Fresh from their Asia Cup debacle, Pakistan now face the number two-ranked England at home for the first time in 17 years.
The marathon seven-match series comes less than a month away from the T20 World Cup in Australia, and even though the squad for the big tourney has already been named, changes are always possible, especially in the capricious world of Pakistan cricket.
Ahead of the series’ first match, here are five Pakistan stars who are under the media spotlight due to various reasons, and could use some eye-catching displays to ease things.
1- Babar Azam
If Babar Azam could, he would roll the Asia Cup in a carpet, tie it to a cinder block and throw it into the ocean with a prayer that it makes it to the bottom. He’d be fine with never seeing or hearing from the tournament again, such was his torrid form in the tournament.
For a man who averages 42.36 in a single T20I, he couldn’t get past the 30 mark in any of his six outings.
All he managed were a paltry 68 runs for a tournament average of 11.33 runs. Had it been any other cricketer (barring Mohammad Rizwan), Babar would have been watching the England series from the comfort of his drawing room and with a remote control instead of a bat in his hands.
But the man we’re talking about here is Babar Azam. The accumulated goodwill from years of unerring run making means Babar the batter gets a pass. Babar the captain, though, doesn’t have that luxury, especially when the dominating narrative is that it was his captaincy that lost Pakistan the Asia Cup final.
A week or so removed from that horror show, Babar gets a swift chance to erase those painful memories with some glittering cover drives and some 60s and 70s — even if they come at a strike rate of let’s say 115.
Even if he fails again (God forbid), the powers that be are unlikely to swap him for a new captain so close to the World Cup, but it would definitely add to the accumulated damage that can be cited for mass changes post-World Cup that almost always happen.
2- Mohammad Rizwan
It’s a strange world we live in where a man who was the highest scorer in the previous tournament is also under pressure and will have to prove his game. That’s how technical modern cricket has become.
While Babar’s problem during Asia Cup was him being unable to stay at the crease for long, Rizwan’s problem was completely the opposite. He was found guilty of hanging around for far longer than needed, which flipped the script on him.
His career strike rate of 127.07 is even lower than Babar’s but during Asia Cup it dipped 10 more to 117ish.
The pint-sized keeper now faces a fight to prove that he can score and score quickly. Again, like with Babar, Rizwan’s accumulated goodwill means his place in the T20 side is unlikely to come under threat any time soon, even more so because of a lack of options below him.
However, in the crazy world of Pakistan cricket, where narratives can prove decisive, if he fails to cover the sole chink in his armour, he could lose his spots in the other two formats where he is not seen as indispensible.
3- Iftikhar Ahmed
Forget form and strike rate, and let’s just admit that some of the critics’ problem with Iftikhar Ahmed is not cricket-related.
His nickname of “Chacha” (uncle) should explain what the fans think of this ‘32-year-old’.
While Babar, Rizwan and some others have an impressive body of work crafted and chiseled over years to lean on in their times of crisis today, Iftikhar does not have that luxury.
The only thing he has perfected is his reputation of a jack-of-all, master-of-none type player who is supposedly a finisher but can’t even do that.
History tells us that those kind of team members who do not have a defined role and are not exactly crowd favourites can be the first line of defence in the face of criticism. The selectors wouldn’t think twice in replacing him from the World Cup squad even though he has made the original list, which remains editable.
Thus, Iftikhar would need a big England series and could desperately use a game or two where he finishes the game — or his game would be finished.
4- Khushdil Shah
Whatever you can say about Iftikhar, you can also say about Khushdil — minus the age jibe.
Khushdil is another one of those supposedly hard-hitting batters of similar ilk packed in the middle order. He is a domestic circuit stalwart who has failed to come up with the goods at this level so far.
His role can understandably be difficult at times — especially when the openers up top often end up batting in the meaningful part of the innings and only leave garbage overs behind. That said, after 19 T20Is, some of them against minnows, Khushdil should have something better to show than a strike rate of 110.31, average of 20.50 and a highest of 36, which he scored against Zimbabwe in Rawalpindi. That explains it all.
After the Asia Cup, it was thought that he was in the team on borrowed time but the not-so-nifty lefty still somehow made the cut for the World Cup. However, during the England series, every move of his will be scrutinized by cricketer-turned-cut-throat critics on TV.
He puts a foot wrong and off he’d be from the World Cup squad.
5- Usman Qadir
Due to no real fault of his own, Usman Qadir could also be in the firing line and potentially cut from the World Cup squad, if someone else turns heads in the England series and he doesn’t.
Some still consider Qadir to be the best legspinner in the country but he rarely gets meaningful opportunities due to Shadab Khan’s bowling resurgence and his ability with the bat developed over the past two years in PSL.
Qadir’s experience of domestic leagues in Australia means that ideally he should be on the flight Down Under.
However, if someone such as Abrar Ahmed — another leggie — were to play out of their skins in the England series and then had to be picked for the World Cup, Qadir could be the easiest sacrifice to offer as few would care or critique the move.