Cricket will take centre stage when Pakistan take on the World XI at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore in their first Twenty20 International on Tuesday (September 12).
The build-up to the three-match series, with the second and third games on Wednesday and Friday, also in Lahore, has been all about the security arrangements in the backdrop of reviving international cricket in the country. Not one person has spoken about which team will win the series or which are the players to watch out for.
But once both teams are settled, the focus will have shifted to cricket with Pakistan, the Champions Trophy 2017 winners, taking on some of the world’s best. It would have a truly global event had there been even a single player from India, but as Andy Flower, the World XI coach, rightly reasoned, busy schedules and the political situation didn’t allow that to happen.
Under Sarfraz Ahmed, Pakistan have shown the right kind of energy level and passion. The way they upset all calculations in the Champions Trophy – coming back from defeat against India in the opening game to win the final against the same opposition – was a rare occurrence.
Another uncommon sight: A fully-fit Pakistan team. Mickey Arthur, the head coach, with the help of his support staff, has changed the fitness culture of the team. There have been strict rules, something which led to Umar Akmal being sent home from the Champions Trophy squad.
Sarfraz accepted that the occasion was overwhelming for the players, but they are now thinking of building on the Champions Trophy success. “This is our first event after the Champions Trophy so we are ready for it. We have prepared well and will do our best to win the series. The opponents are formidable with some good Twenty20 players so the task if tough,” he said.
Pakistan: Ahmed Shehzad, Babar Azam, Sarfraz Ahmed (capt, wk), Shoaib Malik, Usman Khan, Fahim Ashraf, Umar Amin, Mohammad Nawaz, Imad Wasim, Aamer Yamin, Shadab Khan, Fakhar Zaman, Hasan Ali, Rumman Raees, Sohail Khan.
World XI: Tim Paine(wk), Faf du Plessis (capt), Hashim Amla, Grant Elliott, David Miller, George Bailey, Paul Collingwood, Ben Cutting, Tamim Iqbal, Darren Sammy, Thisara Perera, Imran Tahir, Morne Morkel, Samuel Badree.
Pakistan, however, will be without Mohammad Amir, whose wife is expecting their first child in London. That will deplete the bowling department, which so famously rocked the mighty Indian team at The Oval in the Champions Trophy final.
“Amir has been the lynchpin in our attack,” said Sarfraz. “He so ruthlessly rocked the Indian top order so we will miss him but we announced a squad of 16 players for the matches and hopefully Sohail Khan will do the job.”
Pakistan, though, have a settled batting unit with Fakhar Zaman set to partner Ahmed Shehzad at the top. Zaman impressed in the Champions Trophy, and his hundred in the final has increased his confidence. Babar Azam, Shoaib Malik, Sarfraz, Imad Wasim and Umar Amin will also bolster the lineup.
For World XI, it will be tough as they have excellent players to choose from but few that have played together. The five South Africans in the side – Faf du Plessis, the captain, Hashim Amla, David Miller, Imran Tahir and Morne Morkel – will solve that problem if they all play. Bangladesh’s Tamim Iqbal has been in good form too so one could expect fireworks at the outset.
But a bigger concern for World XI will be the lack of fast bowling options. They only have Morkel’s express pace to go with the less threatening pace of Ben Cutting, Darren Sammy and Thisara Perera.
Flower refused to see it that way though. “In putting the side together we had to take into account some of the series that are currently going on or indeed that some of the big Test nations (are) preparing for the important series, and of course those FTP (Future Tours Programme) commitments took precedence,” he said.
“So in selecting the side and finding out the availability of those players, quick bowlers don’t grow on trees and they aren’t freely available, so we’ve put together a very talented squad. Yes, it’s a lack of out-and-out pace, but that’s not everything. We have other very canny and skilful bowlers that we hope are going to put Pakistan under a lot of pressure. We are quite confident that we are going to use them pretty well.”
That said, World XI have two quality T20l spinners in Samuel Badree and Tahir. Whether they can have an impact remains to be seen, though, as Pakistani batsmen have a good record against spinners at home.
Much like the Champions Trophy final, it will all boil down to Pakistan’s bowling v World XI’s batting in the end.