Pak vs NZ – Imam-ul-Haq – ‘We don’t have time to do experiments now’

With only a few ODIs left to play ahead of the 50-over World Cup, Imam-ul-Haq has advised against experimenting with Pakistan’s underperforming middle order, even though the team has taken an unassailable 3-0 lead in their five-match series against New Zealand. Imam, the player of the match in the third ODI, was especially not convinced by the option of playing Iftikhar Ahmed or Mohammad Haris as power-hitters in the middle overs.

“To be honest I don’t think so because we don’t have time to do experiments,” he said. “With Agha [Salman], Shadab [Khan], and [Mohammad] Nawaz, we have enough power-hitting to improvise. It’s just a matter of giving them confidence. Their stats aren’t as big as we have in the top three and it’s tough for them because they get five to six overs but their chip-in is impactful and useful.”

Pakistan have largely relied on their top three, consisting of Imam, Fakhar Zaman and Babar Azam, who have scored 62.6% of the team’s runs – the highest among all nations – since the 2019 ODI World Cup. They average 19 runs per dismissal more than the rest of their batting – which is also the highest for any team. The Imam-Babar partnership reaped an average of 89.83 including six hundred-run stands; Fakhar-Babar and Fakhar-Imam, meanwhile, have put on 817 and 812 runs respectively.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s middle order has failed to consistently build on the platform set by the top order. The batters between No. 4 and No. 7 have averaged 26.9, marginally lower than West Indies, whose middle-order batters average 26.2. While Imam said he preferred to have a settled line-up with the bat given there’s an ODI World Cup around the corner, he noted that their bowlers needed to strike more often in the middle overs.

“Both Nawaz and Shadab are outstanding allrounders so we have to give them the confidence,” Imam said. “Babar might be thinking differently but that is what I feel. We have only two games left and it’s really very important to go into a bigger tournament, you have to be settled as much as you can with your main players. We have very less cricket and I don’t think we have enough time to find a workaround.

Fakhar Zaman and Babar Azam, along with Imam, tend to score a high percentage of Pakistan’s runs in ODIs•AFP/Getty Images

“But I feel within 11 to 35 overs we need to take wickets in them and we aren’t able to fetch enough. Sometimes, I feel this is missing and if our spinners in the middle start taking wickets then the match will be a lot more in our control. Today [last night], we took wickets in middle overs hence we managed to reduce them to under 270. So going forward I think fielding and fitness is another department we should make a difference. Catches on crucial stages become very important.”

Pakistan’s squad for the New Zealand series features many players with strong ODI records in recent years, thus increasing their chances of securing a spot in the World Cup roster. Their team combination, however, has forced a lot of top-order players – including Abdullah Shafique, Shan Masood, Mohammad Rizwan and Mohammad Haris – to drop down to the middle order. When asked if the competition threatens his place, Imam said his ability to handle pressure has helped him remain relevant.

“When you play for Pakistan, you find yourself under pressure in every situation and coming out of it is something that defines you,” he said. “It’s important to handle pressure and that is where you create a difference. Everyone is very talented and all the new openers making their way into the side are good and it automatically creates a sense of competition within. You always remain on your toes, you have to notch up the level of your performance and keep up your fitness, and with everyone around, it creates healthy competition which is good for the team.”

Imam said that of late, his role has evolved to include more aggression. But he tempered it to better suit conditions that weren’t exactly batter-friendly in Rawalpindi.

“I am no more playing an anchor role because one-day cricket is fast now and if you look at my last eight or nine games, my strike rate is over 100. So now when we get a ball [that’s in the slot] we will have a boundary but today (last night) especially the wicket was playing differently and we were in the Pindi phase of mind.

“The ball wasn’t coming on the up but Fakhar and I do not think a lot as we [have been] playing together for a long time now. The plan is [that it is] always good to have 50-60 runs in the first ten without losing a wicket and then if the wicket is good we try and settle it [total] around 330 to 350. But the wicket was on the slower side and the ball wasn’t coming on the bat well, so we knew 270-280 [would be par] but if our top four went with runs it could have gone to 300-plus.”

Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo’s Pakistan correspondent

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