Naseem-less Pakistan look up to Shaheen Afridi for lift-off in World Cup

HYDERABAD - Pakistan went through a phase when they were among the prime contenders for deep, po­tential title runs, but that time has passed of late. 

They reached a semi-final, a final, and won a title between 1987 and 1999, but their World Cup form has been patchy since. They were eliminated in the first round at three of the past five World Cups, including in 2019, and a quarter-final win over the West Indies in 2011 remains their only knockout tri­umph this century. 

This is a bit of a paradox. Pak­istan were ranked No.1 in the world a little over a week ago, but their most recent two games have overshadowed much of the good work that went be­fore. They beat New Zealand 4-1 in May and Afghanistan 3-0 in August, and followed it up by thrashing Nepal and Bangla­desh in the Asia Cup, and giving India’s batters a bloody nose in a game that rain washed out. But the wheels came off spec­tacularly in the Super Fours, Pakistan succumbing to a 228- run defeat against India before a narrow loss against Sri Lanka sent them tumbling out of the tournament. 

The shoulder injury, which has ruled Naseem Shah out of the tournament is the biggest selection news for Pakistan, leading to a late recall for Hasan Ali, who hasn’t played ODI crick­et since June 2022. Usama Mir comes in as an extra legspinner as Pakistan decide to go with­out a seam-bowling allround­er, omitting Faheem Ashraf altogether. In the absence of Naseem, Shaheen Afridi’s in­dispensable role as top-order destroyer becomes even more vital to Pakistan. A bit-part role in the last World Cup still saw him finish with 16 wickets in 5 games, and the best average in the top 10. Only Mohammed Siraj has more ODI wickets than Shaheen among fast bowlers who are participating in the World Cup this year, and on sur­faces where spinners and bat­ters are expected to enjoy them­selves, Shaheen is a trump card few other sides can match. 

He might be much too old to fit this category, but Saud Sha­keel is quietly hitting his stride as the World Cup approaches. The 28-year-old wasn’t in the white-ball frame at all until a few weeks ago, but has gone about converting his red-ball grit into with ball promise of late. Much of that was on dis­play in a sparkling 53-ball 75 against New Zealand in the warm-up game, and with Paki­stan lacking real quality in that middle order, Shakeel’s arrival, like most of his shots, could be very well timed. 

Good luck predicting Pakistan player retirements. It is conceiv­able every single player in that Pakistan squad will be knocking about in 2027, but this is proba­bly 33-year old Fakhar Zaman’s last tilt at the biggest white-ball trophy. Viewed as Pakistan’s top-order talisman until not too long ago - he scored three successive ODI hundreds just a few weeks ago - his form has dropped dramatically. He was replaced by Abdullah Shafique at the top of the order in the warm-up, and while Fakhar will likely play his role over the course of this tournament, it may well be the last time he does it in an ODI World Cup. 

SQUAD: Babar Azam (capt), Shadab Khan, Fakhar Za­man, Imam-ul-Haq, Abdullah Shafique, Mohammad Rizwan (wk), Saud Shakeel, Iftikhar Ahmed, Salman Ali Agha, Mo­hammad Nawaz, Usama Mir, Haris Rauf, Hasan Ali, Shaheen Afridi, Mohammad Wasim. -Courtesy Cricinfo

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