Criticised by many, ridiculed by some and written off by most, Junaid Khan’s international career, like Pakistan run-chases, has been a roller-coaster affair. It may seem like Junaid has been around forever for Pakistan but he is actually still only 27. While many would feel that Junaid Khan is now approaching his peak as a pace bowler and that his best years are ahead of him, the left-arm paceman has had to make several comebacks in his career so far. In each of those comebacks, Junaid has also had the difficult task of appeasing his critics.

Speaking after Pakistan’s brilliant eight-wicket win against England on Wednesday, Junaid gave credit to the Pakistan team’s current bowling coach Azhar Mahmood for his efforts towards revitalising his bowling and giving him renewed confidence.

‘Azhar Mahmood’s contribution has been excellent’

“To make a good comeback, one has to get some opportunities to play in back-to-back games. Thanks to the Almighty, I am getting those chances now and I am also lucky to have someone like our bowling coach Azhar Mahmood who is putting in a lot of effort with me,” said Junaid. “I have played alongside Azhar in county cricket so he has a pretty good idea of my capabilities and I am working hard with him to improve my bowling. Azhar Mahmood’s contribution as bowling coach has been excellent for the team in general. Not only have the extras that we were conceding decreased, the fast-bowlers have also started to take more wickets as well and that is fantastic news for Pakistan cricket.”

It’s common knowledge that the best bowling attacks hunt in packs and Pakistan’s renewed vigour at the Champions Trophy has largely been due to the relentless efforts of their impressive pace attack. When asked about his team-mates, Junaid gave due credit to his compatriots Mohammad Amir, Rumman Raees and Hasan Ali.

“I believe it was after a very long period of time that Pakistan’s fast-bowlers took all 10 wickets in an ODI in the game we played against Sri Lanka. Then, we have also seen Hasan Ali take three wickets in the semi-final game against England and is now the highest wicket taker in the tournament,” said the left-arm pacer. “Even I am performing very well and of course Mohammad Amir has been bowling well also, with Rumman Raees taking two wickets on his debut as well. All these performances point to a great improvement in our fast-bowling and Azhar Mahmood’s influence on the situation is for all to see.”

In August 2016, reports had surfaced that a disgruntled Junaid Khan was contemplating playing for England after being disappointed that the selectors were ignoring him. However, the 27-year-old clarified that those reports were not true and that he was totally focused on playing for Pakistan. He added that advice from former Pakistani pace legend Wasim Akram had helped him.

“Let me clarify that any news about my leaving Pakistan to play cricket for another country was totally false,” confirmed Junaid. “My only priority is to play for my country, Pakistan. Yes, I was feeling a little down due to my non-selection but then I was advised by Wasim Akram that I needed to show patience as such times come and go in a cricketer’s life and that I would come back a better bowler.”

‘Swing more satisfying than speed’

The pacer added, “I have taken this lesson seriously and instead of worrying about such matters, I am now working hard to regain my lost form. Of course, as a pace bowler, speed is a key aspect of my bowling and that has increased compared to the time I started playing cricket. However, what is more important is the fact that the ability to swing the ball which I seemed to have lost is now back and that is really satisfying for me.”

With hard-hitting left-hander Sharjeel Khan missing the Champions Trophy tournament due to spot-fixing allegations, Fakhar Zaman has given Pakistan an option that Sharjeel would have provided them at the top of the order. Pakistan lacked an attacking approach in their first match of the tournament and Zaman’s inclusion has given Sarfaraz Ahmed’s team’s top order a new lease of life.

Junaid praised the impact Zaman has had on the Pakistani batting, stating, “I saw Fakhar Zaman playing in a local tournament and I said to Younis Khan that this guy should be watched and given a chance in domestic cricket. He was very impressive and caught everyone’s eye. Fakhar is an excellent batsman as we have recently seen and I am glad that Pakistan have found someone who can take the place of Sharjeel Khan who is not with the team due to unfortunate circumstances.”

Pakistan will once again meet arch-rivals India on Sunday, this time in the final of the Champions Trophy. The occasion promises to be a huge one at The Oval and although Pakistan has not played at the Oval during the Champions Trophy Junaid is confident that this will not be a disadvantage for Sarfaraz Ahmed’s team, “Our focus is simply on playing the final and putting up a good show and we are not concerned about the opponents. Nobody gave us a chance to reach the final so we have already surpassed many expectations. Also, most of our boys have played at The Oval previously including myself as I have played county cricket on that ground, so we do not think playing at that venue will represent any problems for us.”

Whatever Sunday’s outcome is, Junaid Khan has shown once again that his passion for cricket is still evident, his desire to succeed remains, that on his day he remains a potent weapon as a bowler and one that the Indian batsmen will need to treat with respect.