Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Pakistan World Twenty20 squad a mixed bag

Yesterday the PCB announced the Pakistan squad for the T20 series against Australia and the Twenty20 World Cup in Sri Lanka. The squad has plenty of surprises, and poses many questions about the balance of the team.

The openers:
The squad features 4 openers amongst the 15 players, which does seem excessive. With captain Mohammed Hafeez guaranteed to take one spot, and Karman Akmal the wicketkeeper in the squad, one would assume the opening partnership takes care of itself. Where this leaves the other two openers in the squad is open to debate. Nasir Jamshed is returning from injury, while Imran Nazir has received an umpteenth recall to the side.

There is a possibility that Imran Nazir could have been selected with an eye on his fielding ability, allied with his prowess in clearing the circle. If this is the case, Kamran could move down one place in the order, or could conceivably also bat lower down the order to shore up the tail. Nasir Jamshed does provide variety through his left-handed batting option, however barring any unforeseen circumstances, he should be fourth in the pecking order of the openers.

The middle order:
Shoaib Malik is going to be expected to anchor the innings, although his recent form in Twenty20 internationals would suggest that he might not be able to do so successfully. There is a hint of irony in the fact that former captain Misbah-Ul-Haq wanted Shoaib in the previous squad for his experience when nobody else wanted him, and will now be sitting on the sidelines watching Shoaib take his place.

However, if there is one team that does not necessarily need an anchorman in their batting line-up it is Pakistan. There is plenty of stroke-making talent in the middle order, and if some of them click together Pakistan could post some competitive totals. Umar Akmal will be expected to go after the spinners, and Asad Shafiq will mix big hitting with his ability to constantly rotate the strike. As for the batting enigma that is Shahid Afridi, it's best not to make any predictions.

The All-rounders:
One has to feel for Hammad Azam. The talented young cricketer just hasn't been given a fair run in the team to prove himself. If anything, just the experience of being in the squad would have been of huge benefit to him and the future of Pakistani cricket. In his absence it's a straight fight between the recalled Abdul Razzaq and Yasir Arafat. Arafat's ability to consistently bowl yorkers is a great option for Hafeez to rely upon, but his batting has been misfiring for a while.

The logical progression would be for Adbul Razzaq to play in the team after being selected in the squad. His renowned hitting prowess in the latter stages of an innings gives Pakistan an edge they have been missing in the slog overs for a while. His bowling may not be as potent as it once was, but if Razzaq can deliver some economical 2 over spells, then he certainly could be the final piece of the jigsaw for Pakistan.

The bowling attack:
The most bewildering decision the selectors have made is dropping Junaid Khan. By far the best bowler in the test series against Sri Lanka, his selection had seemed a foregone conclusion for the World Cup being played on the same pitches. His ability to bowl yorkers and reverse the ball will be sorely missed.

The fast bowling responsibility now falls on the shoulders of Umar Gul, Mohammed Sami and Sohail Tanvir. Tanvir made a splendid return in the series against Sri Lanka, and should again be a handful on Sri Lankan pitches. The same cannot be said of either Gul or Sami. Both bowlers seem to rely too much on confidence, and in the latter stages of an innings against a rampant batsman, both could easily fall away and concede many runs. While it's a guarantee that one of them will play, Pakistan need not play both and compromise the balance of the side.

This is where Pakistan's biggest strength comes into play - their spin attack. Between Mohammed Hafeez, Saeed Ajmal and Shahid Afridi, the team is guaranteed 12 overs of exceptional twenty20 bowling. All three have the ability to check the run rate as well as take wickets. If Razzaq scrapes in another 2 to 3 overs, they have to split the remaining 5 or 6 between Tanvir and Gul/Sami.

Final Verdict:
It wouldn't be a Pakistan squad without surprise omissions and some baffling inclusions. While Zaka Ashraf isn't the PR disaster that Ijaz Butt was, he does share his predecessor's knack of inconsistent selection. Furthermore, one wonders why Pakistan named an outright 15 man squad, when most other teams are naming preliminary squads featuring 30 players, and naming their final squads closer to the World Cup.

The captaincy will be a huge test for Hafeez, and more will be learnt about his leadership in the series against Australia. Misbah's calmness and mental fortitude will be missed along with his presence in the middle order. Junaid's absence might also be noticed if things don't go well in the bowling department.

That being said, no team defines the term mercurial better than Pakistan. Ultimately Twenty20 is a form of the game, where the superior team doesn't always win. With the best spin attack in the tournament, and the flair of the Akmal brothers, Afridi and Razzaq, Pakistan have every chance of going far in this Twenty20 World Cup as they have done in every version of the tournament so far.

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