Sharjeel Khan at the top but didn’t achieve fruitful results. Only Hafeez and Sharjeel Khan managed to get the biggest stand of 68 in the second game but nothing noteworthy other than that.
In three games so far, the pair of Azhar Ali and Fakhar Zaman has looked good and done a decent job for the side. They have evolved with every outing and their numbers are on a rise with every game. They have just peaked at the right time and with final of the game jus few days away, it will be interesting to see how the pair respond to the big match pressure. Pakistan didn’t stand even the minutest chance of making it to the final but they have done the unexpected. They will now play arch-rivals India in the final and if the duo manages to get another emphatic start, Pakistan will certainly find themselves in a good position. India have one of the strongest bowling attacks in the tournament and this will be a good contest.
The duo have accounted for 40, 74 and 118 runs in three games respectively, which is a good indication. As of now, it will be too early to say if Pakistan have found a reliable opening pair in Zaman and Ali. But they certainly look promising and if the pair continues to play like they have in three games so far, they will surely gain confidence and evolve as a reliable one.