Hoping for miracles?

August 8, 2021

If Sharjeel and Azam Khan were to play together, Pakistan will find it hard to hide not one but two slow fielders. In a T20 World Cup, there will be no room to hide

Hoping for miracles?

A meme doing the rounds recently aptly captured Pakistan’s T20 squad for the upcoming World Cup. It listed an imaginary team sheet with just three confirmed names - Babar Azam, Mohammad Rizwan and Shaheen Shah Afridi. The rest were listed as “Ya Allah Madad” and No. 7 as “Moujza.”To be sure it was a bit harsh; Pakistan can count on at least two more permanent players. Except the need for a miracle - a moujza - at No. 7 is quite spot on. The tours of England and the West Indies were meant to give the selection think-tank clarity. Instead, England’s third-string team embarrassed Pakistan’s first-XI. In fact, Misbah-ul-Haq, stoic even in the best of times, was almost left in tears. Poor. Disappointing. Off color. Adjectives that no head coach would like to use to describe his team’s performance. Let’s have some mercy on him.

The West Indies tour was also crucial. Pakistan needed to win in trying conditions and against the reigning T20 champions who are blessed with the type of power hitters that Pakistan just can’t seem to discover. Except the weather gods ensured Pakistani think-tank was none wiser than it was after the South Africa and Zimbabwe tours.

Misbah and Pakistan can take solace that the three names on that imaginary team sheet are indeed in peak form and carrying the team. But chief selector Mohammad Wasim and Misbah still can’t say with certainty they know the rest of the batting. The more pressure they face, the less certain they appear.

Babar and Rizwan have given Pakistan fantastic starts, no doubt. These tours were to test some young blood and new names. Haider Ali, long on expectations, short on outcome, let his off-field transgressions raise even more questions about his temperament. Ali was dropped after he breached the bio-secure bubble in Abu Dhabi, opening the door for Sohaib Maqsood’s recall.

Maqsood had made a strong case after a sterling performance in the Pakistan Super League; the public and pundits wanted him. He hits well. He hits clean. He exudes calm and maturity. In fact, the management had so much faith they upended the batting order to let Maqsood bat at his preferred No. 3 spot. He struggled, failing to convert starts in all three games.

Let’s set aside the first match because after a 15-over opening partnership, Maqsood barely got his eye in, and he had to fire from the get-go. But he had plenty of time in the next two games. At Headingly, with skipper Azam falling in the powerplay, Maqsood had a 14-over runway to mark his arrival. He lasted 10 balls for 15 runs. At Old Trafford, he again got a 14-over runway, ideal for a No. 3 batter. Instead, his stay was two balls longer and two runs shorter. Both innings, Adil Rashid’s leg spin and guile got under his skin, stumped once and caught at long on the next game. England had done their homework; Maqsood hadn’t. He played in the top order as if he was batting at that No. 7 maujza slot.

Another domestic top-order batsman who masquerades as a No. 7 maujza was the young Azam Khan. There is more hype around the 22-year-old than any recent young talent that Pakistan has thrown the deep end. Azam has his father Moin Khan’s swagger. He’s a power hitter. He’s brave. And he’s done well in the PSL. Perfect fit for the middle order. In England, Khan barely got a chance to show his skills with the bat.

In Nottingham, the game that Pakistan won, Khan came into bat at No. 6 in the final over with no scoreboard pressure. His international debut began with a glorious thump through extra cover for a boundary in an innings of just 3-balls not out. At Headingly, he again batted at No. 6 but in more challenging circumstances. Pakistan, chasing 200, were in a hole. Khan had some 6 overs to bat, plenty of time for a power hitter chasing a tantalizing 15 per over.

He poked and prodded. On his fourth ball, Khan attempted an ugly heave against promising leggie Matt Parkinson that ended with Jos Butler getting an easy stumping. As a wicketkeeper by trade, Khan would have appreciated the Parkinson-Butler set play. A 4-ball 1 is all Khan could manage. For the final must-win game, Khan was dropped.

Both Maqsood and Khan will get more chances, a longer runway to show they belong at the highest level. Agreeing to let Maqsood bat at No. 3 was a big call to make. It forced a radical shuffle in the top order and left the middle order as exposed as it was before Maqsood’s recall. Fakhar Zaman, an experienced top order batsman does not belong down the order; he was exposed to spinners that he finds challenging to face. For a seasoned player making a comeback, more was expected from him. That includes Maqsood adjusting to the team’s needs in the middle order instead of the team adjusting to his batting preference.

For Azam, he may well have some oversized hidden batting talent. But in a team renowned for ignoring fitness, Khan is also a large and visible target in the field. Chief selector Mohammad Wasim made a call to prioritise form over fitness when he justified Sharjeel Khan’s recall. That is as brave a call to make as Maqsood batting at No. 3. If Sharjeel and Azam Khan were to play together, Pakistan will find it hard to hide not one but two slow fielders. In a T20 World Cup, there will be no room to hide.

Pakistan may still have a few games left before deciding on the World Cup squad. In the meantime, they can count on “Ya Allah Madad” and some “moujza” to keeping prodding and poking.


Hoping for miracles?