So close yet so far. This mostly sums up the Pakistan cricket team’s 2021 World Cup campaign. The 2009 T20 champions started their journey in last year's edition at UAE as dark horses but finished as one of the favourites, who unfortunately failed to lay their hands on the coveted trophy.
Pakistan crashed out of the tournament, losing to Australia in the semi-finals with the ‘unpredictable’ tag still haunting them.
Almost a year later, Pakistan are back in Australia for the 2022 T20 World Cup as one of the favourites, following a stellar year in the shortest format.
Pakistan face arch-rivals India in their first match at the MCG on 23 October in a repeat of what was their World Cup opener last year. They are clubbed alongside Bangladesh, South Africa, Group A winner, and Group B runner-up besides India in Group 2.
The 15-member Pakistan squad is once again led by star batter Babar Azam, who will captain the side in his second T20 World Cup. That said, here are five key Pakistan players to watch out in the tournament:
1.Mohammad Rizwan (Opener)
Consistency and Mohammad Rizwan go hand in hand. Since the turn of 2021, Rizwan’s numbers have been staggering, offering a clear glimpse of his exponential rise to the top of the ICC T20I batting rankings.
The 30-year-old holds the record for scoring the most runs in a calendar year in T20I cricket – 1326 in 2021. Rizwan is also the highest run-scorer this year with 821 runs from 18 matches. His career average of 54.73 is the best to date in T20Is.
Though his strike rate has dipped to 126.30 lately, Rizwan offers the much-needed stability at the top of the order and can bat long – an instance of which was evident in his side’s massive 10-wicket win over India in the 2021 World Cup.
Going by current form and consistency in the shortest format, Rizwan is Pakistan’s most dependable batter and the team would expect the same from him in this year’s World Cup.
2.Babar Azam (Opener)
With 3231 runs from 92 matches, Babar Azam is the highest run-scorer for Pakistan in T20I cricket. The Pakistan skipper’s record makes him the best batter within the current squad and also puts him in the elite list of batters to have played for the country.
Like Rizwan, Babar had a stellar 2021 and finished as the highest run-scorer in the World Cup last year with 303 runs. However, poor form in the 2022 Asia Cup saw him suffer a dip in the T20I rankings.
Given his talent, it was only a matter of time before Babar bounced back, and the 28-year-old did so with aplomb in the New Zealand tri-series earlier this month.
He finished as the third-highest run-scorer (192) behind Kiwi opener Devon Conway (233) and teammate Rizwan (201), eventually jumping to third place in the batting rankings.
His return to form would be crucial to Pakistan’s success in Australia as he offers a formidable threat to opposition units alongside Rizwan at the top of the order.
3.Shaheen Shah Afridi (Pacer)
A posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) injury suffered during the Test series against Sri Lanka last July meant Shaheen Shah Afridi spent most of his time on the sidelines, featuring just once in T20Is this year.
The 22-year-old bowler last played an international match in the shortest format against Australia back in April.
Since then, he has been undergoing recovery and recently made his comeback in the World Cup warm-up match against England two days ago. He finished wicketless but conceded just seven runs from two overs.
The lack of match practice does cast a shadow on Afridi’s form and fitness ahead of the World Cup. However, that does not rule out his potential as one of the premier pacers in the current unit.
The lanky pacer’s rise in T20I cricket has been so rapid that he already has 40 scalps from as many matches since debuting in 2018. Leader of Pakistan’s pace attack in the last couple of years, Afridi stands out with his toe-crushing yorkers and good length deliveries.
His 6-foot 6-inch frame also helps him extract bounce on pitches – something which might work in Pakistan’s favour while playing at the fast and bouncy tracks in Australia.
4.Naseem Shah (Pacer)
Having made his debut just last August in the Asia Cup opener against India, Naseem Shah has now become a familiar name across households in Pakistan. The 19-year-old stood out in the continental event – his first major tournament, with seven wickets from five matches.
Following the Asia Cup, Naseem has turned out to be a regular in Pakistan’s playing XI and will most likely be Afridi’s new ball partner in the World Cup Down Under.
In fact, the teenager blossomed in Afridi’s absence and is currently Pakistan’s fourth-highest wicket-taker in 2022 with 11 from nine matches.
It's hard to comprehend that a 19-year-old has been spearheading Pakistan’s pace attack in the last few months, but it also showcases the immense talent possessed by the youngster.
Blessed with a natural, whippy action that can generate easy pace, Naseem could turn out to be the headache for opposition batters in the ICC event.
5.Mohammad Nawaz (All-rounder)
A mere introspection of Mohammad Nawaz’s stats in 2022 illustrates his worth within Pakistan’s current T20 setup. The 28-year-old has evolved into one of the most bankable all-rounders in the side as it was evident from his displays in the Asia Cup earlier this year.
Nawaz was Pakistan’s joint-highest wicket-taker with eight from six matches and the joint third-best in the tournament behind Bhuvneshwar Kumar (11) and Wanindu Hasaranga (9).
With the bat, the all-rounder was equally impressive as he finished as the fourth-highest run-scorer for Pakistan with 79 runs and a 143.63 strike rate.
With 19 wickets from 18 matches, Nawaz is Pakistan’s second-best bowler in 2022 and his credentials as a left-arm spinner has been improving with time.
Nawaz also offers Pakistan variety at the top of the order as he can slot in any role from No.4 to that of a finisher. His crucial 42 from just 20 balls against India in the Asia Cup Super 4 clash offered an instance of his hard-hitting abilities.
The innings proved to be a game changer as Pakistan emerged victorious and the side would be hopeful that their all-rounder delivers the goods when it matters the most in Australia.