Pakistan may be known as a conveyor belt of fast bowlers but in the United Arab Emirates, they have largely relied on spin bowlers. Playing with a spin-heavy attack has been a norm for Pakistan in ODIs and not too long ago, in 2012, they even played a couple of one-day internationals against Australia and England in Sharjah and Dubai with four slow bowlers (Saeed Ajmal, Abdur Rehman, Shahid Afridi, Mohammad Hafeez) and only one fast bowler (Junaid Khan).
That was down to two reasons. First, after losing two of their best pacers at Lord’s in 2010, Pakistan struggled to make a new fast bowling combination. Second, Misbah-ul-Haq, the captain at that time, had always been more comfortable with spinners at his disposal. Even in South Africa, he used to churn out as many as 30 overs from spinners in ODIs.
However, last year, in their first Test series in the UAE after Misbah’s retirement, Pakistan’s leadership group comprising of captain Sarfraz Ahmed and coach Mickey Arthur gave first hint of changing their focus from spin to pace when they played two Tests against Sri Lanka with one spinner and three fast bowlers, an unusual combination for Pakistan in the home Tests. Although the strategy was widely criticised as Pakistan lost both Tests but the message from Pakistan was clear that they want more pace and less spin.
Pakistan have picked the squad for Asia Cup ostensibly keeping the same strategy in mind – more pace and less spin. They have as many as six fast bowlers, Mohammad Amir, Hasan Ali, Junaid Khan, Usman Shinwari, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Faheem Ashraf, and only two specialist spin bowlers, Mohammad Nawaz and Shadab Khan, in the squad.
That leaves everyone guessing if Pakistan could play in the Asia Cup with four pacers, including all-rounder Faheem, and just one spinner in Shadab and use Shoaib Malik’s part-time spin as the sixth bowling option.
Even though Amir has only three wickets in his last seven ODIs, his pedigree and heroics in the Champions Trophy last year make him a sure starter in the XI along with Hasan and Shadab, who have been a driving force behind Pakistan’s surge in limited overs cricket. Faheem, who grabbed a five-wicket haul in his second last ODI, will be there for the depth he brings in Pakistan’s batting.
That leaves one question. Who will be the fifth bowler? Will it be a spinner in Nawaz or a left-arm quick in Junaid, Shinwari or Afridi?
MS Dhoni and Hardik Pandya will form India’s lower middle-order and there might be an outside chance for Dinesh Karthik to play as a specialist batsman. The left-arm pace is the weakest link for each three of them and that particular reason might tempt Pakistan to add another left-arm quick alongside Amir.
If that happens Pakistan will have to play with only one specialist spinner unless they take a radical step and bring in Nawaz at the expense of a batsman, presumably Asif Ali. Since Nawaz knows batting – his highest score in 50 overs cricket being 187 – and Shadab and Faheem are already providing a cushion to Pakistan’s batting, leaving out Asif might not be a bad idea.
The threat of left-arm pacers has been playing in India’s minds and to counter that India have hired a left-arm throwdown specialist from Sri Lanka Nuwan Seneviratne for this tournament.
The left-arm quicks have played a vital role for Pakistan in the recent success against India. While Amir’s three wickets spell in the Champions Trophy Final at the Oval does not need a reminder, it was Junaid who tormented India’s top-order with 7 wickets in the first two ODIs of the series in 2012-13 which Pakistan won 2-1. There was also a vain 5-wicket haul by Wahab Riaz in the semi-final at Mohali in 2011.
Pakistan have four left-arm quicks in their arsenal this time and they will be keen to unleash at least two of them against India. Luckily, their first game is against Hong Kong which gives them a chance to shape up their playing XI before taking on India in the high-octane match on Wednesday.
Imam-ul-Haq, Fakhar Zaman, Babar Azam, Shoaib Malik, Asif Ali, Sarfraz Ahmed (c and wk), Shadab Khan, Faheem Ashraf, Mohammad Amir, Hasan Ali, Mohammad Nawaz/Usman Shinwari.