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Between October 7 and February 6 this season, Pakistan players had 50 days of cricket - 33 in Tests, eight in ODIs and nine in T20Is – while on top of it there were many domestic matches, practice games, training sessions and travel days. These facts were highlighted by the PCB last month when Sarfraz Ahmed was formally announced as captain of the Pakistan team for this year’s ODI World Cup. There was a hint that the PCB wanted to give Sarfraz and other regular players a rest before the marquee event in the United Kingdom.

So, when the team for the ODI series against Australia was revealed during the PSL matches in Karachi this month, chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq announced to rest six key players – Sarfraz, Fakhar Zaman, Babar Azam, Shadab Khan, Hasan Ali and Shaheen Shah Afridi. The idea of giving rest to incumbent captain is unprecedented in Pakistan’s cricket but then workload on the players has never been so high either.

The aforementioned six players along with five other - Mohammad Hafeez, who is nursing a finger injury but likely to recover soon, Shoaib Malik, Faheem Ashraf, Imam-ul-Haq, Imad Wasim - appear to be sure shot in the World Cup squad and that would mean four spots are still up for grabs.

The four spots will be among one opener, one middle-order batsman and two fast bowlers. Although Pakistan have five ODI fixtures against England in the UK before the World Cup, the Australia series is the last opportunity for players to get into the plane to the UK as the squad selected for the England series will also be the squad for the World Cup.

It must be mentioned here that Pakistan will be playing 11 matches – five ODIs, one T20I, three county fixtures and two world-cup warm-up games – before the tournament starts on May 30.

Pakistan will announce the 15-member squad for England ODIs and World Cup by mid-April. The changes can be made before May 23 which will require approval from the Event Technical Committee.

Who will be the third opener in the World Cup squad?

Shan Masood or Abid Ali.

They are the two uncapped openers in Pakistan’s ODI squad for the series against Australia.

Shan is set to make his debut in the first match in Sharjah whereas Abid could also be tested at some stage during the series. However, Shan’s better fitness and experience at international level put him in pole position for the role of the third opener. The Australia series is a big opportunity for him to cement his place in the final fifteen.

Also Read: ‘Performances in domestic cricket do not go unnoticed’ – Shan Masood

In case both Shan and Abid fail to convince the selectors and the management, there is an outside chance that Pakistan will go with only Imam and Fakhar as openers and use Babar as a back-up opener which will allow them to put an extra batsman in the middle-order. Babar regularly opens in T20 cricket and has done so with great success. He is number one batsman in the ICC T20 Rankings.

Who are the candidates in the middle-order?

Mohammad Rizwan, Haris Sohail, Umar Akmal and Saad Ali.

Since 2017, Rizwan has scored 2043 runs in 50 overs cricket at an average of 68.10 and a strike-rate of 93.33 and also hit six centuries (including three for Pakistan A against England Lions and New Zealand A). The South Africa series was a golden opportunity for him to confirm a berth in the World Cup as a batsman as well as a second keeper but he didn’t’ do himself any favour. In five innings across ODIs and T20Is in South Africa, his highest was only 26. His numbers in the PSL were also ordinary as he accumulated only 79 runs in five innings. The Australia series is the last opportunity for him to win the vote of selectors. But he is set to get a tough competition from the other probables.

With Haris Sohail and Umar Akmal also in the squad and Pakistan planning to move Faheem up in the batting order to test his batting skills, it will be interesting to see at which position Rizwan will bat against Australia.

Also Read: 'We want to test our bench strength against Australia' - Mickey Arthur

In the absence of Babar, Haris is likely to bat at one drop whereas Umar, who hasn’t played in ODIs for 25 months, could come at four. Haris is the strongest candidate considering his recent form – scoring three half-centuries in four ODI innings in 2018 - while Umar could spring a surprise if he proves that he is the power-hitter Pakistan must have and their best option to bat in the final phase (overs 41-50) of the innings. There is also a small possibility of Umar and Haris both making it to the World Cup if Pakistan take only two openers.

Pakistan have seemed to do away with the idea of using Asif Ali as power-hitter in the ODIs due to his ordinary returns in the Asia Cup. He isn’t in the squad for Australia series therefore it is highly unlikely that he will be considered again.

There is also a chance, albeit very little, for the left-hand middle-order batsman Saad Ali, who has been in Pakistan’s Test squads from the last one year and earned his maiden call-up for ODIs this month.

Who are the fast bowlers?

Mohammad Abbas, Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Hasnain, Junaid Khan, Usman Shinwari.

After his heroics in the final of the Champions Trophy 2017, who would have thought that Amir would be fighting for a place in the World Cup two years later.

The left-arm pacer has taken only five wickets in 13 matches at an average of 80.80 since his three-wicket burst in the final against India. If his dry spells continue in the Australia series, there is every possibility that Pakistan will start looking at other options.

Junaid is the unsung hero of the Champions Trophy. His economy rate (2.30) in the middle overs of the tournament was unreal. Of his 60 balls delivered in overs 11-40, not even one went for a boundary. But he seems to have fallen off the radar considering he wasn’t selected for the ODIs in South Africa and was rather asked to prove his match fitness.

Amir and Junaid (both also have experience of limited overs games in county cricket) might still be the two fast bowlers in the squad along with Hasan, Shaheen and Faheem but the selectors could face a big conundrum if Abbas, Hasnain and Shinwari outshine them in the Australia series.

 Junaid had an economy rate of 2.30 in the middle overs of Champions Trophy ©ICC

Junaid had an economy rate of 2.30 in the middle overs of Champions Trophy ©ICC

Both Abbas and Hasnain are in line to earn ODI caps against Australia whereas Shinwari has been a regular in ODIs lately and has had an impressive start to his ODI career – 23 wickets at an average of 17.47 and economy of 4.96. His four wickets in Johannesburg helped Pakistan to square the series against South Africa.

There have been calls for Abbas’ inclusion in ODIs for over a year but the selectors and the management are unsure how will he fare in 50 overs cricket once the ball gets old. Abbas’ chances of finding a place in the World Cup are not too bright unless he produces extraordinary results against Australia.

From nowhere, Hasnain has emerged as a World Cup candidate too. The 18-year-old speedster was named man-of-the-match for his match-winning spell for Quetta Gladiators in the PSL final and clocked 151 kph in the tournament. However, the selectors are wary of his fitness for 50 overs cricket and of the fact that if picking two teenage fast bowlers, the other being Shaheen, for the world cup will be a good move. Hasnain has not played 50 overs cricket even at domestic level.

Whatever the outcome of the Australia series, Pakistan are set to face some selection conundrums especially in the fast bowling department ahead of the World Cup.