Ahead of the World Cup, in one white ball cricket format – ODIs – Pakistan have not played well lately; in white ball cricket’s shorter format – T20s – they have been the No 1 team for well over a year now. Somehow the loss of 10 consecutive official ODIs does not feel as bad as it should as the team has hardly played any of the games at full strength.
Against Australia in the UAE this March, Pakistan rested seven of their top players as a part of programme to rest and rotate for the World Cup. And when they lost four games in a row this month against the No1-ranked ODI side in the world, England, the team came out with a lot of positives.
With the bat Babar Azam has been in sublime form (even in Saturday’s warm-up defeat by Afghanistan he led the way with 112). He is averaging 52.44 this year and had a good Test series in South Africa where he came into his own against Steyn, Rabada and Olivier in testing conditions. He and Imam ul-Haq will play their natural game in the top order while Fakhar Zaman, the opener, will try and dominate the attack with his ultra-attacking brand of batting.
In the middle will be the talented left hander, Haris Sohail, along with three most experienced batsmen: Mohammad Hafeez, Shoaib Malik and Sarfaraz Ahmed. In the lower middle order there is Asif Ali. He hits big and he hits long. Asif has been shattered by a recent tragedy, though, as his two-year-old daughter passed away from cancer. After attending her funeral, Asif took the brave decision to travel, and joined up with the team for Sunday’s washed-out warm-up game against Bangladesh in Cardiff.
For a change Pakistan’s batting seems to have been sorted out but the bowling, the team’s traditional strength, is still being shuffled to find the best combination. This shuffling will continue all through the tournament depending on how the team is faring.
Despite his poor form Mohammad Amir is back in the team. Most of the former players such as Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar, as well as the majority of analysts in the media were rooting for him. His new ball partner will most likely be either the promising 19-year-old, Shaheen Afridi, or the veteran, Wahab Riaz, who makes a comeback to the side after two years. Wahab bowled well and was among the top three wicket-takers in the Pakistan Super League. The mainstay of Pakistan’s middle and death overs would be Hasan Ali who is among the best exponents of reverse swing once the ball gets slightly scuffed up.
Shadab Khan and Imad Wasim are the two spinners in Pakistan’s team. The only weakness in Pakistan’s bowling is the lack of a good finger spinner. Imad Wasim is more of a slider than a spinner, however he plays in the team as an allrounder. He is averaging 49.66 with the bat this year at a strike rate of 138.66 and has contributed with the bat in that lower middle order. Hafeez will also bowl his off spin as and when needed. It is more or less the same bowling attack that featured in the Champion’s Trophy in England in 2017.
Injuries and fielding are the weak link in this squad. Hafeez, Shadab and Amir have all been in recovery either from injuries or an illness. Amir has yet to even play a game in England. The most worrying factor for the team management must be the poor fielding by the side in the series against England. Fitness and fielding had been the two features that have seen huge improvements since Mickey Arthur took over the team.
What’s their gameplan?
The conditions that would suit Pakistan best are dry pitches that scuff up the ball. So far, the team has not encountered any such pitch. The ball has not moved or spun at all. That’s why an astonishing 2,800 runs were scored in four ODIs against England. The pressure of the World Cup along with the pressure of knockout games would reduce the scores somewhat but it is going to be a high scoring tournament.
Who’s their key player?
Unless the conditions change the key players from all sides will be batsmen. Bowlers giving six runs per over seems to be the new par. The key player for Pakistan is most certainly going to be Babar. Right now he is as good as any batsman in the world. In South Africa he hit 16 boundaries off Steyn in 66 balls faced. There aren’t very many who have dominated Steyn to this extent in the bowler’s home conditions.
What is the realistic aim for Pakistan and why?
English conditions have historically suited Pakistan in limited overs competition. They played in the final at Lord’s against Australia in 1999, won the T20 World Cup in 2009 and the Champions Trophy in 2017. With a very well balanced team plus a bit of luck and momentum you can see Pakistan winning this Cup. Psychologically all the various tags that the world has given to the Pakistan cricket team (mercurial, unpredictable, etc) work in our favour. They make opponents nervous and if things don’t go as per Plan A, opponents falter. As Nasser Hussain once said, “You never know which Pakistan will enter the field today”. It could be one that folds without any resistance or it could be the one that beats four top teams in a row and takes home the Champions Trophy.