The ripples caused by the inaugural Pakistan Super League made Pakistan national team selectors scratch their heads after left-hand batsman Sharjeel Ahmed scored a blistering ton, the only century of the tournament, against Peshawar in the third play-off.
Right-arm Islamabad pacer Muhammad Sami also bagged a brilliant five-for against Karachi Kings in their other play-off to guide his team to a comfortable win.
National T20I captain Shahid Afridi, in his post third play-off interview, hinted that Sharjeel will be rewarded for his magnificent display of clean-hitting. The intimation caught everyone by surprise as all-rounder Muhammad Nawaz and left-arm medium-pacer Rumman Raees were already inducted into the 16-man squad based on their PSL performances.
The worry that Pakistan’s selected 16 faced then was that who will be axed to make way for Sharjeel if Afridi’s verbal hint became something concrete. And when the news came in, the sword fell on Babar Azam — the right-hand middle-order batsman who averages 46.87 in nine ODIs with five half-ton already to his name but is yet to play in a T20I.
The 2016 Asia Cup thus presents itself as a baptism of fire for Sharjeel. The left-hander had a great chance to justify his selection in the PSL final against Quetta. But the southpaw was unable to put up another show of his willow-wielding skills to complement his selection.
Moreover, injury-struck Rumman Raees was replaced by Sami in the Asia Cup and World T20 squads — another occasion when the Pakistan Cricket Board mishandled the selection of players.
This sudden change instils fear in the players’ mind because one mistake can see them warming the bench or travelling home after the Asia Cup if they are not able to deliver in Bangladesh.
Untouchables and replaceables
If we look at the 16-man squad for the Asia Cup now, the players who cannot be dropped from the playing eleven are captain Afridi, vice-captain Sarfraz, the ever-reliable Muhammad Hafeez, middle-order batsman Umar Akmal who recently found form in the PSL, veteran Shoaib Malik, left-arm pacer Wahab Riaz, rampaging all-rounder Anwar Ali and left-arm fast-bowler Muhammad Amir.
All other players — including all-rounder Imad Wasim, who can now be easily replaced with Nawaz — are susceptible to exclusion to bring in someone else for experimentation. Since Bangladesh pitches favour spinners and in the first few matches, the new ball was moving sideways as well, the three-pacer and two-spinner formula can surely take effect. This means Muhammad Irfan can face the axe in the final line-up to accommodate the left-arm spinning option of Imad or Nawaz.
Thus the probable eleven for the first match against India in the Asia Cup could look somewhat like this: Khurram Manzoor, Sharjeel Khan, Muhammad Hafeez, Shoaib Malik, Umar Akmal, Sarfraz Ahmed, Imad Wasim or Muhammad Nawaz, Shahid Afridi, Anwar Ali, Wahab Riaz and Muhammad Amir.
Sharjeel opening with Khurram and Hafeez coming in at the one-down position can help Pakistan garner much-improved big-hitting prowess at the top of the order. This line-up provides balance batting and bowling with several all-rounders, which will be needed against India since they beat Bangladesh comprehensively in the opening encounter.
The only suitable change in this line up can be of Muhammad Irfan’s inclusion, but Anwar or Amir will have to give way to him. Who is it going to be will be decided by Afridi as he is ready to experiment with anything and everything before the World T20.