Justin Langer couldn’t have possibly taken over as Australian men’s cricket coach at a more difficult time.
Pakistan may be the world’s number one T20I team but they will be without a host of key players when their three-match series against Australia starts in Sydney today.
For a variety of reasons, the tourists will be missing wicketkeeper-batsman Sarfraz Ahmed, pace prodigy Shaheen Afridi, quality quick Hasan Ali and veteran all-rounders Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik.
All five of those players have had a significant impact for Pakistan in the past two years, during which they have hovered at or near the top of the T20I rankings.
In their places will be the uncapped trio of Khushdil Shah (batsman), Usman Qadir (leg spinner) and Muhammad Musa (pace bowler), and the unproven Mohammad Rizwan (wicketkeeper), Mohammad Hasnain (pace bowler) and Iftikhar Ahmed (batsman).
Pakistan will still boast a core of world-class T20I cricketers including gun batsman Babar Azam, impactful quick Mohammad Amir, and elite all-rounders Imad Wasim and Shadab Khan. But this Pakistan line-up is not nearly as intimidating as the one which dominated Australia last year, winning five consecutive matches against them.
First Pakistan beat Australia in the final of the Zimbabwe T20I tri-series in Harare in July, then they thumped them 3-0 in the UAE in October.
Sarfraz and Shoaib played key roles as Pakistan won that match in Harare, while Hafeez, Ali and Afridi hurt Australia in the following series.
The fact none of those five players will be involved in this current series will greatly weaken the tourists. Although they should be far tougher competition than Sri Lanka, who were just bulldozed 3-0 by Australia.
Sri Lanka upset Pakistan 3-0 in Karachi last month and against Australia they will field a team brimming with inexperienced players. In Babar, Amir, Imad and Shadab, though, they have a quartet of phenomenal T20I cricketers, each of whom has a fantastic record against Australia.
Versus the Aussies Babar has averaged 81 with the bat, and Amir, Imad and Shadab have averaged 13, 15 and 18 with the ball, respectively.
It has been Pakistan’s bowling which has offered them the biggest advantage over Australia in recent T20I encounters. Left-arm quick Amir has regularly made an impact with the new ball as well as blanketing Australia at the death. Shadab has consistently taken wickets through the middle overs against Australia with his accurate leg-spin.
And Imad has proved remarkably difficult for the Aussies to get after, conceding just 5.75 runs per over in his four matches against them. So difficult, in fact, that Pakistan decided to open the bowling with the left-arm finger spinner in his last three matches against Australia.
Bowling around the wicket and targeting the stumps, Imad caused a lot of problems for Australian skipper Aaron Finch, who is usually a dominant player of spin in the shortest format. Imad also shapes as a good match-up against David Warner.
The left-handed Aussie likes to cut the ball off his stumps in T20s but this is a very risky shot against Imad, who changes up his pace and flight so well.
Because Imad and Shadab are also gifted with the bat, Pakistan have the advantage of being able to play five bowlers. That leaves a pair of specialist bowler positions open alongside Amir, Imad and Shadab.
Those two spots look likely to be filled by aggressive left-arm quicks Mohammad Irfan and Wahab Riaz. They played in Pakistan’s easy warm-up win over a Cricket Australia XI on Thursday, taking 1-19 from four overs and 1-27 from four overs, respectively.
Both of those pacemen are natural wicket-takers. Wahab has a great short ball and is capable of nudging 150kmh. Irfan, meanwhile, is a truly unique bowler due to his extraordinary height – standing 216cm he is a whopping 20cm taller than Mitchell Starc.
An Australian batting line-up missing its best player of the past two years, Glenn Maxwell, faces a stiff task against this Pakistan attack. The home bowlers appear to have a simpler challenge due to the absence of Sarfraz, Malik and Hafeez.
Pakistan do, however, have the world’s number one ranked T20I batsman in Babar. The 25-year-old is a sedate batsman by T20 standards, scoring at just 7.6 runs per over in his international career. Consistency is his greatest asset, having passed 30 in no less than 55 per cent of his career innings.
Babar anchors the Pakistan innings, giving freedom to attack for more dynamic batsman like Fakhar Zaman and Asif Ali. Pakistan are not, and never have been, a particularly high-scoring T20I side.
Similar to the dominant Perth Scorchers team under the reign of Justin Langer, their biggest strength has been disciplined bowling and a supreme ability to defend even middling totals.
Compared to Sri Lanka, their attack is fantastic, even without Hasan and Afridi. Pakistan may not be at full strength, but they loom as fierce foes for the Aussies over the next week.