Off to a flyer

Pakistan are quick off the blocks in the West Indies. K Shahid previews the final two T20s

Off to a flyer
There was a lot to admire about Pakistan’s comfortable six-wicket dispatching of the West Indies at Bridgetown, with 17 balls to spare. It ensured that skipper Sarfraz Ahmed’s unbeaten run continued and that the visitors got off the blocks in a tour that would go well into the summer.

This piece is being written before Thursday’s second T20, so quite a lot might have changed. But what wouldn’t have changed is the reality of the new-look Pakistan that appears to be bordering on the bare minimum expected of a modern limited-overs outfit.

The star of the show was of course 18-year-old Shadab Khan, the young prodigy that caught everyone’s eyes with his performances in the PSL this year. He took three wickets in the first eight balls of his international career to finish with 3/7 in his allotted four overs. It was the most economical spell of bowling for any debutant in a format where dot balls are synonymous with gold dust – he had 17 of those in his 24-ball spell.

Skipper Sarfraz Ahmed embraces Shadab Khan

The turn in his leg-spin, and the destruction in his incognito googly, were both there as Shadab bamboozled the World Cup winning batting lineup of the West Indies on their home turf. He also managed to get a catch dropped off his bowling at point, where Kamran Akmal was uncharacteristically fielding.

While Akmal looked good in his comeback 22, it is his fielding that will remain under scrutiny. The cover as a wicketkeeper – albeit with the much publicised limitations – has added to Akmal’s batting skills for every team that he has played for over the past decade and a half, including the Pakistan national side. Without the gloves he would be under additional pressure to deliver with the bat, especially when it will, in all likelihood, be coupled with unconvincing fielding.

The other comeback opener, Ahmed Shehzad, didn’t resemble the one who regularly delivers for Quetta Gladiators in the PSL. Although he did appear similar to the Ahmed Shehzad that usually plays for Pakistan. But with Sarfraz Ahmed’s backing, and Sharjeel Khan’s suspension, Shehzad should be confident of getting an extended run in the side. How he deals with it is up to him.

Shoaib Malik congratulated by Sarfraz Ahmed after hitting the winning runs

Babar Azam looked solid for his 29, without ever accelerating beyond what was needed in the context of the run chase. Babar’s elegant little-over-run-a-ball scores have become a norm in T20 cricket for him, and it remains to be seen whether he can take the strike rate up to over 130, if he’s to match the potential that many believe he has.

Mohammed Hafeez was the glaring failure with the bat, after having only been utilised for a single over with the ball. While Hafeez at his best is the dream T20 player, it’s been a while since he’s been anywhere near that.

Shoaib Malik was the pick of the batsmen and would be the key in the remaining matches, where West Indies should find their groove with the bat. Once that happens, Pakistan would not be able to afford the slow starts that Shehzad, Babar and Hafeez customarily deliver, especially for the national side.
The bowling in the first ODI was flawless. It's now up to the batsmen to match their big-hitting West Indian counterparts

The bowlers barely put a foot wrong in the first game. Barring a late Carlos Brathwaite flourish, that dented Wahab Riaz’s figures, everyone else was flawless. In addition to Shadab’s magical spell, Imad Wasim only conceded 12 off his 3, while Sohail Tanvir was 1/21 and Hasan Ali 1/25 in their four overs.

With Hasan Ali also capable of a few slogs at number 11, this new look Pakistan, on paper, bats deep and has at least six frontline bowlers – including Hafeez – and the option of Malik’s off-spin as well. It’s just a matter of converting what’s on paper on the pitch, especially with the bat.

Despite the addition of Kamran Akmal up top, Pakistan still lack a genuine big-hitter throughout the batting line-up, especially lower down the order. While Sarfraz Ahmed, Imad Wasim and Shadab Khan can all accelerate, none of them can clear the boundary with the frequency required, especially at their batting positions.

While the bowling completely turned the tide in Pakistan’s favour in the first T20, it would be interesting to see if this lineup can crack 180 with the frequency needed to beat the West Indian side.