Mercurial Pakistan’s last pit stop before T20 World Cup 2024 – Sport

Pakistan will play three matches against Ireland and four against England before they head to the Caribbean for the T20 World Cup.

How do they define Pakistan cricket? Mercurial? That’s what they say, right? You may have heard the word as pundits often scramble to define Pakistan’s resurgence or capitulation or may have read it in the newspaper columns.

In the lead up to this month, many teams around the world named their preliminary squads for next month’s T20 World Cup.

Pakistan, on the other hand, decided against committing anything publicly and named their 18 for the seven T20Is — three against Ireland and the rest against England — in the United Kingdom, their last layover before the mega tournament.

All 20 participating teams are allowed by the ICC to make changes in their squads and submit the final list before May 25. Pakistan play three matches against Ireland and four against England before that.

Pakistan, as revealed by Babar Azam, had hoped that the five-match T20I series against New Zealand at home would serve as an opportunity to try myriad combinations and finalise their World Cup squad before they departed for Ireland.

Babar Azam kept the Pakistan inning chugging along after Saim Ayub fell.—PCB/File

But, an underwhelming series result of 2-2 against a severely depleted New Zealand side, lack of impactful individual performances, and injuries extinguished those hopes.

Generally speaking, selectors wish to give players maximum chances to stake a claim in the final 15.

They have thrown two more names in the mix by selecting Hasan Ali and Salman Ali Agha for these last seven games before the World Cup.

Hasan was not at all part of the squad for the New Zealand matches and Salman was only named as one of the five reserves.

Pakistan pacer Hasan Ali celebrates after dismissing Sri Lankan batter Charith Asalanka in a World Cup game in Hyderabad’s Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket Stadium in India on Tuesday. — AFP/File

Pakistan play Ireland on 10, 12, and 14 May in Dublin.

In usual circumstances, these fixtures would be a mere brotherly detour to help Cricket Ireland generate funds through broadcast rights and commercial sponsorships.

But, with the T20 World Cup around the corner and Pakistan still unsure what their final 15 would look like, the next three games hold great significance for the Pakistan team management.

It is not as if everything is haywire. Unlike the 50-over World Cup last year when Pakistan’s hopes were severely dented when Naseem Shah broke down a month out of the tournament, Pakistan are finally on course to assemble a top-notch pace attack.

In Shaheen Afridi, Naseem, and Mohammad Amir, they have some of the exciting T20 bowlers who regularly demonstrate their destructive abilities with the new and old ball across various phases of an innings.

Mohammad Amir and Shaheen Shah Afridi dominated the powerplay.—AFP/File

Haris Rauf, who is in the final phase of his recovery from the shoulder injury, has established himself as a fearsome and effective death bowler with 119 T20 wickets in the last four overs at 16.95 and has an outstanding economy of 8.95.

Hasan, who has been recalled as a cover for Haris, as explained by Wahab Riaz, one of the selectors and senior team manager, brings a plethora of experience and some good T20 form that he displayed in the Pakistan Super League (PSL) and Abbas Afridi’s wily use of variations make him an effective middle and death overs bowler.

Haris is expected to be available to Pakistan for the England matches and Amir will miss at least the first two Ireland games as he awaits a travel visa in Pakistan.

The unavailability of the two gives an extended run to Abbas, who has taken 10 wickets at 15.20 in six T20Is, all against New Zealand, and some game time to Hasan, who last played in the format for Pakistan in September 2022.

There are no dramas in the spin department.

Pakistan will be heavily reliant on Imad Wasim’s experience who was a vital cog in Pakistan’s T20I ascendance in 2018.

The left-arm spinner, who bumped Mohammad Nawaz from contention after coming out of retirement in March, has been one of the most effective T20 bowlers in the powerplay and middle-overs, especially in the Caribbean, where Pakistan, if qualified, play their three Super Eights matches in the T20 World Cup.

Shadab Khan comes off a decent PSL tournament, Abrar Ahmed adds mystery, and the combination of Iftikhar Ahmed and Salman Ali Agha provides off-spin variety.

It is the batting department, however, that will continue to undergo various rotations and experimentations on the British Isles as the team continues to look for methods to inject firepower.

Pakistan have been one of the slowest-scoring sides in recent years, which has often seen them post par scores that end up getting chased.

There is an urgency to find a solution as Azhar Mahmood, the assistant coach, pointed out recently in an interview with Dawn.

Pakistan have attempted to add that desired firepower by slotting Usman Khan and Irfan Khan in the middle order against New Zealand.

The former did not fire and was moved up the order after Rizwan and Irfan sustained muscle injuries in the third T20I.

Though Rizwan is said to have made significant progress from the hamstring injury, Pakistan would want to give match time to either Usman or Azam Khan, who was ruled out of the all New Zealand matches because of a calf injury.

Fakhar Zaman, one of the most explosive batters for Pakistan in white-ball cricket, has been permanently slotted at number four as revealed by the batter himself at a post-match press conference during the New Zealand series, and he repaid the management’s trust by scoring crucial runs in the two matches he played.

Fakhar Zaman had a slow start but finished with a 43 off 33.—AFP/File

Despite a string of failures in international cricket, Pakistan’s management has not shied away from backing Saim Ayub, who comes with the promise of providing blistering starts as an opener.

Saim Ayub struck a quick 22-ball 32 before falling just after the powerplay.—PCB/File

The left-hander once again had a fine PSL.

He has been one of the brightest batting prospects in the domestic circuit, scoring heaps of runs in the first-class tournament too.

One of the reasons Pakistan want to continue to bank on Saim and hope that he picks up form is his stunning run in last year’s CPL.

In what was his maiden appearance in the league, Saim scored 478 runs, the second most in the tournament, at an average of 43.45 and a strike rate of 142.26 for Guyana Amazon Warriors, the eventual champions.

Ireland series just might be his last chance to establish himself at the top as any further failure may result in Pakistan going back to their opening pair of Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan, something Azhar highlighted in the interview.

In a fast-moving format where clarity of thought and role specialisation form the basis of successful sides, Pakistan players, less than a month out of their side’s first World Cup fixture, are auditioning for the last remaining spots.

They should have gone into this series looking to transition into the roles they were to take up at the World Cup, rather than worrying how their selection mattered in these games.

That’s how it happens in teams around the world or would be the case with their next two opponents Ireland and England.

That’s, however, not in harmony with Pakistan’s cricket fabric.

Mercurial, it is.

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