This article first appeared on DAWN.
Pakistan were well and truly hammered in the 5th ODI against Sri Lanka but it must not overshadow what was a remarkable series win in the Island after 9 years.
This was also Pakistan's first ODI series win against a top eight side since December 2013. Yes, Pakistan had gone on for a year and a half without winning a bilateral ODI series against a what can be termed a ‘top tier’ team.
There is no reason why the players and fans should not rejoice this victory. For a long time we had been witnessing an under achieving Pakistan ODI team. During this series we all witnessed some of the best ODI cricket Pakistan has played in the past few years. At least in terms of their batting.
With the series won 3-2 and the Zimbabwe tri-series not going ahead as proposed earlier, Pakistan has also sealed a berth in the Champions Trophy 2017 (assuming West Indies don't play any ODIs till 30th September). After being whitewashed 3-0 at the hands of Bangladesh and facing potential exclusion from the Champions Trophy, this ODI series win could not have come at a better time for Pakistan.
Despite the convincing run, there has been plenty of noise from some skeptical fans who are under the illusion that Pakistan won this series only because they were up against a significantly weakened Sri Lankan team.
These fans could not be more wrong.
Surely the retirement of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene has left a massive hole in the Sri Lankan team, but the team that took on Pakistan in the ODI series was not inexperienced. Definitely not when compared to the Pakistan ODI team.
Compare the batting line ups of the two teams and you will realise that Sri Lanka's top 7 have played almost double the number ODIs and scored almost double the number of runs than Pakistan's top 7. In fact, Tillakaratne Dilshan alone has scored 75% of the runs that Pakistan's top 7 have scored on a collective basis!
Similarly, comparing the bowling line ups of both the teams shows that Lasith Malinga and Thisara Perera, individually, have played more ODIs and picked up more wickets than Pakistan's entire bowling attack. There is no comparison between the experience of the two bowling attacks. It is quite clear which team was the inexperienced one out there.
If Sri Lanka were hampered due to the absence of their two batting stalwarts, what about Pakistan? Were they not hampered by the absence of Misbah-ul-Haq and Shahid Afridi, their two most experienced ODI cricketers of recent times?
Moreover, do not forget that Angelo Matthews has captained Sri Lanka in thrice as many ODIs than Azhar Ali has even played in his career.
Azhar Ali entered the series having lost his two premier pacers to injury and his premier spinner to a changed and ineffective action. Furthermore, he even lost the bowling services of Mohammad Hafeez, one of Pakistan's most effective limited overs bowler, to a ban on his action in the middle of the series.
Sri Lanka was clearly the more ‘stable’ but in the end it boiled down to better execution of plans and skills.
Pakistan excelled in batting and fielding, two facets of their ODI cricket that had constantly failed them over the past few years. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Pakistan played some of their best and most consistent ODI cricket in five years to win a series that not many gave them a chance to.
The effort cannot be discounted by illogical reasons like “Sri Lanka was playing their most inexperienced side ever”. If anyone was playing an inexperienced side, it was Pakistan.
Another reason being cited for Sri Lanka's loss is their players' sudden drop in form.
Does anyone think that Pakistan won their ODI series in India (2012) and South Africa (2013), the only two ODI achievements in Misbah's 4-year tenure as captain, were achieved because Kohli, Gambhir, Sehwag, Yuvraj, Raina, Amla, Smith, AB, and Kallis were out of form? Not at all. Those victories were achieved because Junaid and Irfan bowled beautifully and made those batsmen look like rabbits for the most part of each series.
Similarly, Pakistan's batsmen, namely Hafeez, Shehzad, Malik, Rizwan, Sarfraz, and Azhar himself batted brilliantly in this series against Sri Lanka and made their bowling attack look pedestrian. Pakistan have not batted in this manner in an ODI series for a long time; and definitely never this consistently in any series under Misbah.
Impressed with Pakistan's ODI batting resurgence, I wrote an article after the 3rd ODI between Pakistan and Sri Lanka comparing Pakistan's batting under Misbah's captaincy to that under Azhar Ali's. Following that, several other articles also came up during the series that analyzed possible reasons for Pakistan's unexpected batting form.
While I agree that any comparison between the ODI captaincies of Misbah and Azhar Ali is premature given that Azhar has only captained in 11 ODIs, I am also absolutely certain that Azhar's leadership has brought about a change in mindset and approach that had been missing from Pakistan's ODI cricket for the past 4 years.
No one expected Azhar Ali to be an aggressive leader. No one expected Azhar Ali to change his style of batting for ODI cricket. Everyone expected Azhar Ali to be another Misbah-like batting anchor who would occupy the crease endlessly and meaninglessly.
How Azhar has defied all such expectations!
Not only has he adopted a more aggressive style play, he has instilled the same sense of urgency in his batsmen. Following his match winning knock in the 4th ODI, Ahmed Shehzad spoke about how he and the other batsmen were looking to change the way they had been batting in ODIs in the past.
There will always be arguments for and against Misbah's approach to ODIs, but one thing is absolutely clear - there is a conscious effort being made by every single batsmen in Pakistan's ODI line up to play a more aggressive brand of cricket and that effort is being led by their new ODI captain.
And there is no one who can deny that it is this brand of cricket that Pakistan was always known for and that it was dearly missed during the 4 year tenure of Misbah.