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ICC Cricket World Cup 2023: Has Saud Shakeel Cracked the Middle-Order Code for Pakistan? – News18


All the talks about the Pakistan team being heavily reliant on their top three ahead of the ICC World Cup 2023 were put to the test in the first game itself when they found themselves tottering at 38/3 – the top three, incidentally 2 of whom are in the top 10 run-getters list for ODIs in 2023 – had been sent back by the Netherlands bowlers inside the first 10 overs in their opener at the Rajiv Gandhi International stadium, Uppal on Friday.

Knowing how mercurial Pakistan could be, these were worrying signs. Pakistan, playing in India for the first time in 7 years, albeit against a weaker opposition, would not have wanted this kind of a start. Of course there still was Mohammad Rizwan at No.4, the third Pakistan player in the top 10 list for most ODI runs this year so far, but the question was who would shoulder the responsibility of rescuing Pakistan from a precarious position with the chirpy wicketkeeper-batter.

The answer came in the form of Saud Shakeel. The 28-year-old from Sind, a former Pakistan Shaheen’s captain, who played a total of only one ODI this year – and two if you extend it to March 2022 –  found himself with an opportunity not many 28-year-olds get these days – a second chance.

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A talented batter, he had already made waves in Test cricket, boasting an impressive average of 87.14 across 13 innings. However, it was the ODI format that he was faced with his greatest challenge as of yet.

But riding on the high of the Test form, Shakeel showed clarity of thought in what he had to do and of course some stunning array of shots to help Pakistan out of the hole. “I was clear in my mind that I wanted to attack and play positive cricket,” Shakeel said in reply to a News18 CricketNext query after the match, adding, “Rizwan Bhai’s role was to go long but my plan was simple. I focused on a few bowlers from the Netherlands. If I had to hit from above, I would take a chance. I did that. I took a chance. I was trying to stay positive and kept attacking the bowlers I had targeted.”

Shakeel was not even in contention for the World Cup 2023 just over a couple of months back. Tayyab Tahir, Pakistan’s ACC Men’s Emerging Cup star was added to the Asia Cup 2023 squad and it largely looked like the middle-order is more or less set depending on the conditions with Pakistan opting to go with Salman Aga, or experiment with Tahir.

But things changed and instead of Tahir Shakeel got the nod; even though he played one game returning with just nine runs, he was persisted with.

READ: PAK vs NED, World Cup 2023: Bas de Leede’s Valiant Effort Falls Short for the Dutch vs Pakistan

Team Director Mickey Arthur had picked out Shakeel for some special praise at the pre-match presser and teammate Rizwan too did not hold back on the praise for the left-hand batter after the match.  “He has gifts that make him a different kind of superstar. If he continues the hard work, then Pakistan will have found themselves another superstar”, said Rizwan.

Shakeel did have a nervy start, to begin with, with a couple of streaky boundaries, one of which could very well have spelt doom for him, but as he conceded later, luck played some part before his instincts took over. “Of course, there were nerves. But I was lucky that I found a few odd boundaries. Sometimes it happens that you find such boundaries, it makes it easier for you,” he said.

But more than luck and instinct, it was a focused training regime aimed at filling Pakistan’s No.5 spot that helped Shakeel get a second crack at the white-ball format. After his Test exploits, he did not want to be cast as a one-format player.

“I performed very well in the Test matches, so my confidence level was very high,” he began, adding, “But at the same time, I was focusing a lot on my white-ball cricket. I was focusing a lot on my game. I could see that my numbers for playing for Pakistan were 5-6 (batting order). Babar Azam plays at 3 and Rizwan plays at 4. I tried to develop my game and worked hard for it.

A person has a vision and works hard for it. I tried the same. I could see that I am not playing much One-Day cricket, not much white-ball domestic cricket in Pakistan in which I can prove my point.”

Further elaborating on the preparation, Shakeel said it was more of a mindset change than anything else. “I think it was more of a mindset change. A few years back I never used to hit big like this, I didn’t take many chances. I preferred to play on the ground. But I made my mindset that I have to accept one thing, where are your numbers to play against Pakistan? It is very important to realize this as a player. So, I made my game plan accordingly,” Shaheel, who made 68 off 52 balls, told reporters during the post-match presser.

En route to the knock, Shakeel notched up the 2nd fastest 50-over World Cup fifty for Pakistan after Inzamam ul Haq’s 31-ball effort in the 1992 World Cup.

Also on display was Shakeel’s sharp eye when he spotted an extra fielder inside the 30-yard circle. He took advantage of asking the umpire for a no-ball and then masterfully leveraged a six off a free hit to break the shackles.

So much so was the confidence with which Shakeel was batting, Rizwan later said that he did feel the need to plan anything during the crucial partnership with Shakeel. “While I plan things with Babar Azam in a partnership, with Saud I told him I’m not planning anything with you, because the way he plays his shots, he will get runs anyway. If he plays like he normally does, he’ll be fine and score quickly”.

Shakeel’s knock was surely a revelation, and in ways that reaffirmed what Arthur had said earlier, that Pakistan’s batting depth goes beyond Babar Azam and Rizwan. It is a pat on the back of this late bloomer who seemed to have seized the moment at the right time, and that bodes well for Pakistan as they go further deep in the tournament.

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