Over the past week or so, the mood of the Pakistani team and management has continued to improve, as the loss in the Test series has become a distant memory. Misbah had talked, as far as back the third Test, about new players coming into the side and bringing a fresh viewpoint to the existing atmosphere. The presence of senior players who’ve been through more than most (the likes of Shoaib Malik and Shahid Afridi) has added to the momentum gained from the win in the T20 series.
The most obvious example of this was the hard-fought win over the SA Invitation XI in Kimberley where Shahid Afridi was a constant source of encouragement and guidance to the fast bowlers from his position at mid-on. And the work of the coaching staff, in the nets and otherwise, has helped Pakistan mentally move on from the series loss.
But the cause for optimism is still pretty shaky. Pakistan’s record against South Africa in South Africa reads 6 wins in 21 matches. This is particularly galling when you consider that Pakistan won its first three of those matches in 1993 – which has been followed by 3 wins in the next 18 ODIs. They’ve also lost both of the bilateral series they’ve played against the Proteas. And despite the series win over India in India, Pakistan’s recent ODI record has been a cause of concern. Over the past 14 months Pakistan have lost 11 of their 17 matches (removing the results from encounters versus Afghanistan and Bangladesh).
The reasons for this record are obvious. Pakistan continue to be one of the better bowling line-ups in the world, but in the fifty-over format, the batting has not been competent enough to complement the bowling. Pakistan have had to basically bowl the oppositions out of the game – as they did in India – for the team to be successful. And South Africa, with four of the best ODI players in their top-five, will be a bigger test than most.
The problems with Pakistan’s batting stem from the permutations of the batting order. There are four men in the squad (Kamran Akmal, Mohammad Hafeez, Nasir Jamshed and Imran Farhat), each of whom prefer to open, but barring Jamshed, all have failed to prove that they are anywhere near international standards. The jury for Jamshed is still out as he is far too fresh to be fully judged. Each of the other three, though, batting at the top of the order, average in the late-20s and early-30s over more than a decade of international cricket - those are not records that impart faith and confidence in fans and their teammates. ODI cricket, and batting lineups, have historically been based around the top-3 of any side – Pakistan have been very much the aberration from this widely held belief. It makes sense for your best batsmen to maximize their batting time. In Pakistan, though, the best batsmen have to be protected from the new ball.
In the practice match at Kimberley, Kamran Akmal batted at 3 for the Pakistani side and top-scored with a relatively fluent 47. He is likely to remain in that position if the indications from the team – and the drills he is doing in the nets – are anything to go by. This would mean that the likelihood of Hafeez moving down the order as he did in the T20 – and as I have advocated previously – are minimal. Jamshed and Farhat will fight for the final opening slot – a battle that shouldn’t be as close as it appears to be.
Pakistan’s best batsmen in this format, both in terms of potential and their skill level, remain Umar Akmal and Asad Shafiq. I have talked before about Umar Akmal needing to come up the order if he is to become something more than a mere cameo specialist. The same could be said of Shafiq, who has grown immensely as an international player over the past 14 months, and he needs to be the bedrock on which Pakistan can build around. But the problem for Pakistan is that in the absence of bowlers who can bat, the sixth bowler is likely to be Shoaib Malik. Again, that is not a scenario that some Pakistani fans, including myself, endorse heartily. The cases for both Abdul Razzaq and Hammad Alam – two men at the extremes of their career – remain stronger than those of Malik’s. But neither of them was deemed selection-worthy for this squad.
The batting order problems are, of course, affected by the fact that Pakistan have both Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan in the middle order playing like its 1993 rather than 2013. The ideal batting lineup for Pakistan is probably something close to: Jamshed, K.Akmal, Shafiq, U.Akmal, Misbah, Hafeez and Razzaq. But the most likely will be a top-five of Jamshed, Hafeez, Kamran and the two old dogs, with only one of the youngsters playing with Shoaib Malik as the all-rounder. The former lineup might not be the greatest in the world, but that remains the best that Pakistan can possibly put out without compromising on the batting depth or their bowling strength – and maximizing from the talent they do have. But it’s the latter that we will likely see at Chevrolet Park on Sunday morning.
On Friday, Ryan McLaren talked about South Africa focusing on Pakistan’s spin-dominated attack, something that is a rarity in most international encounters. It’s not just that Pakistan has spinners; it is that Pakistan has good spinners. But yet again, this is going to be a series when they, as well as the fast bowlers, will have to play out of their skins for Pakistan to emerge victorious. It is not an ideal state of affairs, but it is one that Pakistan have forced themselves into.