PAKISTAN’S 2023 World Cup campaign is in a mess. A good start has now almost turned disastrous, and their chances of qualifying for the semi-finals are in the ditch. We have been here before with Pakistan cricket — many times — only to see a dramatic resurgence, yet the omens don’t seem good this time. Hope should not be abandoned, but it is rushing for the exit.
There are some obvious targets for criticism. First, the way Pakistan cricket is run, its governance, structure, and policy making. This is a fair point, and an almost eternal one that needs addressing, but it hasn’t stopped Pakistan from being competitive in the past.
Pakistan are generally a good tournament team, and even when they have failed, there is always something that provides cause for optimism.
A second line of attack is the captaincy of Babar Azam. He probably won’t be remembered as one of Pakistan’s greatest captains, and perhaps one of the biggest mistakes was to thrust the captaincy of all three formats prematurely onto his young shoulders. Babar has done much too much, much too young on the captaincy front.
Another issue is that success in Babar’s reign is tied too closely to his relentless personal form. As such, when you fail to deliver to expectations, confidence quickly ebbs in your colleagues. But the captaincy is being made too much of. Babar isn’t a great match-day captain, he may not be even a good one.
However, the problems are in the balance of the team selection — admittedly, in which Babar plays a part.
Perhaps the worst thing that happened to Pakistan in preparation for this World Cup was that they reached number one in the ICC rankings. That engendered a misleading sense of confidence in the selection and strategy. Pakistan’s formula seemed to be working. The players were doing the business. The World Cup was there for the taking — in India.
But the reality is that other leading nations didn’t bring their A-game or their best players to 50-overs cricket until the World Cup. The Asia Cup was a warning, but it wasn’t heeded. Their number one ranking was a false one.
The best ODI teams bat deep and have plenty of bowling options. They field like demons. Pakistan fall short in all of these areas, and have done so for a long time. The top six batsmen, however, are the least of Pakistan’s worries. They have failed to kick on from good starts, and accelerate in the middle of an innings, but they have more urgent issues to address. but they have more urgent issues to address.
Pakistan can also only select from the players in the squad. Saud Shakeel has started nervously in at least two innings, but he is a batsman others can play around. Abdullah Shafique, by contrast, is an excellent addition, a confidently aggressive player from the outset. Iftikhar is promising something special lurking down the order.
Four of the top six also aren’t short of experience, another reason why their failure to take responsibility is perplexing and requires remedy. Nonetheless, as under par as the top six may be, they are a good enough combination on these wickets.
With Fakhar Zaman out of form and unfit, there are no other genuine options in this squad. The real problems start from that point onwards, and it’s a situation that makes the burden heavier for the top order, maybe explaining their hesitant form.
Pakistan do not have a world-class spinner in this tournament. It says something that Iftikhar has possibly been Pakistan’s best spin bowler. The lack of quality in spin bowling is shocking. At one time, Pakistan could turn to Saqlain Mushtaq, Saeed Ajmal, and even Shahid Afridi, in those middle overs — and they could change a game. The current crop are horribly short of international form.
In modern one-day cricket those batting positions of 7 to 9 must be occupied by genuine all-rounders, and by that I mean people who could be selected for their international standard bowling alone but can also bat like a top order batsman. Pakistan’s squad doesn’t possess such players.
In these circumstances, given Pakistan’s lack of a quality spinner and the high-scoring batting pitches this tournament is being played on, the best option for Pakistan is to pack the batting. On that basis, two of the lower middle order batting positions, the other two spinning slots alongside Iftikhar, should go to Shadab Khan and Salman Agha.
The final issue is then one of fast bowling. Shaheen Shah Afridi has mislaid the art of taking first-over wickets. It was a skill that played a large part in Pakistan’s ascent to that number one ranking. Perhaps he is overthinking the challenge, and should go back to what he was doing so brilliantly — the full and length ball snaking in. He is either struggling for consistency or overcomplicating matters. Nonetheless, he remains Pakistan’s best fast bowler and undroppable.
Haris Rauf, however, could easily be dropped on form. Even in his early career, Rauf would often go for runs quickly, yet he’d come back with a wicket. And as his career progressed, he managed to concede less freely and take wickets more often at crucial times.
In this tournament, Rauf looks lost and confused, offering too much width. A bowler known for attacking the stumps, he isn’t doing it enough and must get back to that basic approach. If the switch flicks in Haris’s mind he could become an instant match winner. That may be a big “if” but it is worth holding out for.
Pakistan should also ease the pressure on him and Shaheen by selecting Mohammad Wasim ahead of Hasan Ali, who is no longer the match winner of old. Wasim is a more dangerous bowler and Hasan’s batting has been woeful. A team with Salman, Shadab, and Wasim at 7, 8, and 9 brings more depth in batting and more aggression in pace bowling. The fielding requires prayers.
Babar’s Pakistan are down but not entirely out. They may need to win all their remaining games to lift the trophy, which is why a rethink in strategy is urgently required. The immediate challenge is to get the eleven most suitable boys onto the pitch. The time to address the deeper woes of planning, selection, and captaincy is after the tournament.
Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2023