There’s a new chairman at the helm, the chief operating officer just resigned, as have the head coach and bowling coach. Of the 12 T20Is Pakistan scheduled against West Indies, New Zealand and England as warm-ups ahead of the T20 World Cup, they managed to play just one. Inclement weather put paid to much of the T20 series in the Caribbean, a security threat scuppered New Zealand’s tour, and a chaotic, much-criticised ECB decision to back out of visiting Pakistan saw that series go up in smoke.
That sort of chaos isn’t ideal preparation for a World Cup, but Pakistan’s preparation for handling chaos is second to none. Their only T20 World Cup title, remember, came three months after a terror attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team that would end up depriving them of hosting any international cricket for the best part of the next decade. Things aren’t quite as bleak as that right now, but for a side that was ranked number one for much of this World Cup cycle, the path to silverware looks minefield-ridden right now.
A few late changes have seen Pakistan opt for the conservative comfort blanket of experience, with Sarfaraz Ahmed, Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Hafeez all part of the travelling squad. They do boast arguably the fastest bowling contingent of the tournament with Haris Rauf, Shaheen Afridi and Hasan Ali amongst their ranks, alongside a handful of useful – if not legitimately world-class – spin options.
Ultimately, though, Pakistan’s success might depend heavily on the nature of the pitches in the UAE. On slow, low pitches a side that opens with Mohammad Rizwan and Babar Azam might theoretically be ideally equipped to chase par totals, the pair’s consistency unmatched for opening pairs across all sides. Pitted against India, New Zealand and Afghanistan in what looks on paper like the more challenging group, even progression through to the semi-finals would be something of an achievement.
There isn’t too much of it thanks to those aforementioned cancellations. But what T20 cricket they have played has tended to produce results without being particularly eye-catching. West Indies were defeated in the one game that was completed, while a depleted South African side was beaten home and away this year. A 2-1 series win against Zimbabwe was perhaps the low point; Pakistan were bowled out for 99 chasing 119. It was followed by a 2-1 series defeat in England, where Pakistan see-sawed between sensational and distinctly mediocre.
It has tended to be top-heavy, though not always for the worse. Rizwan’s record-breaking form stands out, and either he or Babar have gone on to build a substantial innings in almost every T20I Pakistan have played. Worryingly, though, what has followed them hasn’t been quite as impressive, with Pakistan trying a slew of power-hitters in the middle and death overs without any inspiring enough confidence to be considered nailed-on starters. Further evidence of that came in last-minute changes to the squad that saw Malik and Sarfaraz drafted in – though the more attacking Haider Ali was called up, too. But the general thrust of those changes towards cautious conservative conservatism does throw up questions about how committed Pakistan really are to modern, progressive T20 cricket.
While Pakistan’s pace bowling attack of Afridi, Hasan and Rauf is fearsome, whether the surfaces in the UAE will be conducive to high pace remains an open question. Mohammad Wasim could be something of a trump card, and was particularly impressive at the death in the UAE at the PSL. The pacers will likely need to rely on their variations, while also needing assistance from Pakistan’s litany of spin bowling options.
In this department, they are exceptionally well served when it comes to quantity. Imad Wasim – who will likely open the bowling most games – is joined by Shadab Khan, Mohammad Nawaz, Hafeez and even Malik. What they possess in quantity, though, is perhaps counterbalanced by the absence of true quality. Shadab is – for now, anyway – nowhere near the bowler he was three years ago, while too many of the other options are makeshift, part-time bowlers. The absence of a genuine star in this department means Pakistan may need to rely on one of these to really step up their game over the next month.
Player to watch
In a batting line-up deprived of the potential power-hitting of Azam Khan and Sohaib Maqsood, this would be an opportune time for Haider Ali to showcase the form that got him to this level. A delightfully sweet timer of the ball, his easy power belies his relatively slight frame. He was electric at last year’s PSL, and while the international stage didn’t work out for him initially, dropping down a level has brought solid results. He was the fifth highest scorer at the recently concluded National T20 Cup for Northern, averaging 63.40 at a strike rate of 146.75, and looking very much back to his best.
Does the fact that the T20 World Cup is in the UAE make Pakistan one of the favourites? For Pakistan fans to see the tournament played in a country where they’ve won the last 11 games and not begin to get carried away is a tall order. But reality must kick in at some point, so it’s also worth acknowledging Pakistan have changed head coaches twice since those heady days, and a lot of players aren’t quite at their career peaks in the way they were from 2016-18.
Surfaces too will have a huge say on Pakistan’s fortunes. They’ve tended to be slow and low so far in the IPL season that finished most recently. With Pakistan bereft of the monstrous power hitters that, say, England or the West Indies can boast, having that taken out of the equation should mean the anchoring role players like Babar and Rizwan excel at becoming pivotal.
Lots of uncertainty, plenty of intrigue. Pakistan wouldn’t have it any other way.