Pakistan can be genuinely excited about their World Cup prospects

Babar Azam-led squad is filled to the brim with match-winners of many shapes and form.
Published May 4, 2023

Babar Azam and Pakistan’s team management have a welcome headache. For the first time in living memory Pakistan not only have a first eleven without any gaping weaknesses but they also have a squad worthy of the name.

The side is just two wins away from claiming the top spot in ODI rankings and after claiming a comfortable win in the third ODI against New Zealand in Karachi, it is clear that some harsh calls will have to be made in this World Cup year.

The hosts have made this ODI series seem simple so far, swatting aside a depleted New Zealand in the first three games to take the five-match series 3-0, but the Black Caps are no pushovers.

New Zealand had not lost an ODI series to Pakistan in over two decades and the fact that many of these players were involved in the recent 2-2 T20I series draw shows there are no mugs in this touring side.

The gulf in class simply highlights how strong this Pakistan side is. What has traditionally been Pakistan’s biggest weakness — their top order — has been flipped on its head and Pakistan is now as top-heavy a batting side as they come.

This is almost certainly the greatest Pakistani top three in history. They are certainly the most prolific, with Babar Azam (59.29), Imamul Haq (51.3), and Fakhar Zaman (49.22) boasting the three best ODI averages of any batsman in Pakistan history.

The International Cricket Council’s rankings reflect how good this top three is at the moment. Fakhar recently jumped up the rankings into second position, behind Babar. The Pakistan trio occupy three of the top five positions as Imam rounds off the top five in fifth spot.

Screenshot taken from ICC website.
Screenshot taken from ICC website.

Even more ominously for opposition sides, they have taken into account the criticisms that have come their way. Babar and Imam are now scoring at a faster rate while Fakhar has become more reliable.

A case can be made for an over-reliance on the top three to score runs, highlighted by the fact that the only other Pakistani batsman in the top 50 is Haris Sohail at number 50. That Haris is Pakistan’s next highest ranked batsman is slightly worrying considering he has made a total of 135 runs since the end of 2019.

However, most teams would bite your hand off if you offered them Muhammad Rizwan at the number four or five spot. Having so many riches at the top of the order that you are unable to fully utilise the world’s second-best T20I batsman is not a problem that will garner you much sympathy.

Iftikhar Ahmed has struggled in the 50-over format, but he has proven time and again that he is more than a handy player to have around. And speaking of handy players, Agha Salman has quietly made a strong case for himself with solid contributions with both bat and ball in his fledgling ODI career.

The trio of Saim Ayub, Muhammad Haris, and Abdullah Shafique — young, exciting, and moulded by the pressures of T20 cricket — will continue to push for a spot in the ODI squad and can provide Babar with the option of having some extra cushion in the batting line-up if required.

The Men in Green currently miss a fast-bowling all-rounder but in India they can get away with playing multiple spin all-rounders without needing a fourth pacer. Vice-captain Shadab Khan will be a shoo-in for understandable reasons, but it will be a travesty if Imad Wasim does not make it into the World Cup squad and first team.

Muhammad Nawaz is a good player to have in the squad, but he cannot be justifiably included in the starting eleven ahead of Imad. Sense has prevailed and Imad is back to winning games for Pakistan in the shortest format. The same must happen in the 50-over game if Pakistan are to take their best squad to India, especially considering Imad can plaster over the biggest crack in the side with his finishing abilities.

Perhaps for the first time, there is a roster of first team and squad players in the Pakistan camp to get truly excited about even before we get to the magnum opus — the pace attack. How Pakistan do it is anyone’s guess, but by now it is almost taken for granted that they will produce some of the finest fast bowlers of every generation without fail.

Naseem Shah and Haris Rauf would be worthy pace spearheads in many a team and the fact that they play second fiddle to Shaheen Shah Afridi says more about Shaheen’s otherworldly talent than it does about them. Ihsanullah just has too much in his arsenal to not eventually become a fearsome proposition in his own right, while the likes of Zaman Khan, Muhammad Wasim, and even Muhammad Hasnain would walk into most international teams but struggle to even make it into the squad.

Pakistan not only have a formidable first eleven, but they also have a formidable squad to choose from and they will understandably be quietly confident of going into rival territory and winning their second World Cup come November.

The author is a freelance journalist