Rana reviews the recently concluded 5-match ODI series against New Zealand with an eye on Pakistan's preparations for the 2023 World Cup.
By Rana (9th May, 2023)
One of the most difficult things to do is write a performance review about a Pakistan cricket series and having to nit-pick the problems and issues within the side. I mean, how can you honestly criticize a side that won a series 4-1 at home without much issue? As fans of Pakistan cricket, we have become accustomed to looking for reasons to blame our side or its players. Sometimes we find an easy target in the captain and his captaincy, or individual players who do not meet our personal criteria of likes and preferences. Maybe we can find reasons to question our management and their insistence upon certain strategies that do not fit our expectations to deliver quality cricket alongside the entertainment we yearn as cricket fans.
All in all, a convincing series win in ODI cricket at home by Pakistan should be appreciated for what it is, and we should be satisfied with the work that the players have put in on their road towards the world cup 2023 title. That being said, we can indeed question whether a dominating series performance does indeed convince us that we are truly contenders to lift the trophy in India or not. There are certain elements that do need to be addressed as the series did pose some questions to us.
The element of dominance
It has been highlighted time and time again that Pakistan were not up against the New Zealand main team, the first team players who are currently on a paid holiday in the IPL during a world cup year whilst their developmental squad were competing against Pakistan’s main crop and squad of world cup players. Regardless of the quality of the opposition, it is not up to Pakistan to be resting its key players in a format that already has been played less, and 5 matches in this format are a key opportunity to firm up the side heading into the world cup.
Whilst Pakistan should be commended for their 4-1 win and for their brief summit reach of the top of the ODI rankings, one can indeed question as to whether the first team players truly dominated the opposition the way a first team should against a depleted side?
The expectations of some of the more critical viewers of Pakistan cricket would have liked Pakistan to assert far more dominance with the bat, and lay down a marker against the second string bowlers of NZ the way a team like England or Australia would. Whilst the One Day team has improved massively since the depressing days under Misbah-ul-Haq, there still seems to be some reservations in the batsmen to totally express themselves the way they should be doing so.
Fakhar Zaman topped the runs chart (363 runs) with a good strike rate of 99.45. It still has to be said that FZ achieved the best amongst the batsmen having wanting to assert his dominance like an opener or an ODI batsman should be doing, and he still achieved the most having failed 3 times to impress out of 5 matches.
Babar Azam failing to cash in
276 runs at an average of 55.40, strike rate 93.24 and 1 ton+2x50s is not a failure by any means. However, for a player of Babar’s quality and experience in this format, it is not beyond him to have scored at least 3 tons in this 5 match series against an attack that posed no real threat to him, and on tracks that are not unfamiliar to him. Babar is currently on 18 ODI tons, however he should really have broken Saeed Anwar’s record of most ODI centuries for Pakistan by now in the 8 ODI matches he has played against NZ in 2023. We can hope this great record will be broken by Babar during the world cup and who knows, it could well be against the arch nemesis India?
Mohammad Rizwan impressing at number 5
Credit where credit is due. Rizwan’s two ‘not out’ outings at number 5 were indeed very impressive. He has looked very comfortable in this position, and his feet move more correctly with the right kind of intent that is required in this situation more than it does any higher up the order. However, Rizwan must understand that a couple of decent performances in a certain position should not warrant a person to complain publically about wanting to bat higher up, only to then move up the order and not impress at all! If Rizwan can forget about what suits him only and let the management do the thinking on his behalf, he will do well to keep a hold of the number 5 spot and perform well for Pakistan in the world cup.
Having got what he wanted, the two outings at number 4 paved the way for Salman Agha and Iftikhar Ahmed to establish themselves in the numbers 5 and 6 position. Whilst Pakistan’s top 3 are locked in for the world cup, Rizwan’s failure to make the number 4 position his own (after complaining to have it) may see him lose the number 5 and even the number 6 position considering how well Iftikhar and Salman batted in the last two ODI’s in Karachi. Take what you can, and do not complain if it is working for Pakistan, not for you!
Talking too much gets Imam in trouble
In a boring and uninspiring series, Imam ul Haq added some spice and drama by talking himself into trouble with his strange views on not allowing the bench strength to gain confidence. It was unclear as to whether Imam was dropped for the final two ODI’s due to injury or for his writing off of Iftikhar and Muhammad Harris as power hitters who could be tried, however his tweet on the morning of the 5th ODI is evidence that he potentially does not believe his exclusion for the last two ODI’s was done for squad rotation, and it is more due to injustice towards him.
To be honest, this kind of insecurity for a player is not healthy going into a World Cup. Imam had to make way for Shan Masood abruptly in the 3rd ODI versus New Zealand early on; hence he already knows that he is walking a thin line with this new management that would always see him as the easier option to make way instead of Fakhar who is viewed as the clutch, impact player. However, Imam’s good work and runs as an opener should be trusted rather than threatened with the lingering presence of Shan Masood who is as one dimensional as he is as an opening batsman. Imam can do better by thinking twice before making any statement that could land him in trouble going forward from hereon, a statement that came back to haunt him as Iftikhar Ahmed and Muhammad Harris both did a great job with the opportunity provided for them. Imam should understand that yes, you have an XI that you want to give as much game time as you possibly can and back that XI to do the job, but the world of professional sport carries the danger of players getting injured as well, and therefore you must also have reliable back up options ready to be called up if needed.
Also, it is pretty narrow minded to think that Iftikhar Ahmed and Mohammad Harris (two specialist T20 batsmen) are not better hitters of the white ball in comparison to bowling all-rounders Shadab Khan and Muhammad Nawaz. Such a statement shows a lack of basic game intelligence by Imam, who clearly isn’t up with how the world of white ball cricket is moving forward.
The number 4 position area of concern
Just like the number 3 position being unsettled for Pakistan in T20s, a similar display for unsettlement in this position was at display throughout the series. Pakistan tried 3 players for this position within the squad, yet the total amount of runs scored in this position was 60 runs in 92 balls, at an average of @12.0. Evidently, Pakistan could not get any real momentum or solidarity in this position, which is a key batting position especially in a world cup tournament. Pakistan fans will remember the brilliant efforts of Harris Sohail against New Zealand and South Africa in the 2019 world cup, providing Babar with the support and the extra factor for Pakistan in its crucial matches in this position. Whilst the team overall looks well balanced, this one glaring hole needs to be filled up as soon as possible for Pakistan’s sake.
Usama Mir continues to knock on the door for a permanent spot in first XI
For a long time now, Pakistan has yearned for a spinner who can come on in the middle and challenge the opposition’s core middle order batsmen, and also threaten to make big breakthroughs. Mir impressed with his bowling against New Zealand ace batsman Kane Williamson in the last ODI series, and he also showed his ability to provide the major breakthrough in the 4th ODI of this series when he managed to remove Glen Chapman at a time when the left hander had gained enough momentum to chase down the runs for his side. Usama picked up 6 wickets in the series @27.00 runs per wicket and an economy of 5.78. Compare this to Shadab (Pakistan’s so called main spinner) who took 3 wickets @56.00 and an economy of 5.79.
Salman Ali Agha growing in confidence
There were some changes in the side throughout the series, but Salman Agha was one of the fortunate players to have played all 5 matches alongside players such as Babar, Fakhar, Rizwan and Rauf. It is becoming evident that Pakistan view Salman as one of their starting XI players, and Salman hasn’t failed to repay the faith. Two exquisite 50s at Karachi, and a confident display of how to play spin shows that Salman is ready to step up for the battle against spin in the world cup. Salman’s FC average of close to 40 would suggest that he has the skill to tackle difficult situations, as Pakistan will need it.
Naseem Shah finds control
When Naseem broke on to the Test arena at his tender age, he initially failed to live up to the expectations from him as he struggled to bowl consistently in the right channels, and the punishment he suffered at the hands of the elite batsmen of Australia, New Zealand and England must have taught him some harsh lessons of international cricket and the toil involved. However, the hard work and toil that he went through has been worthwhile for him, because the consistency he showed in the first ODI on the Rawalpindi road was exceptional where he bowled 10 overs for 29 runs, whilst everyone else went for economy rates above 6! Naseem Shah managed to bowl at an economy of 4.26 in the 3 matches he featured in, which is a magnificent achievement considering the placid nature of the tracks in Pakistan where going at 6 runs per over is very common for even the best fast bowlers.
A series that held very little value for the opposition besides bench strength development cannot truly be viewed as a true reflection of where the Pakistan team stands in the world, even though they did reach the number one ranking during the series. As a person reviewing the series, I have had the unenviable task to make the effort of finding needles in haystacks in order to somehow nit-pick issues within the side, and even if we commend the brilliance we cannot be sure as if the same standard of good performance will be demonstrated against the full strength sides that Pakistan will have to face during the world cup.
Overall, Pakistan can only try and refine what they have to work with and work against. They can do well by finding a solid number 4 candidate, an ideal choice for one or two spin bowling all-rounders with the inclusion of a specialist spinner. We will get a better idea of where we stand as an ODI team when the Asia Cup takes place in the near future, where Pakistan hope to play the tournament’s favorites (India), the dark horses (Sri Lanka) and the major threat of spin posed by Afghanistan, whilst Bangladesh also cannot be written off easily.