The big question that will be facing Pakistani selectors when they sit down to decide who plays against Zimbabwe (if the series takes place) will be whether to have a strategy that they followed against Bangladesh or whether they would like to step back and rely on the seniors to see them through to a 3-0 win in the ODI series. Indeed nothing is more important than winning all three ODIs against Zimbabwe considering the precarious position Pakistan find themselves in when it comes to qualifying directly for the Champions Trophy.
In that case if Haroon & Co. opt for taking a risk with the young lot again they will be treading on deep waters if Zimbabwe were to pull even one victory. According to ICC ranking criteria if you win away from home the points are more; similarly the home side suffers greater. With Pakistan on 9th and Zimbabwe carrying ambitions to qualify directly too by finishing in the top 8 by the time September 30 arrives this year, this series has taken on more importance than being the re-igniter of cricket in Pakistan after some six years since the attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers around this time in 2009.
So the selectors will be under tremendous pressure. Zimbabwe is ranked 11th at the moment and provides the ideal opportunity to try even more youngsters who missed out on the Bangladesh tour like Babar Azam and Hammad Azam. It must be borne in mind that the youngsters who were tried out did reasonable well and Bangladesh bowling is better than what Zimbabwe is bringing on to the field.
Sami Aslam batted at good speed in the third ODI and although Saad Nasim was out of his depth when her first played he held up Pakistan pretty well in the next game. Both finished in the top 4 in the Pakistan batting averages. Rizwan batted soundly too in one innings. It were the senior or currently established Pakistani batsmen who let down their side. Mohammad Hafeez, Fawad Alam, Sarfraz Ahmed failed to get going in the games they played and Haris Sohail batted not as fast as opportunity allowed him to.
But Pakistan lost the three ODI series as much because of their bowling as their batting. Junaid and Rahat along with Saeed Ajmal both went for an economy rate that was close to seven an over and playing in all three games Junaid averaged over 60; Ajmal averaged 123 from 2 games. The best was Wahab who averaged above 31 but took only 4 wickets and conceded more than five an over; Umar Gul was a disaster and took no wicket. Hafeez, Haris Sohail, Saad Nasim and Zulfiqar Babar all went wicketless, indicating poor back up in spin.
Though the current tournament is of the Twenty20 format but once again names like Shoaib Malik are being brought up for a recall based on his performances. I say again that he has always done that and failed at the highest level against opposition that matters. Bringing him back against a weak Zimbabwe will definitely allow him the opportunity to score and take wickets against lowly opposition and thus plant himself back in the team by taking the place of far more deserving youngsters.
So far the selectors have resisted the pressure but the battering against Bangladesh will have put them on the back foot. How sturdy is their spine will be gauged by how sturdily they refuse to take back Shoaib Malik.
Pakistan must nevertheless insist on Azhar Ali to give a straight run to Sarfraz Ahmed at the top. Dropping him in the third ODI was a travesty of justice for the man who brought us back into the World Cup contention. His 49 and six catches against South Africa (especially that of Amla which was regarded as the turning point) was a huge factor to a reasonable fighting total which the Pakistani bowlers defended well aided with his catching. Had it not been for his innings then the target Pakistan put up may have been well below 200 and Pakistan may just have been squeezed out before the quarters on net run rate had they lost that one. In many ways they owe their presence in the last eight to him.
Pakistan must also try out Hammad Azam. If Shoaib Malik is being considered for an all rounder’s slot then Hammad has proven several times that he can be a better bet than him with both bat and ball. He really should have had a shot ahead of Saad Nasim for the all-rounder’s position.
Hammad’s inclusion will also allow Azhar the option of a more effective bowler than Saad. I still remember how well he bowled against Bangladesh in the Asia Cup final a few years back; and batted with maturity too. By now he is far more improved. Dropping him because he has no clout and claiming him to be injured should be an excuse dispensed with by now.
Pakistan should also try Imran Khan in the ODI’s if Junaid fails to recuperate fully. He’s clearly a stump to stump act with a hint of swing. In the late afternoon or under lights he can be a handful for the batsmen. In spin I think Pakistan should throw in Yasir Shah and Zulfiqar Babar both. They have done well with a three pronged spin attack before Afridi retired and Ajmal made way (who then seems to have lost his bite). But with Yasir Shah replacing Afridi’s leg spin, Babar giving a more serious left arm option than Haris Sohail and Hafeez holding the off spinner’s fort Pakistan can go in with the best spin trio they have in the country. If they play Hammad then they have three pacers assuming they will play Wahab Riaz and either Junaid or Imran Khan.
But whomever they play it is vital that they go on the front foot against Zimbabwe. Pakistan must change the way they play. They must back themselves to be aggressive. They must be inventive and innovative in not just their batting but in their field placing and mentally too. Azhar is still cautious and he is clearly at a loss on what to do when the opposition batsmen are taking the aggressive approach. Pakistan need a fresh approach in leadership as well.