THERE is no doubt Pakistan face the biggest challenge of their status as the top-ranked T20 side in the post-Sarfraz Ahmed period. The onerous task in front of incoming skipper Babar Azam and his rather inexperienced squad is the daunting prospect of taking Australia head on during the three-match series that starts next Sunday (Nov 3).
Head coach Misbah-ul-Haq in his capacity as the chief selector took bold steps by picking an unprecedented number of uncapped both in the T20 and Test squads which he announced last Monday — featuring six newcomers altogether, with three named in the T20 team and four for the two-Test rubber while Mohammad Musa Khan considered talented enough to be included for both formats.
The just-ended National T20 Cup for the First XI held in Faisalabad offered ample opportunities for the Australia-bound tourists to gain invaluable match practice for the international fixtures Down Under. Notwithstanding the contrasting nature of Iqbal Stadium pitch compared to what Pakistan would find in Sydney, Canberra and Perth, the report card of the shortest-format squad members offers interesting reading.
The selection of Musa, the 19-year-old right-arm speedster from Islamabad, is a huge gamble that could go either way. He played just two matches in the National T20 — claiming four wickets (all in one game) with question marks being raised over his overall fitness that actually prevented him playing in the final for the eventual winners Northern.
For Usman Qadir it’s a dream come true barely six weeks since his legendary father Abdul Qadir suddenly died of cardiac arrest in their hometown of Lahore. Nowhere in the class of his illustrious dad as a leg-spinning wizard the 26-year-old been picked largely selected because of his exploits in the domestic Australia Big Bash competition. He took just five wickets in four matches for Central Punjab.
He may not get the opportunity against Aaron Finch’s team to showcase his talent, but Khushdil Shah’s selection is a deserving reward for consistent performances in limited-overs cricket over the past couple of domestic seasons. The 24-year-old left-hander from Bannu had a decent National Cup for someone batting in the middle-order. In five games for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, he scored 161 runs at 80.50 with a brilliant strike-rate of 159.40 — only Asif Ali, Amad Butt and Wahab Riaz bettered that rate of scoring during the tournament.
After a run of low scores in international cricket this year, Asif, who topped the National T20 Cup six-hitting chart — 19 of them — by a distance, showed signs of finding his range in the Northern colours as the 28-year-old Faisalabad power-hitter averaged 47.40 with the highest strike-rate of 199.15 while being the event’s third highest run-getter — behind Balochistan’s Awais Zia (276) and his Northern team-mate Umar Amin (266) — with a tally of 237.
Babar himself looked in great nick with 219 runs (averaging 73.00) with a 158.69 strike-rate and was only one of two players to reach three-figures — team-mate Ahmed Shehzad being the other — while captaining Central Punjab.
While most of Pakistan’s established batsmen had a decent run — Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Fakhar Zaman (192 runs in six matches) and Balochistan’s Imam-ul-Haq (191 in seven) — there is definite cause for some concern with Haris Sohail as the skipper of runners-up Balochistan mustered just 65 runs from six matches.
There is likelihood of Wahab being used as a pinch-hitter in the Australia series as the Pakistan paceman surprisingly topped the batting chart (and averages) for Southern Punjab. Helped by three not-outs, the 34-year-old scored 130 runs at 65.00 with a strike-rate of 166.66 but claimed only six wickets from five matches in his primary role.
If there is any selection that surely raised eyebrows it is that of the gangling Mohammad Irfan. Now a ripe 37-year-old the left-arm fast bowler from Gaggu Mandi — who last played for the country against New Zealand at Mohali during the 2016 ICC World Twenty20 — grabbed five wickets from as many games for Southern Punjab, but his economy rate of 5.00 was the best of the lot during the Faisalabad event.
The sudden induction of Irfan to support fellow left-armers Mohammad Amir, who starred for Northern with eight scalps at 20.62, and Wahab is purely an indication that Misbah is basically counting on his experience rather anything else, keeping in mind that the T20 World Cup is just a year away in Australia.
But if Misbah was looking for someone similar to Irfan, the credentials of National T20 Cup’s highest wicket-taker Sohail Tanvir — 14 in seven appearances for Northern at 16.07 — were much stronger. Another plus point for the Rawalpindi man being he is younger (he turns 35 on Dec 12) and much fitter and mobile in the field than the lethargic Irfan.
Mohammad Hasnain — the forgotten man of the 2019 World Cup — would love bowling on true tracks of Australia. The 19-year-old from Hyderabad promises to be a genuine long-term prospect as an out-and-out speedster who had a decent outing for Sindh (nine wickets in five matches at 18.22).
With Sarfraz dumped for the time being, the return of Mohammad Rizwan was a forgone conclusion. The 27-year-old captain of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was an unsurprising choice as player-of-the-tournament in the National T20 Cup after accumulating 215 runs in six matches at 43.00 and making six dismissals behind the stumps.
Among the rest, Imad Wasim not only led Northern to the title but had a satisfactory competition (75 runs at 25.00 and six wickets at 22.33), his team-mate Shadab Khan snared 11 wickets at 18.00 in a welcome return to form, while Iftikhar Ahmed had a low-key tournament for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (123 runs at 24.60) with one reason him being floated up and down the order.
Published in Dawn, October 27th, 2019