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Asia Cup final – Pakistan coach Saqlain Mushtaq unwavering in faith, trust and belief in Mohammad Rizwan and Babar Azam

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Asia Cup final – Pakistan coach Saqlain Mushtaq unwavering in faith, trust and belief in Mohammad Rizwan and Babar Azam

Saqlain Mushtaq, the Pakistan head coach, is a philosophical man at the best of times. On Sunday night, after Sri Lanka had won the Asia Cup final, the hope in his words, however, struck a note of misplaced optimism.

No team had won after losing the toss in Dubai at the tournament before the final. Sri Lanka did it despite slipping to 58 for 5. It was their only win batting first in the competition after four back-to-back chases. “If you’re a champion team, you need to be a champion irrespective of whether it’s first innings or second innings,” Saqlain said at the press interaction. “In the previous game, they asked us to bat first and won. In this game, we batted second and they still won. The way they played in both games, it’s well-deserved.”

That was nice and easy. But soon, the tougher – and perhaps very justified – questions came. Among them were queries about Mohammad Rizwan‘s approach to T20 batting, Babar Azam‘s T20 form, Pakistan’s top three, the muddled middle order, and much else.

On Sunday, Rizwan made a battling 55 off 49, before being dismissed in the 17th over. By then, the general sense was that he had perhaps left Pakistan with a tad too much to achieve in the final four overs – they needed 61 with six wickets in hand. The dismissals of Rizwan, Asif Ali and Khushdil Shah – all to Wanindu Hasaranga – all but meant curtains for Pakistan. The target was beyond them after that.

Saqlain fielded the questions patiently, and gave the answers his own unique twist, like he did with his doosra when he played.

“Every team and player has their own style and methods,” Saqlain said in Rizwan’s defence. “The way we played, we reached semi-finals of the T20 World Cup last year, we got to the final of an Asia Cup here. Evidence suggests you’re doing something right to get here.

“It’s not compulsory that you do what the rest of the world is doing [in terms of strike rates and showing more intent with the bat]. We’d rather focus on the small things we aren’t doing right instead of looking at what others are doing. His andaaz [method] is not bad.”

“We played just nine overs of good cricket; after that they dominated for 31 overs in all aspects”

Saqlain Mushtaq

As he moved from Rizwan to Babar, there was an air of familiarity to the tone; think Rohit Sharma or Rahul Dravid about Virat Kohli for months on end.

Babar had a poor tournament. The 30 he made in a dead rubber against Sri Lanka prior to the final was his highest score in six outings. It didn’t seem to matter that Babar had three consecutive half-centuries leading into the Asia Cup, in the ODIs against Netherlands in Rotterdam.

“I said it earlier too, if someone looks at his batting, you’d just say he’s unlucky, especially the way he’s getting out,” Saqlain said. “It’s just a patch. If you look at the rankings, he’s top in T20Is [No. 2, behind Rizwan] and in ODIs. It’s just been bad luck. The way he’s training and playing it’s amazing. His work ethic is top notch. I don’t need to say more. I hope Allah saves him from the buri nazar (evil eye).”

Rizwan – check. Babar – check. Next, Saqlain was asked if Pakistan were erring strategically by being rigid about opening with Babar and Rizwan, instead of trying to unsettle teams with a right-left combination with Fakhar Zaman opening with one of them.

“You need to show faith, trust and belief,” Saqlain said, seemingly running a little low on patience by this point. “If you keep shuffling, it sends a message that you don’t trust them. After the second match itself, there was chatter about our batting shuffle. I don’t follow social media, but you do hear the murmurs. You need to give time. If you keep shuffling, how will you know? Whatever we did, it’s not good to shuffle a lot. It sends a wrong message.”

When it came to Sri Lanka, though, there was magnanimity and praise, especially for the left-hand batter whose name he didn’t immediately recollect. But once prompted, he mentioned the name repeatedly: Bhanuka Rajapaksa, Saqlain felt, played the “innings of his life.”

Rajapaksa had breathed fire into a fumbling innings by making an unbeaten 41-ball 75, which helped lift Sri Lanka from a seemingly hopeless 58 for 5 in 8.5 overs. They finished with 170 for 6, which at the time seemed just about par, but also quite challenging considering the stage.

“The way they played today, we played just nine overs of good cricket. After that they dominated for 31 overs in all aspects,” Saqlain said. “They have been playing brilliant cricket; credit goes to all the boys. Looks like they are on top of the world. The way they played against India and got momentum against Afghanistan, a lot of praise for all of them.

“I’ll credit the Sri Lankans. We’d broken their backbone in the first nine overs, but the way Rajapaksa played, and the others rallied around him, no praise is enough. I’m sure it should be the best innings of his life. The way he lifted them, hats off.”

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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