GeneralPakistan had set certain goals for the New Zealand T20Is. Did they achieve them?

Pakistan had set certain goals for the New Zealand T20Is. Did they achieve them?

For the first time in the last week, Pakistan fell on the right side of the figure of 178 as an epic pullback resulted in a thrilling nine-run win over New Zealand in the final T20I.

Pakistan, as their captain had declared on the eve of the series, hoped to finalize their squad through player rotation and by testing various combinations before the team departed for the UK, where they play the final seven T20Is before the all-important T20 World Cup in the US and the Caribbean.

The fact that a full-strength Pakistan only managed to level the series against an under-strength New Zealand raises the question of whether the team was able to meet the strategic objectives set for this series.

The team’s think tank, which will be joined by Gary Kirsten sometime next week, will now go back to the drawing board in their attempts to fill the many gaps that have come to light in this series.

“We have achieved our plans to a certain extent,” Babar told media after the series. “We went with different combinations in batting and bowling … We wanted to see how our players would react in certain pressure situations and on what spots would they be the most effective. We have done that. There were some positives, but we have lacked in certain areas, and the earlier we work on them, the better with the World Cup nearing.

“I know you will ask who will make the final cut for the World Cup. We will include those players in the squad who are the best for the team.”

The promotion of Saim Ayub to the top two to inject explosiveness is yet to pay dividends. The 21-year-old left-hander has now opened for Pakistan in eight consecutive innings and scored 20 or more only thrice. Overall, in 11 innings at the top, Ayub is averaging 14.72. Saturday night’s was another forgettable outing for the promising youngster was caught at one, trying to clear mid-off only in the second over.

Babar Azam ended his run-drought with a 44-ball 69 after New Zealand opted to chase. The Pakistan captain played some exquisite strokes around the dial, crunching Zak Foulkes for a four over mid-off and a six over mid-wicket only in the third over to raise the cheers of a raucous Lahore crowd by some decibels. He thrashed Ben Sears for three fours in the next over, which pushed the visitors on the back foot after the early breakthrough.

Despite this series being played on high-scoring pitches and venues, Pakistan repeatedly failed to score big in the powerplays and middle overs, and Saturday was no different. Pakistan gathered only 51 in the first six, scored at eight an over in the middle overs, and cruised at around 11 an over in the last five.

Usman Khan, who got another go at number three despite Haseebullah Khan in the squad, posted his top-score at this level with a 24-ball 31. The wicketkeeper had a jittery start and got comfortable as the innings went on. He was eventually removed by Ish Sodhi for the third time in four matches.

Usman has had terrific returns at number three in T20s before this series, scoring 374 runs at a staggering strike rate of 164.03 and an astronomical average of 125. His first two outings at number four had accumulated only 12 runs, which raised questions about whether Pakistan were utilizing him properly. Following Mohammad Rizwan’s hamstring tear, he was promoted to number three, where he played the last two matches, but has been unable to leave a solid impact through his explosive batting, for which he has been fast-tracked in the side.

The wicket of Usman put a dent in Pakistan’s scoring moment, which by then hovered around nine an over, as the pair of Azam and Zaman failed to hit a boundary in the next 24 balls. The lull put Pakistan’s scoring rate at this phase of the innings under the scanner, highlighting how the preference for rebuilding rather than counterattacking has cost Pakistan big scores. That rut was broken on the last ball of the 13th when Babar launched Ish Sodhi down the ground. Pakistan, across the series, have struggled to keep up the scoring rate in the middle overs.

Fakhar Zaman got on the charge later and made 43 off 33. He had revealed on Thursday that the management had conveyed their plans to play him at number four, and the left-hander, who has previously ventured into the middle order in international cricket, seems comfortable at the spot. He had previously made a 45-ball 61 in the fourth T20I, his only other outing in the series.

Fakhar at four opens up the possibility of at least two left-handers in the middle order with him and Imad Wasim, who, along with Mohammad Amir, has come out of retirement for this T20 World Cup. Pakistan now have to decide who amongst Babar, Rizwan, Ayub, and Usman make the top three, and the Ireland matches, which won’t be in such promising batting conditions, are their last bet.

Shadab Khan has stretched his batting form from the PSL into international cricket, establishing himself as a floater who can be unleashed during favorable phases and match-ups. Coming in to bat with nine balls remaining in the innings, Shadab spanked a six on the first ball and a four on the third, with a double sandwiched in between. In eight overs across the series, Shadab has taken three wickets and bowled economically, conceding under seven runs an over.

Iftikhar Ahmed has had a tough series as the late-order finisher failed to deliver the pyrotechnics that are expected of him. He made six off seven on Saturday, but since he has played some of the most scintillating knocks in the death in the recent PSL, Pakistan, who shuffled the middle order throughout the series, may not worry much about him.

Shaheen Afridi has recently been at the forefront of Pakistan’s iconic victories, and his lack of form had been felt. The Pakistan selectors and coaches can now take heart from the fact that he not only bowled at a consistent pace but with superb control. He swung the new ball, got his cutters to grip, and there were shades of reverse swing when he bowled at death.

Shaheen completed his half-century of first-over wickets in T20s with a jaffa and ripped apart New Zealand’s lower order when he returned into the attack to record his second-best T20I figures of 4-30.

An explosive 52 from Tim Seifert had almost knocked Pakistan out of the contest with the tourists cruising at over 10 an over, but Usama Mir, bowling his second over, brought the Lahore’s crowd to life with a short-pitched delivery that drifted in the middle and leg. The dismissal opened the floodgates as the tourists slid from 81-1 in 8.1 overs to 137-8 in 14.3 overs.

Mir, coming in the series at the back of an incredible PSL, bowled 12 dots, including a maiden, in his 2-21 across four overs and got good support from Shadab (2-0-15-1) and Imad Wasim (1-0-5-1) as they picked up crucial wickets, all the while stifling the Kiwis for runs. Mir can be the second leg-spinner in the playing XI, but he finds himself competing with Abrar Ahmed for a spot in the main squad.

Imad has played only two matches this series, ostensibly as Pakistan looked to protect him from the shorter Rawalpindi boundaries. Mohammad Amir, who came out of retirement like Imad for the upcoming World Cup and looked off-color on Saturday, has had mixed returns in the series. But since the two have been brought into the side on the basis of their CPL performances and their recent runs in the leagues around the world, Pakistan will expect the two most experienced players to deliver when it matters the most.

Abbas Afridi has been one of those stories that Pakistan look for before every World Cup. The right-arm quick has bowled with great guile in the middle overs and death in the absence of Haris Rauf. He has some effective cutters and back of the hand slower-ones that he bowls smartly, along with searing pace. He finished with five wickets from three matches, the second-best behind Shaheen.

Pakistan have to submit their preliminary World Cup squad by 1 May and send in the final list of 18 – 15 players in the main squad and three reserves – by 25 May to the ICC. Till then, Pakistan have four more matches – three against Ireland and the first of the four against England – to nail down their best squad.

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