The very existence of Pakistan cricket turns the sport more fascinating. They bring the element of uncertainty to the next level and never disappoint when it comes to delivering extremes on the field of cricket.
The biggest challenge to cricket or any sport remains predictability, which takes away the factor of excitement. But with Pakistan in action, there is no love lost for the most unpredictable and jaw-dropping outcomes. The world underestimated the English side after the COVID outbreak reduced them to playing just a single first-choice player in the series. But forget crushing them, the Men in Green put up such a shambolic show that they not just lost the series, but a second-string - or I should say, in the words of Ramiz Raja, a 'B-Grade' - English side smashed them. Today, we compile the biggest takeaways from the series for the world's sixth-ranked ODI outfit.
Never ever doubt the man, the myth, the legend - Babar Azam
Babar Azam generally has a very cool, calm and zen-like presence. You never get to know what's transpiring between his two ears. But boy, when he got to the triple-figure mark in the third ODI against England, he celebrated the milestone as wildly as Virat Kohli. Taking up your game a notch higher when the pressure is sky high is a hallmark of a champion player. Babar has walked well on the tight rope of being a Pakistan captain, at least, with the bat, like a true champion.
The job ain't easy. There is a bunch of former cricketers turned YouTube experts, waiting to shred the skipper, the team and the players to grab the eyeballs. The fans are impatient as hell, given the tumultuous journey that comes along being a Pakistani fan. And then the pressure of captaining a fairly inexperienced, underperforming side whilst being the best batter at the same time. But, in nine ODIs as captain, Babar's average has shot up from 54.17 to 78.25, and he has smashed three centuries, including a career-best score of 158. Simply put, he has walked on fire and transferred the heat to the bowlers.
There were question marks whether he would be able to perform as well with the added responsibility of captaincy, but if anything, it has only made him a better batsman. Moreover, whenever the criticism has peaked, he has transcended it with his willow. Case in point, he was under pressure after failing in the first two ODIs, but he just killed it in the third ODI, putting up his best show yet. Even in the South Africa T20Is, after making a 50-ball-50 and getting brutally trolled, he shunned his critics with a 59-ball-122.
Imam-ul-Haq needs to rejig his approach
Imam-ul-Haq boasts an impressive CV - second-fastest to 1,000 runs in ODI history, an average of 49.34, and centuries in South Africa and England. But it's hard to talk about him sans his sluggish career strike rate of 80.3 in the 50-overs format. Even in the third ODI, the southpaw was slow off the blocks and got 56 at a strike rate of 76.71. Now, if he was playing for a team like England, full of aggressive performers who deliver as well, his batting might have gone under the radar. But not for a team like Pakistan, which has a non-existing middle-order or power-hitters who hardly succeed.
Even when Babar and Rizwan smashed 158 and 74, which was top-notch, all that Pakistan ended up with was 331, which was pretty chaseable in England as witnessed in the game later on. The team's overdependence on Fakhar Zaman to give rapid starts makes Pakistan vulnerable. While batting first for the Men in Green, Imam has struck at 78.03 in the last 10 ODIs. With the majority of those games played in the UK, that makes it unacceptable for him to bat at such a poor strike rate.
To put things into perspective, in the last five years in England, no opener has batted at a poorer strike rate than Imam (80.64) amongst the nine openers, considering a minimum of 15 games. The average strike rate for openers in England in the period has been 93.29, which shows the complete contrast between what's expected from him and what he's able to deliver for the batting unit.
Shadab Khan needs to strike more often
By definition, a leg-spinner is an attacking weapon supposed to give away runs in the pursuit of runs, which ultimately turns the game. However, with Shadab, neither he has been amongst the wickets, nor he has controlled the flow of runs. He could merely take three wickets in the recently-concluded series at 43, with an ER of 5.61, and was striking every 46 deliveries, which was ludicrous. Even against South Africa, he had gone wicketless, giving away 109 runs in 17 overs at an ER of 6.41. Since the start of 2019, he has scalped 20 wickets in 19 games at 46.85 and has the worst strike rate of 48.5 among Pakistan's top-five wicket-takers in the period.
His ineffective bowling has been a major contributing factor in Pakistan's poor middle-overs (11-40 overs) record this year. In 2021, Pakistan have the worst ER (5.73), average (61.80) and strike rate (64.73) in middle-overs, for any side that has played a minimum of five ODIs. It has been a period where Shadab's poor run has hurt Pakistan immensely, and a lack of wickets from his end has also eased pressure from the other end, which has helped the batters pile up misery on the Men in Green. For all his batting abilities, he has just 97 runs in five games in 2021 at 19.40 with the highest score of 33, which is again under-par. So, he has been a disaster on all accounts.
Does Faheem Ashraf merit a place in the side?
The emergence of Faheem Ashraf, the all-rounder in Tests, has awed one and all. But does he merit a place in the ODI outfit? Well, it's a question that Misbah-ul-Haq, Babar Azam and the national selectors need to ponder. For all the solidity that he provides on the paper, he averaged 5.33 after batting thrice in the series, while not in one game he bowled more than six overs. An all-rounder needs to contribute in both batting and bowling, but Faheem has failed in both departments. And this series was no exception. In 2021, the left-handed batter has averaged 6.60 after six innings with the bat, while he has an average of 114.50 with the ball in hand.
But it's not just about this year alone. His whole ODI career has been a story of underperformance. In 31 ODIs, he has scalped 23 wickets at 46.08, while with the bat, he averages 11.47 after 22 innings. He has never scored more than 28 in any 50-overs game, while on the bowling front, only once has he taken three wickets or more, and even that came against Zimbabwe. And it's hardly surprising, given he only nailed red-ball cricket even at the domestic level and always had an average List A record. He averages 15.42 with the bat and 29.60 with the ball in List A cricket. Quite simply, hype can only take you so far, and it's about the time when Pakistan seriously reconsider his merit in the side.
The redemption of Hasan Ali in ODIs
Pretty much on the lines of Hasan Ali's 'bomb explosion' celebration, he exploded with the bat and the ball against England, much to the relief of the side. Well, this was the player that Pakistan had signed up for. A game-changer, partnership breaker and the pacer with an X-factor. His five-for at Lord's turned the game on its head as his middle-overs burst of three wickets induced a mini-collapse, and from 118-2 at one stage, England ended up with a sub-par 247. He picked up a first ODI five-for in over four years in ODIs after going through an extended period of failure. Most importantly, he unleashed his old venom back, be it with the new ball or as an enforcer in the middle-overs. Even in the third ODI, his cutters with the old ball were troubling the English batters.
He has been phenomenal since the last Quaid-e-Azam trophy, and the series marked his fifth five-wicket haul in international cricket this year, which is some redemption. From the start of 2019 to the end of 2020, he had gone through his worst phase, picking 12 wickets in 16 games, across formats, at 75.58. In ODIs, it was even worse, with seven wickets in 12 games at 89.28. But in 2021, there has been a massive turnaround, and the pacer has scalped 46 wickets in 14 games at 16.69. And with this series, he's back to his best, even in the 50-overs format.