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Pakistan seek to arrest slide as race for semi-final spot intensifies

Last updated on 22 Oct 2023 | 12:12 PM
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Pakistan seek to arrest slide as race for semi-final spot intensifies

On Monday, Pakistan will have to overcome a very resilient, very dangerous Afghanistan side in tricky conditions

After achieving one of their most famous wins ever against Sri Lanka in Hyderabad, completing the highest successful chase in World Cup history, Pakistan’s campaign has hit a roadblock. 

The Men in Green began the World Cup with consecutive victories but will enter Monday’s clash against Afghanistan having lost their last two. In fairness, Pakistan entered both the India and Australia games as the ‘less fancied side’ but it’s the manner of the defeats that have been a major cause for concern.

That’s the bad part. The good part is that, despite the mini-slump, Pakistan are still well and truly in the Top 4 race. The current format gives teams leeway to lose a couple of games but not only that, the Men in Green’s semi-final hopes have been bolstered by South Africa’s demolition of England on Saturday. 

Early days, but, at this point, it does look like Babar Azam’s side are in a direct shootout with Australia for the fourth spot, with India, New Zealand and South Africa all looking like certainties to make it to the knockouts. 

But in order to continue to stay in the race, the Men in Green will have to overcome a very resilient, very dangerous Afghanistan side in tricky conditions in Chennai. 

Afghanistan have always proven to be tricky customers for Pakistan —  case in point the 2019 World Cup — but the Chennai factor is bound to make things even trickier for Babar’s men. Hashmatullah Shahidi’s men might have been well below their best against New Zealand, but have already shown in this World Cup what they are capable of and would be hoping to claim another major scalp. 

Things to watch out for 

Pakistan need their skipper to step upAt 134/1 chasing 368, it felt like the stage was set up for Babar Azam to play a special knock and help Pakistan seal a historic win against Australia. The conditions, at that point, were fully in Pakistan’s favour too. However, what followed was yet another disappointing showing from the bat of the skipper, who perished for 18. 

Big things were expected from Babar’s bat post his sensational 150 against Nepal in the curtain-raiser of the Asia Cup but since then, the Pakistan skipper has scored just 139 runs from 7 innings at an average of 19.85. In this period, he’s managed to cross 30 just once.

Babar’s (lack of) form wouldn’t have been an issue had Pakistan been firing overall, but not only are the other batters outside Mohammad Rizwan struggling, it’s been a forgettable few weeks for the bowlers as well. A lot is already being asked of the batters due to Pakistan’s stronger suit (bowling) letting them down and Babar’s lean patch is compounding the issues.

With Pakistan’s World Cup hopes hanging in the balance, the Men in Green desperately need their skipper to step up and play a big knock. 

Will Afghanistan drop the struggling Rahmat Shah?With 101 ODIs to his name, Rahmat Shah is up there as Afghanistan’s most experienced campaigner, but the 30-year-old’s waning form is a huge cause for concern for Hashmatullah’s side. This year, Rahmat is averaging just 19.92 in 13 ODIs but, more concerningly, striking at just 69. 

This strike rate drops to a further 62 in this World Cup and in the previous game against New Zealand, the right-hander posted a bizarre, intent-less 36 off 62 balls, chasing 289 on a challenging surface. 

Afghanistan have the option of bringing in a like-for-like replacement in the form of 20-year-old Riaz Hassan but could also go with the left-field option of bringing in someone like a Noor Ahmad. It might not be the worst of calls on a surface like Chennai that’s expected to play slow and offer plenty for the spinners.

Ground Details

Three games have been played at Chepauk so far — two on one surface (NZ vs AFG & NZ vs BAN) and one on another (IND vs AUS).

The surface we witnessed in the India vs Australia clash proved to be the slowest of the lot by far, and there India had a major scare chasing 200. The surface also offered plenty of turn, at least in the first innings.

Word has come out that Monday’s clash will be played on the surface that hosted the IND-AUS clash. Not great news for Pakistan, considering it will bring the Afghanistan spinners into play.

Either way, expect a classic 2000s ODI even if the team batting first does well - a score between 250-280 with plenty of grind. 

Tactical insights> Since the start of 2021, Babar Azam’s average of 24.3 against left-arm pace is the lowest for him against any bowling type. Meanwhile, his SR of 75.6 in this period against off-spin is the lowest for him against all bowling types; he’s also averaged just 39.8 against the offies. In this WC, Babar has already been dismissed once by an off-spinner and once by a left-armer. Afghanistan would do well to attack the Pakistan skipper with Farooqi, Nabi and even Mujeeb.

> Since 2021, Pakistan’s average of 21.4 against left-arm spin is the second-lowest among teams participating in this World Cup. Earlier this WC, the Pakistan batters also struggled against Kuldeep, who finished with 2/35 off the 10 overs he bowled. All the more reason for Afghanistan to field Noor Ahmad on Monday. 

> As it stands, Afghanistan’s catching efficiency of 55.6% is the worst among all teams. Against New Zealand, they put down as many as five straightforward chances. Pakistan also put down a couple of chances in the Australia clash, so keep an eye out on the catching, in general. 

Team News & Probable XIs

Pakistan could consider getting Shadab Khan back in, considering the clash is being played in Chennai. In that case, Hasan Ali could make way for the leg-spinner.

Pakistan likely XI: Abdullah Shafique, Imam-ul-Haq, Babar Azam (c), Mohammad Rizwan (wk), Saud Shakeel, Iftikhar Ahmed, Mohammad Nawaz, Usama Mir, Hasan Ali / Shadab Khan, Shaheen Afridi, Haris Rauf

Afghanistan will likely field an unchanged XI but, at the same time, might potentially bring in Noor Ahmad.

Afghanistan likely XI: Rahmanullah Gurbaz, Ibrahim Zadran, Rahmat Shah, Hashmatullah Shahidi (c), Azmatullah Omarzai, Ikram Alikhil (wk), Mohammad Nabi, Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Naveen-ul-Haq, Fazalhaq Farooqi

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