It’s been 31 years since Imran Khan’s ‘cornered tigers’ — without injured Waqar Younis — roared at the right moment and Pakistan won the Cricket World Cup in Australia.
After seven unsuccessful attempts over three decades since that famous 1992 victory in the final against England at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the script is quite similar for Pakistan skipper Babar Azam for the Oct. 5-Nov. 19 tournament in India.
Young fast bowler Naseem Shah was believed to be the key weapon in Babar’s pace armory to conquer the batters on cricket pitches across the border in company with pace duo of Shaheen Shah Afridi and Haris Rauf.
But too much workload over the last year — that included playing in the Lanka Premier League just before the Asia Cup — finally took its toll on the 20-year-old Naseem.
Naseem injured his right shoulder during the Super 4 stage game against archrival India in the Asia Cup which now requires surgery and could delay his return to international cricket for three to four months.
Energetic Hasan Ali, who hasn’t been part of Pakistan’s white-ball cricket for over a year, got a surprise recall to fill in for Naseem after several other in contention like tall fast bowler Ihsanullah and Mohammad Hasnain were also ruled out because of various injuries and the selectors preferred to keep another young pacer Zaman Khan on the list of traveling reserves.
“We have been struggling to pick fast bowlers because of injuries, it was not just Naseem’s injury,” said chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq. “We focused on choosing experienced players as we wanted someone familiar with the conditions and could take the pressure of a big event like the World Cup. That is why we picked Hasan Ali.”
While Babar continues to blossom at the top of ICC batting rankings by scoring plenty of runs in white-ball cricket, there are several cracks in his bowling department which could hurt Pakistan’s chances to qualify for the semifinals.
Naseem has showed his ability to choke runs not only in the batting powerplay and in the middle-overs, but also conceded less than run-a-ball during the final overs when the batters normally push the scoring pedal with their big hitting.
However, neither the fast bowlers nor the spinners could make any impact during the Asia Cup which saw Pakistan losing to India by a hefty margin of 228 runs and then Sri Lanka’s inexperienced side overhauled the target of 252 runs which knocked out Pakistan from the final spot.
The form of Babar’s deputy — allrounder Shadab Khan — is also not impressive this year with the leg-spinner picking up only 13 wickets in 11 ODIs and scoring 138 runs at an average of 19.71.
The silver lining for Babar’s Team Pakistan is that Afridi and Rauf could dismantle any top order in the World Cup as they showed during the abandoned group game against India in the Asia Cup.
But it is the lack of spinners’ ability to pick up wickets in the middle overs which is worrying Inzamam.
“The three spinners (Shadab Khan, Usama Mir and Mohammad Nawaz) have been with the team and are good players,” Inzamam said when he announced the squad. “They need to work harder to be effective in the middle overs because it is very important for the spinners to play their role.”
Left-handed opener Imam-ul-Haq is among the top four ODI batters in the world, but the form of Fakhar Zaman has raised many questions about the left-handed batter’s ability in the top-order. Since his three successive ODI hundreds at home against New Zealand,
Fakhar hasn’t scored a half century in the subsequent 11 games. He seemed to be fatigued by long travels during the Asia Cup, scoring only 65 runs in four matches.
But Babar’s brilliance with the bat could see Pakistan post imposing totals against more challenging sides such as India, England and Australia with players like Salman Ali Agha, Mohammad Rizwan and Iftikhar Ahmed giving the skipper support in the middle-order.
Pakistan has two relatively easier opponents before its marquee match against India at Ahmedabad on Oct. 14. It will be taking on first-timer the Netherlands in the opening match before meeting Sri Lanka.