Pakistan have their sights set on next year’s World Cup. Despite all their limitations, the 1992 champions are hopeful of winning back the coveted title in England next summer. They have their reasons. The biggest one: Pakistan’s stunning title-winning triumph at the ICC Champions Trophy in England last summer. From a neutral point of view, there might not be many pluses in Pakistan’s ODI squad but coach Mickey Arthur and captain Sarfraz Ahmed might see a few in a side that is brimming with youthful talent.
By swimming against the tide and winning the Champions Trophy, Pakistan once again proved that they have the capability of proving their critics wrong. By producing young match-winners like Hasan Ali and Shadab Khan, they have once again underlined the fact that when it comes to raw talent very few countries can match their reserves.
But from where I see it, Pakistan do not come across as a team with very bright chances of winning the World Cup next year. They are the Champions Trophy winners and they have a potent bowling attack but Pakistan are missing a vital element that is going to be key to success in the World Cup – an aggressive batting lineup that can consistently post or chase big totals.
The cricket world witnessed an awe-inspiring batting display at Auckland’s Eden Park last week when Australian and New Zealand batsmen piled up 488 runs from just 38.5 overs in a Twenty20 International. In the process, the Aussies posted the biggest run-chase in T20I history. The two teams scored at an astonishing rate of around 12.5 an over! Some might argue that it was a smallish ground and the wicket was a batting paradise. They will also argue that it was a T20 game, a bit different from World Cup’s 50-over format. Personally, I think that what happened in Auckland provided a glimpse of what will most likely take place during many a World Cup match next year. It’s simple. Cricket, especially limited-overs cricket, is continuing to tilt towards the batters. They are hitting bigger and with giant-sized bats even their mis-hits are going out of the park. But I’m not talking about Pakistani batsmen. They lag far behind the likes of David Warner, Martin Guptill or Virat Kohli. And that will be the biggest chink in Pakistan’s armour when they launch their title campaign in the World Cup next summer.
Pakistan might like to think that they will make up for their batting weaknesses with a bowling attack that is regarded among the best in the world. They might manage it for a few games like they did in the Champions Trophy but it is unlikely to win them a tournament like the World Cup which is played over an extended period and where a win or two will not be enough to carry them through.
It’s quite surprising that things have come to this. Not that long ago, Pakistan had some of the most exciting and aggressive batsmen in world cricket. Back in the nineties, they had fiery openers like Saeed Anwar and Aamir Sohail followed by a young Inzamam-ul-Haq. Later, all-rounders like Abdul Razzaq, Shahid Afridi and Azhar Mehmood added firepower to their batting line-up down the order with their big-hitting prowess.
In the current line-up, only Fakhar Zaman is really capable of some pinch-hitting especially in crunch situations. But he is yet to become consistent.
I remember raising this very point in the lead up to World Cup 2015 in Australia and New Zealand. At that time, teams like the two co-hosts had emerged as the title favourites mainly because of their batting might. It was hardly surprising when Australia and New Zealand sailed into the final with teams like Pakistan falling by the wayside.
One of the more important ingredients in a winning ODI unit in today’s cricket is a pinch-hitter with some sort of consistency. Pakistan unfortunately doesn’t have many in their preliminary World Cup squad.
In the last three editions of the World Cup, Pakistan were unable to match teams like Australia, New Zealand and India because their power-hitters seldom delivered.
And unless, they do, it is going to be a similar story for Pakistan in England next year. The question is whether Pakistan have enough time to make sure that their batting lineup has the required ammo for a successful World Cup campaign.
They have Fakhar Zaman at the top of the order. It will be important for Pakistan that he clicks. Then we have Ahmed Shehzad as another opening option. In his salad days in international cricket, Shehzad had all the right ingredients that make a successful opener in today’s limited-overs cricket. He was aggressive and could hit boundaries at will. But in recent years, his form has dipped and so has his confidence. He will have to regain self-belief otherwise Pakistan will be better off without him. There are other opening options like Shan Masood, who had a dream run in back-to-back national one-day tournaments recently. Pakistan should also think about promoting captain Sarfraz Ahmed up the order. He can perform the sort of role once carried out by Kamran Akmal, when the stumper was in his prime.
The likes of Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali are unlikely to change their style and they shouldn’t. Pakistan will need stability in their batting and the duo can provide it.
The problem with Pakistan is that they don’t have many options in the current lot. If they decide to persist with aging players like Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Hafeez their team will be rich on experience but short on firepower. Malik and Hafeez are world class players but their best is behind them. What Pakistan need is the batting equivalent of players like Hasan Ali and Shadab Khan. The question is whether they can find any in time because the clock is ticking.