LONDON  -   It goes without saying that the Pakistan cricket team have always been one of the most unpredictable teams in world cricket. When they won the ICC Cricket World Cup for the first time in 1992, no one expected them to run over the oppositions as they did in the final stages of the tournament.

Moreover, their 2017 Champions Trophy triumph was inspiring to say the least. After a disastrous start against arch-rivals India, Sarfraz Ahmed-led Pakistan upped their game significantly in all departments to thump Virat Kohli’s India by 180 runs in the summit clash.

Such is the unpredictable nature of the Men in Green that they are known to punch above their weight if they manage to reach the last four, or the knockouts of a major event.

Ahead of the World Cup, in one white ball cricket format – ODIs – Pakistan have not played well lately; in white ball cricket’s shorter format – T20s – they have been the No 1 team for well over a year now. Somehow the loss of 10 consecutive official ODIs does not feel as bad as it should as the team has hardly played any of the games at full strength.

Against Australia in the UAE this March, Pakistan rested seven of their top players as a part of programme to rest and rotate for the World Cup. And when they lost four games in a row this month against the No1-ranked ODI side in the world, England, the team came out with a lot of positives.

With the bat Babar Azam has been in sublime form (even in Saturday’s warm-up defeat by Afghanistan he led the way with 112). He is averaging 52.44 this year and had a good Test series in South Africa where he came into his own against Steyn, Rabada and Olivier in testing conditions. He and Imam ul-Haq will play their natural game in the top order while Fakhar Zaman, the opener, will try and dominate the attack with his ultra-attacking brand of batting.

In the middle will be the talented left hander, Haris Sohail, along with three most experienced batsmen: Mohammad Hafeez, Shoaib Malik and Sarfaraz Ahmed. In the lower middle order there is Asif Ali. He hits big and he hits long. Asif has been shattered by a recent tragedy, though, as his two-year-old daughter passed away from cancer. After attending her funeral, Asif took the brave decision to travel, and joined up with the team for Sunday’s washed-out warm-up game against Bangladesh in Cardiff.

For a change Pakistan’s batting seems to have been sorted out but the bowling, the team’s traditional strength, is still being shuffled to find the best combination. This shuffling will continue all through the tournament depending on how the team is faring.

Despite his poor form Mohammad Amir is back in the team. Most of the former players such as Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar, as well as the majority of analysts in the media were rooting for him. His new ball partner will most likely be either the promising 19-year-old, Shaheen Afridi, or the veteran, Wahab Riaz, who makes a comeback to the side after two years. Wahab bowled well and was among the top three wicket-takers in the Pakistan Super League. The mainstay of Pakistan’s middle and death overs would be Hasan Ali who is among the best exponents of reverse swing once the ball gets slightly scuffed up.

Shadab Khan and Imad Wasim are the two spinners in Pakistan’s team. The only weakness in Pakistan’s bowling is the lack of a good finger spinner. Imad Wasim is more of a slider than a spinner, however he plays in the team as an allrounder. He is averaging 49.66 with the bat this year at a strike rate of 138.66 and has contributed with the bat in that lower middle order. Hafeez will also bowl his off spin as and when needed. It is more or less the same bowling attack that featured in the Champion’s Trophy in England in 2017.

Injuries and fielding are the weak link in this squad. Hafeez, Shadab and Amir have all been in recovery either from injuries or an illness. Amir has yet to even play a game in England. The most worrying factor for the team management must be the poor fielding by the side in the series against England. Fitness and fielding had been the two features that have seen huge improvements since Mickey Arthur took over the team.

Gameplan

The conditions that would suit Pakistan best are dry pitches that scuff up the ball. So far, the team has not encountered any such pitch. The ball has not moved or spun at all. That’s why an astonishing 2,800 runs were scored in four ODIs against England. The pressure of the World Cup along with the pressure of knockout games would reduce the scores somewhat but it is going to be a high scoring tournament.

Strengths

Ability or talent are not the areas where Pakistan are lacking. They have in their squad batsmen and bowlers who can single-handedly win games on their day. Babar Azam scored a century and three half centuries in their series against England and scored 112 in the warm-up match against Afghanistan on Friday.

Apart from him, Imam-ul-Haq, Fakhar Zaman and veteran Shoaib Malik add firepower to the batting lineup. With the conditions expected to be better suited for the batsmen, Pakistan will be banking on them to lead the charge.

The selectors decided to give Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz a look in, despite the pair’s dismal recent form. Mohammad Hasnain has been turning heads with his raw pace while Shaheen Afridi and Hasan Ali are both capable exponents. The bowling department also includes Imad Wasim and all-rounder Mohammad Hafeez.

Weaknesses

Pakistan’s problems start with the selection itself. That Wahab Riaz has done precious little since bowling a fiery spell against Shane Watson at the 2015 World Cup should leave fans scratching their heads as to how he made the squad. But again, he showed a different side to himself on Friday in the warm-up game.

The same goes for Mohammad Amir, who has picked 8 wickets in 16 matches since the 2017 Champions Trophy at an average of 59.87. Shaheen Afridi went for over 80 runs in all matches that he played in the recent series against England while Mohammad Hasnain remains a relatively unknown quantity. Such uncharacteristic vulnerability within the pace battery means that the onus will be on the batsmen to provide the goods but inconsistency is rife in that department too.

Opportunities

Despite all their failings, it is undeniable that Pakistan have a tendency to pull off the most astonishing wins at times when they look the least probable.

Examples of these would be Imran Khan’s “Cornered Tigers” that went on to win the World Cup in 1992 or the red hot run in 2017 that helped them trounce outright favourites India in the final by 180 runs to lift the Champions Trophy.

Former captain Waqar Younis had used the word ‘Tamasha’ while describing the team’s tendency to spring unlikely fightbacks from hopeless situations. The batsmen may be inconsistent and the bowlers may be out of form, but that is not fodder to rule out the chances of a ‘tamasha’ happening again.

Threats

In the past two years, Pakistan have faced five of the nine other teams playing in this World Cup in bilateral series and lost to four of them. Apart from the conditions, the other challenge that they will have to overcome is putting those results behind and going for the jugular.

Their first match is against a rejuvenated West Indies unit on May 31 and the big game against India is on June 16. Wins in these two matches will go a long way in helping them overcome mental barriers.

batting statistics

Player Matches Runs HS Ave SR 50s 100s

Sarfaraz Ahmed 104 2010 105 33.50 86.67 9 2

Imam ul-Haq 27 1381 151 60.04 82.20 5 6

Fakhar Zaman 34 1585 210 52.83 97.83 9 4

Babar Azam 62 2544 125 49.88 85.05 11 8

Haris Sohail 34 1320 130 47.14 83.12 10 2

M Hafeez 208 6302 140 32.99 76.01 36 11

Shoaib Malik 282 7481 143 35.12 81.75 44 9

Asif Ali 16 342 52 31.09 131.03 3 0

Imad Wasim 44 741 63 43.58 106.92 5 0

Shadab Khan 34 294 54 29.40 65.04 3 0

M Amir 51 352 73* 19.55 81.86 2 0

Hasan Ali 47 225 59 14.06 106.63 2 0

Wahab Riaz 79 589 54* 13.69 82.37 2 0

Shaheen Afridi 13 22 14 11.00 68.75 0 0

M Hasnain 3 -

Bowling statistics

Player Matches Wickets Ave Eco SR

Shadab Khan 34 47 27.74 4.80 34.6

Hasan Ali 47 78 25.61 5.36 28.6

M Amir 51 1971 32.85 4.78 41.2

Wahab Riaz 79 102 34.34 5.68 36.2

Imad Wasim 44 34 44.82 4.76 56.3

M Hafeez 208 137 37.50 4.12 54.5

Shoaib Malik 282 156 39.17 4.65 50.4

Shaheen Afridi 13 20 26.55 5.48 29.0

M Hasnain 3 2 78.00 6.78 69.00

Haris Sohail 34 11 55.72 5.72 58.3

Fakhar Zaman 34 1 88.00 4.75 111.0

Asif Ali 16 9 - 10.80 0

Sarfaraz Ahmed 104 0 - 7.50 0