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Haris Sohail and Babar Azam play down Pakistan's power-hitting concerns

Haris Sohail fetches a pull Getty Images

With the World Cup so close Pakistan have named their preliminary squad for the tournament, it is striking to hear a cricketer talk about the event as just another competition organised some distance out into the future. But Haris Sohail, named among the 15 who will attempt to win Pakistan's second World Cup trophy, approaches the next couple of months in precisely that frame of mind. For now, he is not thinking of the World Cup; his focus lasered in on the series against England prior.

"The World Cup is still a little while away," Haris, one of two Pakistan players who were also part of the 2015 World Cup campaign, told reporters during a press gathering at the Gaddafi Stadium. "Before that, we have a very important series against England. England is a quality side, the number one team. If we win that series, we'll get a great deal of help in getting used to those conditions. We still have about 10 matches to go before the World Cup if you count all the practice matches. So we're hopeful of getting acclimatised well and producing good results at the World Cup."

For Haris, that short-term focus makes perfect sense. The left-hander's career has been blighted by a chronic knee injury for the best part of the last half decade, forcing him to miss several whole seasons over this period. The latest frustrating setback came on the morning of the first Test against South Africa on December 26, forcing him to miss that whole tour and putting his World Cup berth in serious jeopardy. It took scoring two hundreds against Australia, in a series where he was Pakistan's leading run-scorer, to secure him a plane ticket to England.

"Since the Australia series, my confidence and form is in a good place," Haris said. "Over the past few days, I wasn't feeling too great, but a match situation is different, and the [practice] match we played today, the ball felt great on the bat.

"What happened to me was I was operated on incorrectly, and I struggle because of that. Nobody wants to live through injuries, but as a sportsman, injuries do happen in cricket. Here, the media makes a big deal of injuries. If you look at Australia, every two series, one bowler or another is unfit. I bowl too, so please keep that in mind. I'm trying to complete my rehab properly and put my injury behind me once and for all. But because it was operated upon incorrectly, I do struggle with it sometimes."

With Babar Azam the rock in Pakistan's upper middle order, how Haris slots in alongside him will be instrumental to Pakistan's hopes of success at the World Cup. With the team lacking reputable firepower in the batting department, there have been concerns over whether this side can put up totals that challenge the best, most aggressive modern sides. Both Babar and Haris, though, feel those worries are overplayed.

"Cricket is a different game nowadays," Haris said. "Now, when your number three or four plays a big innings or gets a hundred, batsmen play around him. In ODI cricket, a total above 300 is now par. Not in the UAE, where pitches are slower and you need to take more time. But definitely that applies in countries like England. So over there, you'll see us play more aggressively.

"If you talk about the strike rate, conditions differ depending on where you are. Against Australia in the first ODI, it was very important for me to play 50 overs rather than score quickly. Even so, I scored my century in 114 balls, while [Aaron] Finch got his [in the same game] in 119. The second century I scored, my strike rate was over 100."

Babar feels no such need to be defensive about his natural game. "If I can be number one in the world without power hitting, then I don't need power hitting! But when I need to, I utilise it well. I don't just play along the ground. I practice hitting the ball big and when needed, I use it. My role is to play out the full overs. My individual role is to take the innings as deep as I can and perform in a way that benefits the team most of all."

Looming large over the occasion was the news that Shadab Khan's illness had ruled him out of the series against England, with the legspinner expected to take four weeks to regain full fitness. Although the initial reports are he will be fit in time for the World Cup, his unavailability until just days before the tournament begins invariably raises questions about Pakistan's back-up spin options.

One of the men who will likely bear increased responsibility in that case is Mohammad Hafeez. The 37-year old, for whom the World Cup is likely to be his last tournament, called it "sad news" but said teams couldn't just rely on individual players.

"He is an important player and I am sure he will be back very soon," Hafeez said. "Until he is back, we have to realise that teams don't run on one player. A lot of players have to fulfill their roles and there are many who are waiting for their turns."

More generally, Hafeez still said he preferred a position at or around the top order, saying he "was an opener and wanted to play as one". He specifically rejected the notion that he would be better suited in the lower middle order at number six. That was the position he came in at against India in the Champions Trophy final, where a breezy 37-ball 57 took Pakistan to 338.

"I am not a one-dimensional player. I believe I can play every kind of innings. On many occasions in my career, I have delivered in tough and pressure situations. Since I have played as an opener for 16-17 years since the start of my career, it becomes very difficult to go at number six."