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Have Pakistan Finally Found The Right Combination ?

Pakistan are still alive in the ongoing World Cup, hanging by a thread but alive. The comprehensive – minus fielding – win against South Africa will definitely boost the morale of the team following a week full of jeering after the loss to India.

Pakistan have made nine changes in their playing XI in the five games (excluding the washout against Sri Lanka) so far. The game against South Africa saw Pakistan make two changes: Haris Sohail and Shaheen Afridi in place of the underperforming Shoaib Malik and Hasan Ali. Malik especially came under severe criticism from the pundits and fans alike for his poor show with the bat, having scored just eight runs in three appearances – including two ducks against Australia and India. He was backed by the team management for the World Cup despite poor form in the recent past and a miserable average of just over 13 in England. And after the two flops against England and Australia, the golden duck against India served as the final nail in the coffin.

As far as Hasan is concerned, he has only got two wickets to his name in the past four games. He gave away 39 runs in four overs without a wicket against the West Indies. Against England, his 66 runs in 10 overs spell were decent from economy rate’s perspective, but the wickets column remained empty. He returned with 1-67 (10 overs) and 1-84 (9 overs) against Australia and India, respectively. In 2017 Champions Trophy, where he was the player of the tournament with 13 scalps in five games, it was the middle overs where he was the most effective. But Pakistan have used him with the new ball twice due to the absence of a new ball seamer in the side except for Shaheen Afridi, who himself is not in the best of forms lately, against the West Indies and India and in both the games he returned mediocre figures.

Now, with the two changes and a decent win, have Pakistan finally found the right XI after six games? For that, two things need to be discussed. First, the inclusion of Haris and hence the batting order; second, the new ball partner of Mohammad Amir.

The batting part first. The spots of Imam-ul-Haq, Fakhar Zaman and Babar Azam were never going to be altered anyway. It’s the number four to six positions that have been a headache. Mohammad Hafeez has done relatively better than the other middle-order batsmen including Sarfaraz Ahmed, Asif Ali and Shoaib Malik. If he continues to bat at number four, that will leave Haris and Sarfaraz at five and six. And the question of Sarfaraz not batting up the order will continue to linger. Since, if Pakistan top order does well, the likes of Imad Wasim and Shadab Khan are expected to be promoted above him.

Moreover, Pakistan will also need to be mindful of the roles and abilities of the players in the top six. While the whirlwind 89-run knock off 59 balls from Haris surprised everyone, Pakistan cannot rely on him to bat with a strike rate of 150 every time. His role is best suited in the upper middle order where he constructs the innings. The number four spot could be shuffled between him and Hafeez according to the situation.

The second argument is the new ball bowling partner. While Hasan and Wahab Riaz have done decently in the middle overs, it’s the new ball where they have struggled. Pakistan have used four different opening partners for Amir in the five games so far, with Hasan Ali taking the new ball twice. Pakistan do not have anyone else other than Shaheen Afridi with the experience of taking the new ball. But the teen pacer managed only five wickets in the three games against England preceding the World Cup, regularly conceding 80 plus runs. In the two games he has played in the World Cup – against Australia (2-70 in 10) and South Africa (1-54 in 8), he has taken three wickets but has remained expensive.

Pakistan have used four different opening partners for Amir in the five games so far, with Hasan Ali taking the new ball twice. Photo: AFP

He opened the bowling with Amir against Australia but was wayward in his lengths earlier on, hence releasing the pressure applied by Amir at the other end. He didn’t open the bowling against South Africa but came on as first change in the fifth over. With rookie Mohammad Hasnain being the only other option, who doesn’t have much playing experience let alone the exploits with the new ball, Pakistan are unlikely to experiment at such a crucial juncture in their World Cup campaign, and hence are likely to stick with Shaheen over Hasan. If that happens, one cannot help but wonder: did Pakistan make the right call by dropping Junaid Khan based on just two games against England in the series before the World Cup? After all, the inclusion of Amir came on the basis of his experience and bowling prowess in English conditions despite struggling big time since the 2017 Champions Trophy final till the start of the 2019 World Cup.

And if Hasnain – touted as a wildcard by chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq – continues to warm the bench for the remaining games, it will definitely raise even more questions on the abilities of the selectors and team management.

But it is perhaps a useless debate right now, as Pakistan will need to make do with the available options. They will need to decide whether to go with Shaheen and stick to the winning combination from the previous game, or bring back Hasan Ali for another go.

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