Bilal was exceptional today - Azhar Ali
Job done for Azhar Ali. Pakistan took the Twenty20 games 2-0 under Shahid Afridi and, despite Zimbabwe's win in the second ODI, Pakistan - and particularly the visitors' bowling attack - have looked strong in their 2-1 ODI series win. Azhar, Pakistan's ODI captain, was particularly pleased with the way the new members of the squad seized their opportunities ahead of Pakistan's upcoming series against England.
"There's a very important series for us, playing England in UAE, coming up and this Zimbabwe series was a good opportunity to give our youngsters chances so that we can utilize them if we need them in that crucial series," explained Azhar, who missed the third game due to an infected foot. "We're definitely looking forward to playing England now, it's a big challenge and we're up for it. When we arrived here, we wanted to give chances and test our bench strength. I think they responded really well. Aamer Yamin is another youngster who did really well in the first two games. And, of course, Bilal Asif today was exceptional. It's a very good sign for us."
Bilal's debut in the second ODI, during which he went wicketless and was out for a duck, was anything but exceptional but he ran through Zimbabwe's line-up in his second game, taking 5 for 25. He also added a boundary-laden 38 opening the batting to hasten Pakistan's pursuit of 162.
"It was really a very good performance from him," said Azhar. "He wasn't that effective in the first game, but in this game the Zimbabweans were going along very nicely and were set up to reach a big total, but the way he bowled [changed that]. He restricted them really well in his first five overs, and then got those five wickets and that was the turning point for us in this game. As a team we really appreciate his performance.
"In the last two seasons of T20 domestic cricket he batted up the order and he was pretty effective, so we wanted to use him up the order here and give him a good chance as well. We wanted him to try and attack the opponent's bowlers. In the first game it didn't pay off but in the second one he played really well."
Pakistan's spinners have been the major difference between the two sides on this tour, making up for the inadequacies of an underperforming top order. Left-arm spinner Imad Wasim, legspinner Yasir Shah and offspinner Bilal have all won games for their team, with all ten wickets falling to spin in the first ODI, and the slow men claiming nine victims in the third. Azhar suggested that his spinners had found the conditions in Zimbabwe very much to their liking.
"First of all the wickets weren't very easy to bat on. The ball wasn't coming on to the bat and a lot of batsmen struggled," he said. "Even our batsmen struggled on these sorts of wickets, because you're playing the one-day format and you try to get on with the game but you struggle to do that on these sorts of wickets. So the pitches weren't helpful for the batsmen, and our spinners do well all around the world. Especially getting these conditions, I think they are more threatening. So I think the conditions and the quality of our bowling combined was too good for the [Zimbabwean batsmen].
"The conditions weren't easy, especially for the batting, but as a team we got a lot of things from this series. The new guys took their chances with both hands. We're looking forward to coming back here at some stage. Zimbabwe has always been a very welcoming country and we like to play against Zimbabwe.
"They came to Pakistan and we were very thankful to them for helping to break that six year stretch when we didn't have any internationals at home. They came, and now we came here and really enjoyed our time here. It's not difficult you know, we enjoyed the cricket here. And we learned a lot."
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town