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Many thanks to a respected member of our forums for this intriguing preview of the upcoming West Indies versus Pakistan limited-overs series.
By Mansoor Khan (16th March, 2017)
Pakistan and West Indies have a combined total of seven ICC trophies to their name. These two teams dominated international cricket during the 1980s and early 1990s with star studded lineups that were the envy of their rivals and the darlings of cricket lovers worldwide. By the time of their famous 1988 Test series, West Indies had firmly cemented their place at the summit of world cricket whilst Pakistan had the strongest claim to being No.2.
How the mighty have fallen. Today these two fallen giants, sitting at 8 and 9 in the ODI rankings, face the potential ignominy of having to qualify for a World Cup both have previously won.
West Indies’ absence from this year’s Champions Trophy is a notable reminder of how far the Caribbean side have fallen - failing to qualify for a tournament they won in 2004 after sliding out of the top eight in the ODI rankings. Much like Pakistan, over the years they have been through countless coaches, captains and selectors in a bid to stem their cricketing decline and hit the heights of yesteryear.
New coach Stuart Law faces a tough task in ensuring the hosts return to the top eight of the ODI rankings in order to automatically qualify for the World Cup. Law’s men come off the back of a dreadful whitewash at home to England reiterating the gap between West Indies and the top sides. The primary objective must be to show signs of progress and win a bilateral ODI series for the first time since August 2014. That victory too was against a Bangladesh side much weaker than the present team. In fact, if one discounts Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, the West Indies haven’t beaten a top ODI side since their win in New Zealand in July 2012!
Therefore there can be no excuses for Pakistan who enter the series as favourites having whitewashed the hosts in both limited overs formats last autumn in the UAE. The journey to the Caribbean presents as Pakistan’s final opportunity to settle upon an XI capable of delivering a strong show in the Champions Trophy after the shambles in 2013 where the tourists lost all three games.
This series will be notable for being Sarfraz Ahmed’s first stint at the helm as ODI captain replacing his beleaguered predecessor Azhar Ali who’s been dropped from the ODI squad altogether. With a dismal run of form and little to show for in results, Azhar looked a doomed man since the 4-1 hammering in England last summer. New leadership could be what kick-starts Pakistan’s recovery in the 50 over format and Sarfraz has shown impressive tactical nous in his brief tenure as T20 skipper. Sarfraz has also twice taken an unfancied Quetta team to the final of the Pakistan Super League so fans will be hoping he can repeat similar feats with the national side.
However, there are four T20Is to negotiate first and West Indies have enjoyed a golden spell in the format. Last year, they became the first side in the competition’s history to win the ICC World T20 twice and are currently ranked 4th in the ICC rankings ahead of the tourists. Pakistan had been the tournament holders in 2009, but since then have declined in a format in which they were once formidable having crashed out of the group stages of the competition last year. Pakistan nevertheless have staged a mini-recovery having won all four T20Is since the tournament.
Central to that recovery were the two openers currently suspended after the PSL fixing scandal in Sharjeel Khan and Khalid Latif. The absence of these two explosive batsmen has left Pakistan’s team composition up in the air and lacking the sort of power hitting Pakistan desperately needs.
The recall of Kamran Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad, intended to fill this gap, has left Pakistan fans divided. Some argue that the pair’s recent domestic form, including in the recently concluded PSL, could not be ignored. But many are sceptical given their failures upon previous recalls to international cricket. The retention of Mohammad Hafeez has also raised eyebrows given his dismal PSL showings, leaving some questioning why such a senior player has been granted countless chances at redemption when a youngster could be groomed in his place. Fakhar Zaman and Asif Zakir represent two alternatives should the “big three” senior players fail.
However, a number of youngsters have been given an opportunity to make a name for themselves.
Leg spinning all-rounder Shadab Khan was arguably the most eye-catching youngster of the PSL, taking 9 wickets at an average of 19 and possessing the sort of control over his line and length beyond his youthful years. Not only can he turn his leg break, Shadab has a well disguised googly that troubled experienced international batsmen in the tournament.
Also named in the ODI squad is Mohammad Asghar, who did not feature prominently in the PSL, but has been a regular for the Pakistan A side and should enjoy the slow, low Caribbean pitches that makes spin bowling potent.
Rumman Raees keeps his place in the T20I side having been included for the reverse series in the UAE where he made his international debut, and deservedly too given he was the third highest wicket-taker in the PSL. His well disguised slower deliveries and economical bowling will be handy if named in the starting XI.
Fahim Ashraf also joins the brigade of uncapped players that have made the plane journey to the Caribbean. Pakistan have lacked quality pace bowling all-rounders since the days of Abdul Razzaq and Azhar Mahmood, but Ashraf has shown promise, having finished the leading wicket-taker in the recent departmental one day cup with 19 scalps at an average of 23. Ashraf’s batting does requires improvement if he’s to make his name as an international all-rounder, possessing a meagre List A average of 14.
Pakistan’s captain and coach are not short of options in their squad, but whether these options are of the standard needed to thrive in international cricket remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, West Indies face a similar struggle to settle upon a starting XI. Question marks hang over Kraigg Brathwaite’s position as ODI opener. Whilst a talented Test batsman, an ODI SR of 57 is out of place in the modern game. Without Darren Bravo and Marlon Samuels due to disputes with the board, the middle order looks vulnerable. Much rests on young Barbadian wicket-keeper batsman Shai Hope, one to watch after smashing a brilliant hundred in the final of West Indies’ recent domestic Super50 tournament, and Jason Mohammad who scored two fifties in the recent England series who too had an impressive Super50 tournament averaging a healthy 62.
The success of the home side will also depend whether the bowling attack has the wicket-taking threat to capitalise when they have the opposition under threat. In the opening ODI v England in Antigua, the hosts had the visitors on the rack at 29-2 and 129-4 with the RR proceeding at a crawl, yet England went on to make close to 300. Shannon Gabriel can deliver incisive new ball spells at searing pace and has improved his control. Whilst injuries have prevented him from maximising his potential, he can trouble Pakistan’s top order along with young pacer Alzarri Joseph. Devendra Bishoo must also produce the goods after a disappointing series against England. Under pressure captain Jason Holder realises the need for results. He has been found wanting tactically on several occasions. With the recent changes at board level with new CEO Johnny Grave and new Director of Cricket Jimmy Adams, a new leader may also have to be introduced on the field should West Indies lose yet another home series.
Fallen giants they may be, but Pakistan and West Indies are two teams who are rarely missing from the cricketing headlines, and are capable of producing intriguing contests in equal measure as maddening controversies that have been witnessed by their long enduring fans over the years. Pakistan have not lost a bilateral ODI series against the West Indies since November 1991, so there’s no doubting where expectations lie ahead of this series.