Pakistan start tri-series in Zimbabwe as favourites
The two top-ranked Twenty20 international (T20I) teams in world cricket are in Zimbabwe to take part in an eight-day triangular tournament with the home team, starting this Sunday, 1 July, at Harare Sports Club.
At this moment Pakistan are top of the International Cricket Council’s T20I rankings, with 131 points, followed by Australia with 126.
The closeness of the rankings — two victories by Australia over Pakistan would see the former overtake them — means that this tournament will be taken very seriously by those teams, especially in matches against each other.
However, neither side is quite at full strength, with some top players being apparently rested for the tour.
Babar Azam, who is currently the top-ranked batsman in world T20 cricket, is not in the Pakistan touring team due to injury, nor is all-rounder Imad Wasim, while the Australians are in the process of rebuilding their team after the ball tampering scandal saw leaders Steve Smith and David Warner banned for 12 months.
Both sides, however, reached the top of the rankings more through team performances than the brilliance of certain individuals, and should not be seriously weakened as a result though Australia looked off the pace in their single T20I against England.
Pakistan, captained by their wicketkeeper, Sarfraz Ahmed, contain many players new to Zimbabwe, but they have two very experienced campaigners in Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik, who are familiar with conditions in Harare.
Their most recent cricket has been in Scotland, where they comfortably beat the home side in two T20Is, more through a good all-round team performance rather than individual successes.
Probably the biggest draw among the Pakistan players will be their left-arm pace bowler, Mohammad Amir, one of the top bowlers in the world, who has taken 47 T20I wickets at just over 20 runs each.
However, he is not expected to play in all the matches, as he does not want to be overworked and had requested a rest before the tour only to be denied the request by the PCB.
A new star in the shortest format of the game is the leg-spinner Shadab Khan, aged only 19, who has taken 27 T20I wickets at only 15 each, while he is also a useful batsman who recorded three half centuries in the longest format on the recent tour to the British Isles.
Mohammad Nawaz, left-arm spin, and Usman Khan, left-arm fast-medium, opened the bowling against Scotland.
Attacking batsman Fakhar Zaman is likely to open the batting, and the generally more measured Hafeez may be his partner.
Much of this Pakistan team is an unknown quantity, as their selectors are favouring new, young players while keeping a reserve of experience.
Australia’s biggest weapon and crowd-puller is their all-rounder Glenn Maxwell, who is currently third in the batting rankings and 31st in the bowling.
He is a powerful hitter who can turn a game on its head in a couple of overs, while his off-breaks are also well suited to this type of cricket.
Only one place below Maxwell in the rankings is the captain, Aaron Finch, who was here with the Australian team of four years ago.
He is an aggressive opening batsman with a T20I average of over 41, while Maxwell’s average is 33.
In last Wednesday’s match against England, Finch scored 84 off 41 balls in a losing cause.
Travis Head and Marcus Stoinis are two powerful batsmen who have some remarkable innings to their credit, and should have a great future in the game.
Of the bowlers, there are no seamers with very much T20I experience yet, but all of Andrew Tye, Billy Stanlake, Kane Richardson and Jhye Richardson, probably fastest of all, are thought of as players of great promise.
Ashton Agar plays primarily as a left-arm spinner, although he is most famous for scoring a remarkable 98 at number eleven against England on his Test début in 2013 and has provided some lower order steel for Australia in recent white ball contests.
Inexperienced as most of the players are, they have just been swept aside by England in five ODIs and this week’s T20I, so there is no doubt they will be as determined as they can be to set the record straight in Zimbabwe, and should be formidable opponents.
Zimbabwe enter the tournament without five of their top players who opted not to avail themselves for selection due to a dispute with ZC over unpaid salaries and match fees.
The home side’s squad is however full of players with talent, but few of whom have yet fulfilled their promise in international cricket.
The main talking point concerning the players selected is the return of Elton Chigumbura, whose last international match was two years ago.
His bowling is scarcely used nowadays, but as a batsman he has been showing much of his old dominant form, combined with a certain discretion, and has well earned his return to the international game.
Hamilton Masakadza, who has been appointed the captain, carries a heavy load as Zimbabwe’s leading batsman, ranked number 10 in the world.
Solomon Mire has returned and he will be looking to come good in the format that suits his aggressive batting style.
Apart from Masakadza and Chigumbura, Malcolm Waller is the only other batsman to have much T20I experience, and he will be eager to to justify his selection.
Cephas Zhuwao, a devastating hitter in local domestic cricket, has a chance to make his mark on the international scene in a big way.
Tarisai Musakanda, an outstanding talent, should certainly play, and he will be out to shine in the shortened form of the game.
PJ Moor is another powerful hitter whose driving in particular can turn a match, while Chamu Chibhabha, if opening the innings, could enable Mire to bat in the middle order where he may be more comfortable.
Brian Chari can play a devastating innings, as he showed in his century against Kenya recently, and he will be looking to make the most of his chance if given the nod.
Of the bowlers, Chris Mpofu and Kyle Jarvis will both play a very important role and their experience will be crucial to keeping the opposition in check.
Tendai Chisoro, left-arm spin, has often proved a very difficult bowler to dominate and his economy will be important; he is also a much underestimated batsman.
Some of the newer bowlers will also break into the team: Wellington Masakadza bowls left-arm spin and Brandon Mavuta leg-spin, but only Waller is able to spin it the other way.
Blessing Muzarabani, the quickest of the bowlers, is also likely to play, while Ryan Burl, left-hand bat, may get another chance.
It appears that the selectors have decided on the 20-year-old Ryan Murray as wicketkeeper for the series.
Murray’s wicketkeeping, together with his capable batting, has impressed good judges of the game for several years, although he will not be available regularly for Zimbabwean teams until the end of next year, when he finishes his degree at the University of Cape Town.
The tournament will naturally be a steep learning curve for most of our players, especially since they have not played much T20 cricket at any level during the last two years or so.
Zimbabwe T20I squad: Hamilton Masakadza (captain), Cephas Zhuwao, Chamu Chibhabha, Brian Chari, Tarisai Musakanda, Malcolm Waller, Peter Moor, Tendai Chisoro, Kyle Jarvis, Brandon Mavuta, Blessing Muzarabani, Chris Mpofu, Ryan Burl, Solomon Mire, Ryan Murray, Wellington Masakadza, Elton Chigumbura
Pakistan T20I squad: Sarfraz Ahmed (captain), Fakhar Zaman, Mohammad Hafeez, Shoaib Malik, Asif Ali, Hussain Talat, Haris Sohail, Shadab Khan, Mohammad Nawaz, Faheem Ashraf, Hasan Ali, Mohammad Amir, Usman Khan, Shaheen Afridi, Sahibzada Farhan.
Australia T20I squad: Aaron Finch (c), Alex Carey, Ashton Agar, Travis Head, Nic Maddinson, Glenn Maxwell, Jhye Richardson, Kane Richardson, D’Arcy Short, Billy Stanlake, Marcus Stoinis, Mitchell Swepson, Andrew Tye, Jack Wildermuth.
T20I Triangular Series Fixtures:
Sunday, 1 July: Zimbabwe vs Pakistan
Monday, 2 July: Pakistan vs Australia
Tuesday, 3 July: Australia vs Zimbabwe
Wednesday, 4 July: Zimbabwe vs Pakistan
Thursday, 5 July: Pakistan vs Australia
Friday, 6 July: Australia vs Zimbabwe
Sunday, 8 July: Final
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