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Rizwan, Azam and Zaman fly high but middle-order problem deepens for Pakistan

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Roar Guru
17th April, 2021
2

Pakistan reigned supreme over South Africa across all formats in the last couple of months.

Pakistan first beat South Africa in a couple of Tests in Karachi and Rawalpindi, followed by sealing the three-match T20I series in Lahore.

Babar Azam and company toured the rainbow nation for a return series at the beginning of April and returned with the ODI and T20I trophy, winning the rubbers comprehensively. Despite a successful last couple of months that has given them hope, Pakistan have issues that need addressing, especially the T20 World Cup.

Babar Azam and Fakhar Zaman were the standout batsmen in the ODI series, ending with averages of 76 and 100.66, respectively.

Babar Azam batting for Pakistan

(Harry Trump-IDI/IDI via Getty Images)

After a lean couple of years in ODI cricket, Zaman seems to rediscover his stride slowly. While his partner Imam-ul-Haq made two half-centuries, there remain questions over his ability to accelerate and collect boundaries at will.

Pakistan’s middle order is a grave concern, given they threatened to squander the advantage in the first and third ODIs, alongside their lack of support to Zaman in the second.

Danish Aziz and Asif Ali wasted their opportunities to nail down a spot as they ended the rubber without significant scores. Yet Danish Aziz might receive a chance or two more to make a case and Asif Ali could well be on the sidelines for a long time.

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For all the promise shown by Mohammad Rizwan, he could not live up to the bare minimum expectations either. But as we saw in the third ODI, Pakistan remain inclined to play Sarfaraz Ahmed as keeper, bringing some experience to the middle order and letting Rizwan focus on his batting.

In the bowling department, Pakistan delivered performances in bits and pieces, but it was hardly an eye-catching show by any fast bowler.

Haris Rauf, with seven wickets, was the highest wicket-taker for them in ODIs, coming at 24.42 apiece and conceding 5.89 per over. He indeed made some crucial strikes, mainly in the second ODI when South Africa threatened to cross 360 and ended nearly 20 runs short.

It was promising, but it did not possess quite the fire of the Proteas’ Anrich Nortje, who took seven scalps in two matches at 16.28.

Yet Rauf is a promising prospect and might fare well in India, where the 20-over and the 50-over World Cups would be played. Hassan Ali and Shaheen Shah Afridi have the talent, but they lack the consistency and control and against the top sides in the world, and they might be put to the sword.

Shaheen Shah Afridi

(Photo by Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images)

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But Aaqib Javed’s advice on managing Shaheen’s workload deserves consideration, while you can expect Ali to keep improving, given he made his comeback from injury recently. And Ali’s cameo in the third ODI, prompting the captain to cut loose to lift their side to 320, deserves special mention.

Perhaps, Mohammad Nawaz’s emergence and his game-changing spell in the third ODI was an excellent sign for the tourists. Nawaz getting rid of Janneman Malan, Temba Bavuma and Heinrich Klaasen within five overs almost killed the game for South Africa.

Nawaz, the left-arm spinner, also an all-rounder like Shadab Khan, found success from the get go, while the leggie went wicketless in both the ODIs and failed to finish the first when he had the chance to. Shadab also lost his opportunity to shine with Zaman in the second game, as all the southpaw needed was a batsman to hang with him. But Shadab still has a spot open, with Usman Qadir being far from a finished product.

Jumping to the T20Is, Pakistan enjoyed successive dominant series over South Africa – both home and away. It was Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan who played defining roles with the bat.

As destructive as they were, they had extremities attached to them. For instance, on one side of Rizwan’s 73 and 74, there were a couple of ducks. On the other hand, Azam’s 122 accompanied his uncharacteristic run-a-ball 50 and he had 14 and 24 to his name.

But it’s essential to acknowledge the vast amount of unfair pressure on Rizwan and Azam, given their fallible middle order. One of them or both must go hard at the top and bat through the innings to give their side the best chance of finishing strongly. Mohammad Hafeez, who has earned the label of being a T20I giant of late, failed to deliver any compelling performance.

Mohammed Hafeez

(Lindsey Parnaby/AFP/Getty Images)

The promise of Haider Ali could not live up to its billing, while another Ali in Asif slumped miserably too. For all their class and exploits, Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan are not experienced enough yet to thrive under the pressure of knockout games and the best teams would steamroll Pakistan should they fail. Hence, the middle order has to step up and deliver.

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The first and fourth T20Is could have well gone South Africa’s way had Faheem Ashraf and Mohammad Nawaz not crafted the invaluable cameos. But the likes of Haider Ali and Mohammad Hafeez would likely have an opportunity in the three more T20Is scheduled to kickstart from the 21st in Zimbabwe. Yet that would be nothing like achieving credibility by performing in South Africa, albeit against a depleted outfit.

Nawaz’s emergence as a wicket-taker once again proved an asset in T20Is. The left-arm spinner’s five scalps in four T20Is were the highest by a spinner in the series. But Nawaz’s economy rate of 8.53 underlines that he needs to gain greater control. However, there is little doubt that he remains in serious consideration for the T20 World Cup. Pakistan’s pacers, led by the highest wicket-taker of the rubber, Hasan Ali, were equally impressive and pulled South Africa back twice from dominant positions.

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The final T20I was pleasing to see in this regard as they snapped the last nine wickets for 72 runs, bowling out the hosts for 144 from 1-73. The seamers shared nine wickets between them, with Faheem Ashraf taking 3-17.

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While they have certain issues to deal with ahead of the World T20 in India later this year, Pakistan took a big step towards improving their world standing in international cricket. You can expect them to iron them out in time for the tournament to at least be competitive.

Babar Azam’s leap to become the number one ODI batsman and leading from the front deserves respect. Caveats and contexts like this South African side is a relatively modest one seem unreasonable since the visitors competed like a champion team even against a full-strength team in the first two ODIs. And it was not that fragile an outfit after all since the Proteas made their opponents work for victories and refused to lie down easily.