The first team to arrive in England ahead of the ICC World Cup 2019, Pakistan have gone through their three warm-up games with emphatic wins, without even breaking a sweat.
Playing against unfancied opponents like a second string Kent side or a toothless Northamptonshire eleven, the Pakistanis managed to showcase their batting firepower which is a good omen for a team that is often questioned for its lack of big-hitting prowess.
Though a healthy change after a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Australia in the UAE, Pakistan shouldn’t see too much into their straight forward wins in the practice games. Their first test since arriving in Britain will come on Sunday (today) when they will take on hosts England in a one-off Twenty20 International in Cardiff. A bigger challenge will come in the shape of the five-match One-day International series against England beginning in London next week.
It’s not just the home advantage which makes England one of the major title contenders for the World Cup. Even in the absence of the big-hitting Alex Hales, England are one of the most potent batting sides featuring in the World Cup. They also have an equally good bowling attack. To counter England, Pakistan will certainly need to punch above their weight.
Much has been said and written about how Pakistan will have an extra advantage going into their opening World Cup game against the West Indies in Nottingham on May 31. By then Pakistan would have spent more than six weeks in England and Wales. By then, they would have played nine matches including five ODIs against the hosts. This means Pakistan would have had even more sparring rounds than England. That should help Pakistan get fully acclimatised with English conditions. But it’s not all hunky dory for the touring party.
Pakistan aren’t sure whether they will get their key player – Shadab Khan – for the World Cup. Shadab is part of Pakistan’s World Cup plans but the young leggie, who is getting treatment for hepatitis C, is facing a race against time to get fully fit before the ten-nation extravaganza gets underway on May 30.
There is also a question mark on the availability of Shoaib Malik. The veteran all-rounder mysteriously left the team and headed for home last week. The Pakistan Cricket Board later announced that it has granted Malik a ten-day leave to deal with a personal matter. Though the PCB tried to downplay the issue, there have been rumours suggesting that Malik could be faced with a serious domestic issue and might not be in the right mental frame to be a part of Pakistan’s World Cup line-up. There is a whispering campaign which suggests that Malik’s marriage with Indian tennis star Sania Mirza could be on the rocks.
Shadab and Malik are not the only ones giving the Pakistani camp serious cause for concern. Senior all-rounder Mohammad Hafeez is also on the list of players who remain doubtful for the limited-overs series against England. Hafeez, who suffered from a hand injury in season 4 of the Pakistan Super League (PSL), is yet to regain match fitness. He will be missing the initial phase of the series against England which means that he might not have enough time to regain peak form and fitness in time for the World Cup opener against the Windies.
That’s not all. Though Imad Wasim has made his presence felt in the tour games and even hit a sparkling hundred, the all-rounder is not fully fit. He has difficulty bending sideways and an awkward catch or an evasive action while running between the wickets could push him back on the injury list.
Keeping their players fit isn’t the only challenge facing Pakistan as they look to win their first World Cup since 1992. With leading contenders like defending champions Australia, India and England looking really good, Pakistan will need to find a winning combination if they are to go all the way in the World Cup. Pakistan, who lack the sort of match-winners like David Warner and Virat Kohli, will need a secret recipe to come at par with the favourites.
Inzamam-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s X factor in their title-winning triumph back in 1992 believes that teenage fast bowler Mohammad Hasnain will be Pakistan’s surprise package in the World Cup. The young Hasnain should make his presence felt in the World Cup. With his blistering pace, Hasnain can make a difference for the Pakistanis who have been let down in recent times by their key paceman Muhammad Amir. But Hasnain is still too raw and could sink under the weight of expectations.
There is one key area that Pakistan should look into as they get ready to wrap up their world cup preparations. Take a look at the winners of the past 11 editions of the World Cup and you will see that all those teams had one secret ingredient: A reliable batting all-rounder. Players like Steve Waugh in 1987 and Sanath Jayasuriya in 1996 gave Australia and Sri Lanka an edge over their chief rivals. When Pakistan won Down Under, they had Aamir Sohail, who was more than a stock bowler. Pakistan have been trying Fakhar Zaman but it remains to be seen whether he is good enough to get any overs in vital World Cup matches.
Khalid Hussain is Editor Sports of The News