Babar Azam, the Pakistan captain, wants his side to be done with the traditional style of playing one-day cricket. He wants his batsmen to eradicate any sense of doubt in their minds; to be fearless so they can post totals in the region of 350 a lot more often. And all that might just start with the first ODI against South Africa on Friday.

Pakistan teams have shown improvement in this regard in the domestic circuit, with run-rates on a steady increase over the past few years - 2016 (5.25), 2017 (6.34), 2018 (6.62), 2019 (6.45). But in 2020 it plummeted to 5.90. The trend of 320-plus scores, however, has increased. There were 15 of these in last year alone - a marked rise from the seven each in 2018 and 2019.

Having played only five ODIs since the end of the 2019 World Cup, Pakistan haven't had a lot of occasion to translate those numbers into international cricket. But the chance has finally come now.

"Definitely, we need improvement all the time," Babar said ahead of the Centurion ODI in a virtual press conference. "You might see a fluctuation in performance between two games but we need to be consistent and with every passing day and the more games we play, we are gaining more experience as a team. We try to go fearless and we understand that is the best way forward. The World Cup is in two years and we have to be consistent in playing a set of players and keep on playing the same combination which will eventually bring in confidence in the team as well as in individual players."

Pakistan have been tweaking their combination a lot lately, but their focus now appears to be on finding a set of seven or eight players who can serve as the team's nucleus. "When you play the same group of players, this will actually set the momentum and then you see a difference in every aspect of the game either about strike-rate, total we score, or the overall performance," Babar said. "We definitely have to match up with modern-day cricket and we are figuring out how to adapt the approach.

"There is a sense of responsibility among players to keep on lifting their strike-rate and only then we are able to have our required total. We have a settled top order and with any one of them going till the end with finishers in late middle order we can easily touch 350. We have given everyone their individual plans and even they themselves know how to go out and play according to the demanding situations these days. Going fearless isn't impossible. We have to eradicate this sense that we cannot do it, rather we should instill that we can, we will and we have the capability. We have an approach in mind in line with what is required in modern-day cricket and prepared accordingly."

Pakistan were the first subcontinent side to win a bilateral ODI series in South Africa in 2013-14, and either side of that lost two five-match series by the deciding game. Since 2010, Pakistan has a 6-7 win-loss in 50-overs cricket in South Africa and Babar hopes they can be competitive again.

"Of course you have to move on according to the modern cricket and set your targets but you have to be watchful about the opponent's strength as well," he said. "They are good at home in their own conditions but we have played well in the past. The difference has been the bounce, but in white-ball cricket, it actually helps batsmen. These are true pitches and as a batsman when you settled in, you have the ball coming on your bat nicely and you enjoy a lot. South Africa have got a good combination but we have our bases covered and expect a good series. We are here with a point of view to win it as the games are going to win us important points for World Cup qualification."

Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent