The final phase of Pakistan’s preparations for the mighty cricket season begins tomorrow as Babar Azam’s team plays Afghanistan at Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium in the first of the three One-Day Internationals. Pakistan enter the series at the back of some brilliant results – they swept Sri Lanka in the two-Test series just last month and defeated New Zealand 4-1 at home in One-Day Internationals in April-May.
With the Men’s ODI Asia Cup 2023 beginning just four days after the third and final match in Colombo and the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup immediately following up, these three matches against Afghanistan come with an opportunity for Pakistan to fine-tune their combinations.
“It is great to be together as one unit again as we enjoy each other’s company a lot,” Babar told PCB Digital on the eve of the first ODI against Afghanistan. “We have a few new faces in the side and I wish them good luck for the challenges ahead. Most of the boys have been playing cricket in different leagues, but when you don the Pakistan star, it is a different feeling altogether. We enter this series with good momentum following our Test series win here and we are eager to build on it. As a captain, I am very excited for the cricket ahead.”
Pakistan have recently enjoyed outstanding results in ODIs. Since the start of 2022, Pakistan’s win/loss ratio of 3.250 – with 13 wins in 17 matches – has been the best across all teams. In May, Pakistan, for the first time in history, topped the ICC rankings for ODI sides. They have another go at surmounting the table if they maintain an impeccable record against Afghanistan.
The dressing room is buzzing with confidence with each player raring to grab opportunity whenever it arrives. Though the end goal is to be the best side in the World Cup, the team, Babar said, is taking one challenge at a time.
“We are focused in our preparations as we have big events in the Asia Cup and the World Cup coming up,” said Babar, under whose captaincy Pakistan have won 17 out of 26 ODIs. “But, at the same time, we want to take one series at the time … It is always beneficial for a team to get such a series ahead of major events. That we are playing in Asian conditions will definitely provide us an edge and help us get in the rhythm. The Afghanistan team is on the rise and they have some good bowlers. The fans will get to see some exciting cricket.”
Pakistan included all-rounder Faheem Ashraf, uncapped batter Tayyab Tahir and middle-order batter Saud Shakeel in the squad for the Afghanistan series. The three players have been rewarded for their impressive performances recently and their presence further boosts an already solid squad.
“We have had some good additions in the squad,” the number one ranked ODI batter said. “Faheem has been in and out of the side but he has performed well recently. We have included him because of his all-round abilities and believe that his presence will strengthen the side.
“Tayyab Tahir had a good [Emerging Teams] Asia Cup and he performed well here in Sri Lanka and everyone saw how Saud Shakeel played Tests here. I am especially impressed by how Saud has transformed into a modern-day batter in such a quick time. This is a great sign for Pakistan cricket that he groomed himself according to the demands of the team, and whenever anyone does that, I get very happy.”
Though Pakistan have never been defeated by Afghanistan in the format, this series promises to test them as the latter enter this series with a 2-1 win over Bangladesh in Bangladesh. But the players, Babar revealed, are taking this challenge as an opportunity to deliver match-winning performances.
“Every player has a hunger [to perform] in this team. Every player wants to give match-winning performances. Recently we have had different player of the match award winners, which is a good sign for any team. When you perform in big tournaments, it boosts your morale as a team and as individuals and this team has performed well in the recent past.
“The presence of Salman Ali Agha and Iftikhar Ahmed has bolstered our middle-order. We already have a settled top-order. Our spin department has strengthened. Thankfully, we have one of the best pace-bowling attacks in Shaheen Afridi, Haris Rauf and Naseem Shah, and their performances underscore how good they are. Bowlers win you big tournaments and I have faith in them to win us big tournaments.”
So ahead of what promises to be one of the most exciting periods for this Pakistan side, what is Babar’s message to his players? “My message has always been to believe in yourself and make sure that you give your hundred percent in the field.”
The second and third ODIs will be played on 24 and 26 August in Hambantota and Colombo.