Azhar puts faith in numbers to solve Pakistan’s problems – Sport

KARACHI: Azhar Mahmood looks at Pakistan’s problems through numbers; crunching them and bringing them to the best use is what will define his newly-assumed role as the national side’s assistant coach. But the clock is ticking fast with the T20 World Cup now just days away.

Unlike most participants of the T20 showpiece, set to be held in the United States and the West Indies in June, Pakistan skipped naming a provisional squad for the tournament, suggesting that the side was still under construction.

Azhar believes Pakistan are ripe with resources, especially with the return of veterans Imad Wasim and Mohammad Amir — both having rescinded their respective international retirements in March — but the coach is still playing the numbers game to find out the best way to utilise the players at his disposal.

In an exclusive interview with Dawn on Sunday night, the former Pakistan all-rounder — who boasts an impressive coaching profile with trophies ranging from the English County Championship to The Hundred and the Pakistan Super League — thought out aloud.

“I think our team has got much stronger [as compared to when Pakistan played the 2022 T20 World Cup final], and with the comeback of Imad and Amir, now we have got experience,” he said.

“We have Shaheen Shah Afridi and Naseem Shah, Haris Raud has started to bowl very well and his fitness has improved. We can use Imad upfront, especially in the West Indies, Shadab Khan is also there, so our basis, when it comes to bowling, is more than covered.”

It’s when he talks about batting, that Azhar gets heavily analytical, a trait Pakistan’s coaches in the recent past haven’t been too expressive about.

He has the scoring averages of the world’s top teams, especially India, Australia and England on his finger tips and using that very information, Azhar tends to identify Pakistan’s loopholes, and shows immense optimism about filling them perfectly.

“In terms of batting, with the likes of Babar Azam, Mohammad Rizwan and Fakhar Zaman we don’t have many problems in the top order,” he said. “We are struggling at number three, four and five and we aren’t too good at capitalising the solid base our top order can set.

“Teams around the world tend to dominate between the overs 10-20, but for this period we haven’t shown a good conversion rate in the past.”

The problems at number three, four and five is what Pakistan tried to address in their recent five-match series against New Zealand, in which Azhar was in charge as the head coach, the position now set to be taken by Gary Kirsten ahead of the T20 World Cup.

Pakistan tried the likes of Usman Khan, who was one of the top scorers in this year’s PSL, Irfan Khan Niazi in the middle-order against New Zealand, with the duo showing glimpses of their potential to shine in these positions.

Azhar was confident, Irfan, Usman and Azam Khan — who was injured before the series — could make up for Pakistan’s need for power-hitters in the middle overs.

But there were the much minute details of Pakistan’s batting show against the BlackCaps that irked Azhar.

“To be honest, we should have won against New Zealand, but the series made it clear where we need to improve,” admitted the coach.

“Our boundary ratio with top teams is comparatively less, we are conceding a bit too many dot balls, and not running between the wickets as much as the top teams do.

“So far, we don’t have the players who can maintain a high scoring rate in the latter overs, but it’s not something to be too much worried about because you can’t write Pakistan off in the T20 format. One player can take the match away in this format and we have seven more T20s to resolve our issues.”

Usman, Azam and opener Saim Ayub, for Azhar, have the ability to be the players who can take matches away from opponents with a special performance. But all of them lack experience at the international level despite having proven their mettle in franchise leagues.Azhar believes Pakistan’s investment in the trio will prove worthwhile.

“[Saim and Azam] haven’t played many international matches, we have identified the talent in Saim, he has been one of the best players in his position in T20 leagues, but has struggled to convert starts into big runs,” noted the 49-year-old. “Usman, meanwhile, showed what he can do with how he played in the last T20 against New Zealand. If a player has scored two centuries in the PSL, you can’t rule him out.

“If you talk about Azam, he has played only eight international games and has made two comebacks but he can surely clear the rope, but it’s not easy to score down the order, it’s just a matter of clicking.”

Despite all the tweaking in the batting line-up, Azhar did not rule out Pakistan going back to Babar and Rizwan’s as the teams opening combination, despite the pair being split late last year with criticism over their strike-rates.

Azhar realizes the once very successful opening pair won’t be a bad option at the top if Pakistan can find the firepower down the order.

“We might go back to playing with the same combination (Babar and Rizwan as openers), we have to have this discussion with Gary,” he revealed. “We are still looking for the best combination; no numbers are fixed.

“But we are very clear on how we want to approach batting and looking at ways to enhance where we are lacking to improve our average, which is why we are trying different combinations. If we establish firepower down the order, we can rely on the Babar and Rizwan at the top.”

Pakistan warm up for the T20 World Cup with a three-match T20 series against Ireland, starting May 10, and four games against England after that. The national side plays its opening World Cup game against the US on June 6.

Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2024

Leave a Comment