While the top-order trio of Babar Azam, Mohammad Rizwan and Fakhar Zaman shone brightly during Pakistan’s 3-1 T20I series win in South Africa, the performances of the middle and lower order weren’t quite as convincing. The final match of the tour was a case in point: Pakistan slipped from 92 for 1 to 129 for 7 before Mohammad Nawaz steered them home in a chase of 145.
One middle-order batter who came under the spotlight in particular was Haider Ali, who made scores of 14, 12 and 3 in his three visits to the crease during the T20Is. Pakistan’s batting coach Younis Khan has termed the 20-year-old Haider a “future star”, and has backed him to succeed, given enough chances to settle into his role in the side.
“Haider is a future star and very much capable,” Younis said in a virtual conference. “His natural game is attacking, and I still remember he smacked a six off his very second ball on debut. I understand he has played a lot of games since then, and missed a few opportunities to grow, but we have to give him time [to grow into his role]. He was opening in the previous series, and then, when he was playing in the PSL for his franchise, he put up some amazing performances lower down the order. Here too we tried to use him in that [middle-order] role.
“I struggled for four years when I came into international cricket. I was lucky that my performances didn’t get highlighted. But at the same time when you come into international cricket there is a big responsibility on the player himself. You represent a 220 million population and it’s up to you in the end, regardless of anything. You have to prepare yourself for this big opportunity and you have to give everything to make it count. We have a responsibility as a coach but the players are growing into their roles, and they will make mistakes, otherwise you can’t learn.”
Haider made his T20I debut during the tour of England last year, scoring a half-century on debut batting at No. 3. After batting in that position in his first five T20Is, he has moved up and down the order, opening on three occasions and batting at No. 5 during the tour of South Africa.
All that shuffling has coincided with a lean patch. After starting his career with two fifties in his first three innings, he’s only crossed 20 once in his last nine innings, causing his overall average to drop to 20.91. Asif, meanwhile, has struggled to replicate the hitting ability he’s shown in domestic T20s in international cricket. While he averages 25.06 and boasts a strike rate of 146.98 in all T20 games, his corresponding T20I numbers are a modest 17.14 and 124.72 respectively.
Reflecting on the overall performance of the middle order, Younis said the batters are still learning their roles, and will learn from their mistakes in time.
“It’s a young team, players are settling, and they aren’t clear about their [batting positions] yet, but they will be going forward,” Younis said. “We have the Zimbabwe series now, and it’s a good chance for the youngsters to go out and play the role that is being worked out for them, and in which we want to see them grow, because we have some very tough cricket coming up, with the T20 World Cup in India. The top order is vital, but the lower order is equally important, which is where we are lagging behind, and we have to address this to get to the top.”
At the same time, Younis urged the batters to take ownership of their own performances in order to raise their game.
“We are playing constant cricket day and night and we can’t really push players all the time. They should themselves understand. There is not much time to do technique work, [we focus] mainly on the tactical aspect. I speak with players and always tell them not to come back without finishing their job, but then in the last T20 for example we saw Fakhar and Babar left it unfinished and suddenly the situation turned out that we couldn’t even score a run a ball.
“Players need to understand their game and take ownership of their performance. It’s not club-level cricket where us coaches can discipline a player using a stick. We do have a role but the players need to themselves realise how they can bring success to their game.”
Younis joined the Pakistan set-up in England last year and has taken on the role full-time since the 2020-21 tour of New Zealand. Over the last one year, Pakistan have picked a number of players without too much experience in domestic cricket, often turning to youngsters who have shown flashes of brilliance in the T20 format, particularly in the PSL.
Younis believes a player must have a certain amount of experience in domestic cricket before being picked for Pakistan, in order to be ready for all the situations that international cricket may throw their way.
“If you are picking anyone for Test cricket then he should have sufficient first-class experience behind him,” Younis said. “If it’s for T20 or one day he should have played adequate List A games. But then these days, whether it’s the media, or the commentators, or YouTube channels, they build pressure on teams, coaches, and selectors to pick certain players. They say, ‘pick this player,’ because they think he is ready, but then he has played only two T20 matches. So this pressure is created by the media prompting selectors to pick players.
“We speak about young blood a lot, and yes, T20 and one-day cricket are about young blood. But it’s also important to pick players who are mature, who have the fitness and the commitment, and who have enough cricket under their belt. It’s important to pick the best players who have the experience, and who won’t score five runs an over when you need 10 an over, and won’t aim for 15 runs an over when you need five an over.”
When asked how much time a player should be given before the selectors make a final decision, he said: “I am a batting coach and very much part of the support staff, but the final decision about the selection of any player isn’t mine. It’s not my decision on how many opportunities a player should be given – for all this, we have chief selectors, head coach and captain, and it’s their prerogative. But in my personal opinion if any player plays two to three series, he will perform if he has the caliber. So I can only give my recommendation but the final decision lies with the captain and head coach. We are trying to figure out a right combination with players who are suitable for different situations and who can perform.”
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo’s Pakistan correspondent