When it comes to World Cup squads, the fans’ perspectives are often more interesting in Pakistan than they are elsewhere. Even today, you will invariably find lists with Imran Nazir or Shahid Afridi’s names in them. For the selectors — now led by Inzamam-ul-Haq — the job of finalising the squad is often a thankless one, impossible as it is to fulfill the wishes of 200 million people. And it’s not just the fans — sure as night follows day, a former player will be on air the day the squad is announced ranting about nepotism or negligence, often both.
There are, however, legitimate questions for Inzamam and Co. to consider before they decide on the 15 and get to that press conference. So no list of our own, but here are some of those factors.
The pace line-up — Unquestionably, the best problem Pakistan have. There are so many candidates to choose from that the only concern is who to leave out. Faheem Ashraf, Shaheen Afridi and Hasan Ali are presumably guaranteed their spots, but Pakistan must still choose two from among Usman Shinwari, Junaid Khan, Wahab Riaz, Mohammad Abbas, Mohammad Hasnain and Mohammad Amir. That’s quite an embarrassment of riches.
The last name there — Amir — wouldn’t even be in contention if any other bowler had his figures for the past two years. Since the Champions Trophy final in June 2017, Amir has taken five ODI wickets in 101 overs of bowling at an average of 92.60 per wicket. Unsurprisingly, this is the worst for all bowlers to have sent down over 600 balls in this period. For an idea of just how bad that is, the second poorest specialist fast bowler in that list is Mark Wood, with 20 wickets at 47.75, nearly twice as good as Amir.
What Amir does have going for him is an economy rate of 4.58 for the same period; his career economy rate stands at 4.78. It is worth noting that among fast bowlers from World Cup-playing teams, only Jasprit Bumrah (4.30) has been more economical these past two years.
Admittedly, Amir’s switch from the tearaway quick who could shoot out oppositions to a bowler who keeps the runflow in check has been a sharp one. But, irrespective, can Pakistan afford to overlook the 27-year-old left-arm paceman, given what he did when he last played an ODI in England?
The opening slots — Fakhar Zaman and Imam-ul-Haq will be the first-choice openers. Now, and this is by no means an Achilles heel for the team, but Fakhar’s recent loss of form has been most untimely, and inopportune. Since the Zimbabwe series in August last year, runs haven’t flowed as freely off the left-hander’s blade, 377 at an average of 29. That is against a career average of 53.4. Fair enough, you might say; he bats aggressively, so a lean run is always around the corner. That’s true, but in this period, he has struck at a strike rate of 83 in ODIs; before this spell, it was 102.
Which brings us to the reserve opener. Abid Ali has come from nowhere to emerge as a serious contender, especially with Shan Masood not helping himself in the series against Australia. But while Abid’s domestic record leaves little room for debate, Inzamam & Co. will have to consider whether taking him along on the basis of one international innings is a punt too left field.
The Asif Ali dilemma — Take him. There is little doubt Pakistan will. He’s the only legitimate power-hitting option Pakistan have lower down the order, so it’s really as simple as that. But it’s more a question of how Asif Ali will be used.
He batted at No 6 in the Asia Cup; even Mickey Arthur admitted Pakistan fluffed that one up by sending him in too high. The coaches believe Asif is too one-dimensional to bat higher, which suggests No 7. But that makes fitting Shadab Khan, Faheem Ashraf and Imad Wasim in to the side that bit harder. If one of them bats above Asif, the problem of a reliable No 6 still isn’t resolved (Shadab could do it in the long-term, but the World Cup is too immediate for that sort of trial). That means Asif’s game time might come at the cost of one of the all-rounders.
In any case, Asif still hasn’t truly established himself in the format. A stellar series against Zimbabwe was followed by low scores in the Asia Cup and after that, but the sample size just isn’t big enough to call it either way.
Shoaib Malik, not a shoo-in any more — Perhaps the prickliest question facing Pakistan is whether to take their most experienced player to the World Cup for a swansong or not. Just months ago, when Sarfraz Ahmed was struggling, there was talk that Shoaib Malik might lead the team at the tournament. A T20I series loss against South Africa, a clean sweep by Australia, and a poor campaign with Multan Sultans at the PSL has put that thought firmly to bed.
Should he even go to the tournament, particularly with Mohammad Hafeez looking like he will recover in time? Malik isn’t a realistic bowling option anymore and has an abysmal ODI record in England, averaging 13.6 with the bat in 23 innings. For the past two years, he has struggled to serve as the launchpad Pakistan want at No 5, Malik’s most frequent batting position in that period. His strike rate of 82.11 in that timeframe is almost identical to his career number. Also, he has also fallen into the habit of getting starts and then getting out: ten of his last 11 ODI innings have seen the 37-year-old dismissed between 10 and 31.
Even so, excluding him would be a brave call. No other player from any side at the tournament will boast a career that commenced in the previous century, and his laid-back demeanour is unlikely to be a heavy, unwanted presence in the Pakistan dressing room. And, in any case, Pakistan have a habit of ending players’ careers just after the World Cup, rather than just before, so Malik has history on his side.
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