Time to stand up and deliver for underperforming World Cup hopefuls

Published October 6, 2021
Despite being sidelined by Pakistan for just over a year now, Shoaib Malik continues to surprise many with his consistency in the T20 format after belatedly joining Central Punjab. — M.Arif/White Star
Despite being sidelined by Pakistan for just over a year now, Shoaib Malik continues to surprise many with his consistency in the T20 format after belatedly joining Central Punjab. — M.Arif/White Star

KARACHI: While the National T20 Cup’s second-leg action starts at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore from Wednesday, pressure is mounting on the underperforming Pakistan players who have been — originally — named in the Twenty20 World Cup squad.

At least five among the 15-man national side were struggling to justify their selection during the 18-match first leg of the event in Rawalpindi. Of the quintet, only Sohaib Maqsood overcame a poor start with two half-centuries for the winless Southern Punjab.

But his team-mates Azam Khan and Khushdil Shah, Northern’s Asif Ali and Sindh speedster Mohammad Hasnain all failed to make any impact at the Pindi Cricket Stadium, barring a few exceptions.

Some of national chief selector Mohammad Wasim’s original selections for the mega event have been repeatedly questioned even before the domestic event was due to start.

The abrupt cancellation of the New Zealand white-ball series last month had already complicated Pakistan’s preparations for the T20 World Cup because those bilateral international fixtures against the Black Caps would have provided a stern test for the players picked by Wasim and company.

While reports of possible changes to the Babar Azam-led squad have began to emerge on the horizon before the Oct 10 cutoff date — put in place by the International Cricket Council — because the Pakistan captain had reportedly expressed dissatisfaction over several selections during his meeting with the incoming cricket board chairman Ramiz Raja.

Babar’s worst fears have, more or less, have been confirmed the way Azam, Khushdil, Asif and Hasnain have fared in the ongoing national event. Statistics seldom lie and figures of the players in question, as of now, give a clear picture.

Azam had just one innings of note under his belt when he made a 40-ball 45 in Southern Punjab’s last game — against Babar’s Central Punjab side on Sunday — after aggregating just 55 runs in five previous matches in Rawalpindi. Known for belting the white ball many a mile, Azam’s strike-rate of 116.27 in the ongoing national T20 event is well below his overall career rate of 143.24.

And in spite of being named as Mohammad Rizwan’s understudy for the World Cup, the burly Azam had a rough time behind the timbers with only three dismissals — five fewer than tournament’s leading wicket-keeper and Sindh captain Sarfaraz Ahmed — in six outings.

Khushdil had been out of sorts throughout during the Rawalpindi leg. The big-hitting left-hander have mustered a total of 98 runs from six innings with a best of just 25 and three other scores the 20s. Had he been firing on all cylinders, Southern Punjab would have won at a couple of games rather than losing all of them, thus far.

Originally named to lead Southern Punjab, Sohaib relinquished the captaincy, in a surprise move, after scoring 75 against Northern to concentrate on his batting, while being his team’s highest run-getter with 171. Player-of-the-tournament in the HBL Pakistan Super League 6, Sohaib has managed another half-century but also suffering the ignominy of being dismissed twice for ducks.

Asif Ali, something of an enigma all through his career in Pakistan colours, got off to a flying start for Northern with an unbeaten 20-ball 43 against Balochistan before tailing off to end the first leg with 103 runs from five innings with a typical finisher’s strike-rate of 194.33.

Haider Ali — touted as the brightest white-ball prospect for Pakistan but sadly overlooked for the World Cup — is one of only four batters to top the 200-run mark in the tournament. His aggregate of 208 includes an undefeated 91 versus Central Punjab and another 50-plus score, while his strike of 141.49 is far superior to those achieved by Azam and Khushdil.

Among the bowlers selected for the World Cup, Hasnain undoubtedly has been the biggest flop until now. The 21-year-old has leaked runs at a breakneck speed with an economy of exactly 10 an over across six matches.

In sharp contrast to Hasnain’s struggles, Shahnawaz Dahani has been the star performer for table-toppers leaders Sindh with nine wickets, while his economy of 7.01 is decent enough to merit induction in the Pakistan squad. But tragically, Dahani along with Fakhar Zaman and Usman Qadir have been penciled in as travelling reserves for the World Cup.

While most of the World Cup-bound players are in good nick with Mohammad Hafeez — the solitary absentee from the opening leg after contracting dengue — still to be tested, several discarded stalwarts have sent strong reminders to the selectors that they are still a force to be reckoned with.

Despite being sidelined by Pakistan for just over a year now, Shoaib Malik continues to surprise many with his consistency in the T20 format after belatedly joining Central Punjab. The 39-year-old showed he hasn’t lost the art of improvisation, which he amply showcased against a Sindh attack featuring the likes of Hasnain, Dahani and Rumman Raees Khan to hit up 85 off 47 balls. It was the right-hander’s 67th half-century in T20 cricket.

The other big story is of vastly experienced Wahab Riaz. The 36-year-old has seldom bowled economically on a consistent basis with the white ball as he had done so far. Wahab’s 18 overs have fetched the left-arm pacer nine wickets at an admirable average of 12.44 with a exceptional economy of just 6.22 — which supersedes the stats returned by the World Cup-bound trio of Haris Rauf (7.75), tournament’s top-wicket-taker Shaheen Shah Afridi (8.58) and Hasan Ali (8.79).

Published in Dawn, October 6th, 2021

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