Despite not making it to the semi-finals of the 2019 World Cup, Pakistan had their moments. They won four games in a row to sign off the tournament and they beat both teams that ended up making it to the final. They lost out on a semi-final spot to New Zealand on net run-rate, thanks to a crushing defeat against West Indies in their first game, a contender for their worst World Cup performance of all time.
That could be viewed as a positive tournament for a nation ranked seventh going into it, but the PCB came to a different conclusion, letting go of the coaching staff and replacing the captain. The job was given to Misbah-ul-Haq, his first major coaching role since his international retirement in 2017. But two years on from an ODI tournament which the PCB felt necessitated a change, what do we know about the new man’s plans for that format?
Surprisingly little, really, but the blame for that can hardly lie at the head coach’s feet. Pakistan have played a mere five ODIs since Misbah’s appointment, fewer than Papua New Guinea, Oman and Namibia; only Nepal, with four, have played less ODI cricket in that time. Two ODIs against Sri Lanka in 2019 and the three Zimbabwe played in Rawalpindi last year offer the only glimpse into Pakistan’s roadmap for the 2023 World Cup for now.
While that might have taught us little, Pakistan are about to head into a series that should offer plenty more insight. The three-match series in Centurion and Johannesburg is the first real test of a Misbah-led ODI side, and the head coach’s first audition to retain that position going into the 2023 World Cup. With much of Pakistan’s focus on T20 cricket over the past year – understandably so, given there are two T20 World Cups before the next ODI World Cup – this format has been something of an afterthought.
But Pakistan’s belief is that the cricket we get to see in the upcoming ODIs should put paid to any ideas that the format is being neglected. Having closely followed the India-England series over the past week, Pakistan feel there are several lessons to be learned, and while England’s generational talents make it difficult for any side to repurpose their template for their own use, expect to see Pakistan try and emulate India’s approach at their best.
Pakistan have played safe, perhaps even anodyne, ODI cricket for several years now, and results in major competitions have reflected that. A brilliant, if inexplicable, 2017 Champions Trophy aside, Pakistan’s two most recent World Cup performances have seen them finish fifth (2019) and exit at the quarter-final stage in 2015. The Champions Trophy in 2013 saw them lose all of their group stage games; since the start of 2013, Pakistan have won just 22 of 81 ODIs against Australia, England, India, New Zealand and South Africa – the sort of sides you generally compete against at the back end of big tournaments.
That approach, talk from within the camp suggests, might be belatedly shelved, and that the cricket they play in South Africa will reflect that. That means it is likelier to see them get bowled out for 250 in pursuit of totals in the mid-300s, rather than opting for the safety of 280.
While a top four of Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq, Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan doesn’t necessarily suggest explosiveness, the thinking seems to be that consolidating early on will allow versatile players like Azam and Rizwan to move through the gears in the middle overs, letting Asif Ali, Faheem Ashraf and Shadab Khan loose later on.
This would appear to suggest an approach reminiscent of the kind India take, of prioritising wickets in hand over flying starts. Zaman’s contributions up top become essential to any kind of positive start, with an early departure likely to entrench Pakistan into caution.
This is where a lower middle order comprising Asif, Shadab and Ashraf begins to look slightly frail; while those players look great walking out in the final 15 overs, their ability to consolidate should the top order fall early is yet to be tested. Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Hafeez in the middle have historically provided a buffer, but with Pakistan intent on moving on, this is an area that will need close attention in the run-up to 2023.
It would also signal, if indeed Pakistan take this approach, a departure from the style Pakistan favoured in the ODI series against Zimbabwe, where a scratchy 2-1 win did little to suggest tangible progress. In South Africa, conditions might be more favourable to a progressive approach with the bat, especially at the Wanderers and SuperSport Park.
While much of the focus when it comes to Pakistan’s quaint approach to ODI cricket has zeroed in on the batting, Pakistan’s bowling is in a transitional, uncertain phase, too. Mohammad Amir is out of the picture, as, most likely, is Wahab Riaz, two of the sides’ spearheads at the World Cup. And while this is an area often deemed to be Pakistan’s strength, the numbers, especially at the death, are concerning.
Since the end of the 2015 World Cup, only West Indies, Sri Lanka and England have been more generous in the final ten overs than the 7.47 runs Pakistan allow. Shaheen Afridi aside, none of the quick bowlers have quite nailed that phase of the innings. Hasan Ali, set to play his first ODIs since the World Cup game against India, began his career in the death overs well (his economy rate until the end of 2017 was 5.11) but faded as his overall form did. Managing Pakistan’s resources at the death provides an interesting challenge for fledgling captain Azam.
The spin department might also see some turnover as the games progress, but this series might well be a bellwether for the direction Shadab’s ODI career. As his skills with the bat have improved, his struggles with ball in hand – his primary value to the side – have continued to trend in the wrong direction. For obvious reasons, the most useful sample size comes from T20 cricket, but Pakistan will have their head turned by Usman Qadir’s sharp rise in the shortest format, and they may well wonder if he can be pressed into ODI service at some point.
With the lack of control the bowling department seems to offer, the absence of Imad Wasim might seem curious, but it appears attitude and disciplinary reasons have taken precedence over cricketing ones. Ditto Haris Sohail, which puts Danish Aziz front and centre at No. 5 in the order.
There is enough to suggest though that this is a budding, developing side not a decaying one. This series might be an important pre-credits scene in a captivating coming-of-age story if the ideas behind it come to fruition over the next week, but not all the plot points make complete sense just yet. It might need extensive work from a young cast to sell the idea, because in the world of Pakistan cricket, those behind the script might just as easily be left on the cutting room floor in the big picture.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.