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CRICKET: THE BENCH PRESS

April 14, 2019

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Statistics might not tell the entire story but you can never argue with numbers: over the past nine months or so, Pakistan have lost more One-Day Internationals (ODIs) than they have won — 12 out of 23.

One could argue that these are false figures since they also account for the recently-concluded series against Australia that saw a clutch of youngsters being thrown in at the deep end. Minus the Australia result, Pakistan would have won 10 out of 16. The retort to that would be that Pakistan also handed a 5-0 drubbing to Zimbabwe earlier this season. In any case, Pakistan’s win-loss ratio over the period has been a dismal 0.833 (South Africa have the highest win-loss ratio at 3.200, winning 16 games out of 21).

As the Pakistan think-tank finalises its combination for the World Cup, this abysmal record must be a concern. The three series that have seen the ‘first XI’ play together have been the Asia Cup, the away series against South Africa, and the home series against New Zealand.

The probables list of 23 for the World Cup-bound cricket squad is in. What options does Pakistan have from its bench strength?

In case you were wondering, the first XI that the Pakistan team management had settled on during these three series was: Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq, Babar Azam, Mohammad Hafeez, Shoaib Malik, Sarfraz Ahmed, Shadab Khan, Faheem Ashraf, Imad Wasim, Hasan Ali and Shaheen Shah Afridi. These 11 players already have their places booked on the plane to England.

Worryingly, though, on all three occasions, the national team was found wanting when confronted with a tough challenge. And as the tinkering ahead of the Australia series shows, the selectors have also been looking for options for the final list of 15 for the upcoming World Cup in the United Kingdom. Here’s an assessment of the bench options for the four remaining slots.

MOHAMMAD RIZWAN

Mohammad Rizwan
Mohammad Rizwan

Nailed on to take the first slot on the bench, not the least because the last performance against Australia is what sticks in the mind. Mohammad Rizwan had a memorable series against Australia, shining in the middle-order and establishing himself as a batsman of considerable quality. Being a reserve keeper always helps but Rizwan might not make it into the team the same way Moin Khan played in the squad alongside Rashid Latif in 1996. However, the first spot is his.

VERDICT: IN

HARIS SOHAIL

Haris Sohail
Haris Sohail

It’s a shame that Haris Sohail’s name is on this bench list when he should probably be starting in the middle order. His lazy elegance has a separate fan base — this past year has seen him score at an average of 60.66 in seven innings.

His 364 runs included two centuries and one fifty. Rizwan’s stellar series has meant that Sohail finally has some competition for his place. Don’t expect him to start the World Cup, but fully expect him to come into the team as one of the top three, inevitably, fail.

VERDICT: IN

SHAN MASOOD

Not enough runs. In any case, Pakistan are unlikely to take a third opener with them.

VERDICT: OUT

ABID ALI

Not enough time to make an impression.

VERDICT: OUT

MOHAMMAD NAWAZ

With two permanent spots likely opening up after the World Cup, Mohammad Nawaz will surely challenge for a place. But, for the time being, he hasn’t done enough to challenge the incumbent two.

VERDICT: OUT

ASIF ALI

Asif Ali’s only hope of getting into the World Cup squad is if someone gets injured. His strike rate is above 130 but the runs he has scored are paltry. In his absence, Pakistan will have to recalibrate who hits the sixes at the death.

VERDICT: OUT

MOHAMMAD AMIR

It’s the hope that kills.

Everyone wants to see ‘that’ spell from Mohammad Amir again, when Rohit Sharma was bullied and Indian captain Virat Kohli bamboozled. The World Cup is in the UK, the same country where he delivered the performance of the tournament in a Champions Trophy final against India. Big match player.

But while the temptation is to rekindle that fire in the hopes of witnessing another spell of magical fast bowling, it does not stand the test of numbers. Barring his stellar economy rate, there hasn’t been much else going Amir’s way. Without a doubt, he created pressure on one end, but that isn’t why he is in the team. A pack leader of Pakistani fast bowlers ought to take wickets but this skill seems to have abandoned Amir over the past year.

VERDICT: OUT

MOHAMMAD ABBAS

Mohammad Abbas
Mohammad Abbas

There are only two spots left and both will go to fast bowlers. One is likely going to be a speed merchant and the other the medium pace seam and swing bowler. Mohammad Abbas might not be express but he is a virtuoso at making the ball dance to his tune.

If Amir is discarded, Pakistan are short of fast bowlers who can bowl with the new ball. This is where Abbas comes in, providing a very unique option from the bench in terms of experience and skill. Although his ODI debut only came in the recent Australia series, there was enough movement extracted off the pitch by Abbas for him to become a strong contender for a berth in the squad. Along with the recent Pakistan Super League (PSL) stint, Abbas managed to show in the Australia series that Test skills can also be transferred on to the shorter formats of the game. The World Cup is a game of nerves and Abbas is a master in exploiting nerves.

With only one spot for a swing bowler, would I take Abbas to the World Cup over Amir?

Yes.

VERDICT: IN

JUNAID KHAN

Junaid Khan has done absolutely no wrong to not be on that plane. Only problem is he is fourth choice in a squad brimming with swing bowlers.

VERDICT: OUT

MOHAMMAD HASNAIN

The future is Mohammad Hasnain’s, but the present might be too soon. Blessed with blistering pace, he could have been a serious option if it weren’t for the battery of pacers ahead of him in the pecking order. Although it might be scant consolation, there is already an achievement to celebrate. The young gun managed to squeeze out experienced pacer Wahab Riaz from the probables’ list.

VERDICT: OUT

USMAN KHAN SHINWARI

Usman Khan Shinwari
Usman Khan Shinwari

The most exciting Pakistan win last year was at the Wanderers. Shaheen Shah Afridi and Usman Khan Shinwari opened the bowling as South Africa chose to bat first. First Shaheen took out two of the top order before Shinwari returned to remove the late order resistance. Left-arm swing.

Usman is perhaps the best-managed young fast bowler that the Pakistan set-up has produced. He has been kept in and around the team, and handed a game or two as well. Ever since the Champions Trophy win, Usman has bagged 28 wickets in 15 matches. While Shaheen has had a meteoric rise, Usman’s has been steady. But without doubt, the swinging yorkers delivered at high pace have made him a potentially lethal weapon in reserve.

VERDICT: IN

The writer is a member of staff
He tweets @ASYusuf

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 14th, 2019