Pakistan's head coach Misbah-ul-Haq believes the team is a couple of positions away from their best T20 side, as they begin the final stage of their preparations for this year's T20 World Cup. Pakistan have as good a run-in to the tournament, to be held in the UAE from October, as could be hoped for: eight T20Is in the next couple of months against the two finalists from 2016, as well as the two favourites for the next edition - England and West indies.
Pakistan landed in England a couple of days ago and will begin training from Monday. A sixth summer trip to England since 2016 means they are in very familiar territory as they begin the tour with three ODIs. But it is the three T20Is that follow that will remain the focus of attention.
Pakistan are aflush with top-order T20 batters but it is the more difficult middle-order slots at five and six they have struggled to fill. Since Misbah took over as coach in September 2019 (and was, for a while, chief selector too) Pakistan have used 14 different players across those two positions and, in Azam Khan and Sohaib Maqsood, will be trialling two more on this tour.
"The PSL made a few things clear," Misbah said. "I think it is that one slot we are trying to fill, at no.5 and no.6, that we've had issues with. We have Azam Khan now and Sohaib Maqsood with us to see if they can, and what combination we can make with them. Overall, the bowling we know we have pretty much our attack. At the top of the order we have our four pretty much and their replacements. So, we know our side more or less but a couple of positions that we need to focus on over the next two series."
Neither Azam nor Maqsood come issue-free, though. Azam's form in the second half of the PSL in Abu Dhabi dipped in a struggling Quetta Gladiators side. Maqsood was central to Multan Sultan's title win and has been Pakistan's form white-ball batter domestically, but has already insisted he wants to bat in the top order. That would mean breaking into a top order that Misbah feels is well-set, with Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan opening, and Fakhar Zaman and Mohammad Hafeez to follow.
Azam, however, will attract most of the attention. There have been questions around his fitness and weight almost since he emerged and now, with national selection, murmurs about the merit in picking the son of Moin Khan, coach of the Gladiators.
"We try that whatever players we have here are fully prepared and that we show confidence in them so they go out there and perform," Misbah said. "Azam no doubt is talented although he is a little out of form recently. But everyone knows that in modern T20 cricket, the power you need at five or six, the strike rate you need, he has the potential for that. So, looking forward to seeing him, we just have to see what combination we want to go with."
Travel requirements being what they are at the moment, Pakistan's selection for this tour was hamstrung by having to be made before the resumption of the PSL. Haider Ali's withdrawal for a bio-bubble breach has allowed Pakistan to consider PSL form and pick Maqsood, but there were other performances that may well have been rewarded had the timing been right, not least Shahnawaz Dahani.
Dahani was the season's leading wicket-taker and was part of the Test team to Zimbabwe earlier, but is not part of the white-ball squad currently, though Misbah did acknowledge that may change in the West Indies.
The flipside has been selected players, like Azam, who did not have a great PSL, such as Shadab Khan or Mohammad Hafeez, or even Haris Rauf whose last three games yielded figures of 12-0-136-1.
"It's always a good thing that the maximum number of players are in good form and in a good frame of mind," Misbah said. "But you learn from cricket that it doesn't matter when you have good form and runs and you still don't perform. And sometimes you're not in good form but you come with more focus, you try harder to recapture that form.
"One good thing is we have time. We have ODIs first, so we can utilise that time and then be properly prepared as we go into the T20s. Form is not something that sticks with you permanently or goes away permanently. As coaching staff and players you try and get that back and we have enough time to do it."
Pakistan will be one short in that backroom staff with the abrupt departure of batting coach Younis Khan. Reports have since emerged of a run-in with a player on the tour to Zimbabwe as one of the factors but Misbah, predictably, wanted to move on.
"I don't want to comment on that. His experience was always good for these young players. But that is something which is between the PCB and coaches. Now we have to live with that and whatever resources we have."