Pakistan cricket’s immediate future among the world’s elite ODI teams could well be influenced by the outcome of their three-match series against Zimbabwe, beginning tonight (Tuesday) in Lahore.
Having slipped to ninth in the ICC’s ODI rankings, Pakistan face the genuine prospect of missing the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy tournament in which only the world’s top eight teams feature.
The cut-off date for qualification for the tournament is little more than four months away – September 30 – meaning this series carries with it significance far beyond the return of the international cricket to the subcontinental nation.
Even a 3-0 whitewash to Pakistan will not see them rise above eighth place (they will stay on 87 rankings points compared with Bangladesh’s 88 points), however any lose will result in a two-point slide.
Following Zimbabwe, they face a challenging five-match ODI series away to Sri Lanka.
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A barely passable World Cup quarter-final exit in the recently-completed tournament in Australia and New Zealand rounded out a forgettable 18 months for Pakistan in ODIs.
They have not won a 50-over series since defeating Sri Lanka in December 2013, losing 2-1 to Sri Lanka, 3-0 to Australia, 3-2 and 2-0 to New Zealand and 3-0 to Bangladesh.
Prior to that, they were humbled in the 2013 Champions Trophy, losing all three group games.
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Historically, Pakistan boast an imposing record over Zimbabwe, and on paper they enter this series the stronger side, however more recent contests between the two teams have been quite close.
Zimbabwe got the better of Pakistan in a Test and ODI in August-September 2013 and the hosts’ captain, Azhar Ali, knows his side can’t afford any such slip-ups this time around.
“The series is very important for Champions Trophy and we are also looking to build a team,” Azhar said. “We are looking to give consistent chances to the players with Champions Trophy qualification in our plans.
“Our main target is to win all three matches of the series.
“We will learn from our mistakes in the past. We have another opportunity to improve our game and build a combination which transforms into a good team.”
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Azhar, 30, made his international debut in 2010 and was named Misbah-ul-Haq’s successor as ODI captain after the World Cup.
As he wasn’t part of Pakistan’s Twenty20 team, he will be playing at home for the first time in his international career on Tuesday.
“I am very emotional ahead of tomorrow’s game,” he said on the eve of the clash. “I have been playing for Pakistan for the last five years but haven't played at home.
“It is an exciting moment for me and for the players who have not played in Pakistan before. It is a great opportunity for us.
“It is good to see that cricket has returned to Pakistan and the credit goes to PCB and also to Zimbabwe Cricket for making it happen.”
Azhar had a forgettable outing in his maiden series as captain, getting whitewashed by Bangladesh, a team which had not beaten Pakistan in any format in 16 years.
Pakistan’s major concern in that series was their fifth-bowling option, however Azhar believes the allrounders in the current squad will help overcome that issue.
“When we went to Bangladesh we had very few options of allrounders, but if you look at this side have some good allrounders which will help,” he explained.
“Every team plays with four bowlers plus two or three allrounders but our team was lacking in this department.
“We are trying to develop a combination which has good allrounders. There are six or seven bowling options in the current squad.”
To some degree, Pakistan have looked to the past to secure their future. Paceman Mohammad Sami returns to the squad after three years, as does Shoaib Malik for the first time since the 2013 Champions Trophy.
Ahmed Shehzad, who was dropped for disciplinary reasons following World Cup, has also been named.
Meanwhile, top-order batsman Babar Azam and allrounder Imad Wasim earned maiden call-ups.
Azhar was diplomatic when discussing the returns of Sami and Malik.
“Final decision rests with the selection committee,” he said. “We cannot disclose what is discussed in meetings. They have selected the best team.”
Zimbabwe captain Elton Chigumbura acknowledged the fact that the outcome of the two-match Twenty20 series could have been different had his side bowled and fielded better.
“I think our bowling and fielding let us down in the last two games, especially yesterday,” Chigumbura said. “We gave them too many chances in field. We dropped three or four catches which turned out to be the difference at the end of the day.
“We just have to make sure that we play well in all departments – batting, bowling and fielding. In the last two games our batting was good and if we improve our bowling and fielding I am sure we will win matches.”