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Pakistan are good, but the Netherlands evidence shows they can be better

The emergence of Naseem Shah and Agha Salman are positives, but the middle order must give the top order more confidence

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Naseem Shah picked up ten wickets in the three ODIs  •  KNCB/Gerhard van der Laarse

Naseem Shah picked up ten wickets in the three ODIs  •  KNCB/Gerhard van der Laarse

Pakistan wrapped up a 3-0 ODI series win over Netherlands, which was probably the scoreline most expected. But if ever the bottomline failed to tell the story of what really transpired, it was here. Netherlands may legitimately feel this was a golden chance, not just to spring a surprise in one game, but to take the series 2-1.
In the first ODI, Netherlands needed 48 from the final four overs with four wickets in hand and two set batters at the crease. The picture was rosier in the third ODI, with Netherlands in a brilliant position, needing 38 off 36 with half their side intact.
While Pakistan found a way to wriggle out of both situations, Babar Azam and his side will know this was a performance that needs significant improvement ahead of next year's 50-over World Cup. Here are some takeaways from the series.
Starting problems
Starting quickly, taking advantage of the harder ball and fielding restrictions in the first ten overs, has become the norm in short-format cricket. Pakistan are emphatically not on board.
Perhaps we knew this watching Pakistan play ODI cricket over the last three years, but it was this series against Netherlands that truly crystallised that belief. Against a bowling attack that wasn't the best in the world, the top order receded into their shells, preferring the steadier, less spectacular approach of conserving wickets and building a platform. Both times they batted first, they arguably left runs out there and nearly paid the price for it.
And it's a bit of a theme. Since the 2019 men's ODI World Cup, Pakistan's first powerplay strike rate is 4.87. England, India, New Zealand, Australia, Sri Lanka and South Africa all score at higher than five per over in the first ten. Pakistan have struck just five first powerplay sixes in this period; none of the other 19 ODI sides have hit fewer. It seems difficult to imagine this approach won't be a problem at some stage.
Glimmer of hope for the middle order
The middle order is a weakness for this ODI side, and almost certainly will be heading into next year's World Cup. There simply isn't time enough for wholesale fixes this late in the cycle.
But there were signs that, with the right sort of players coming into form at the same time, Pakistan would be able to cobble together something resembling a middle order, instead of the gaping hole it has been for the past several years. Relying on the top order for two-thirds of their runs, as Pakistan have done, simply isn't sustainable, especially if that same top order is forced into excessive caution. After all, Pakistan scored just 105 for 3 in 30 overs in the third ODI; that represented their lowest ODI 30-over score with fewer than four wickets lost since the 2014 Asia Cup final.
This is where Shadab Khan's value to the side becomes obvious. The Pakistan vice-captain acknowledged he hadn't been able to perform with the bat consistently over the years, but of late, that has begun to change. He was instrumental in bailing his side out in the final ODI against West Indies in June; his score of 86 remains the highest score from a player outside the Pakistan top three since the 2019 World Cup. He followed it up by an unbeaten 28-ball 48 in the first ODI in Rotterdam.
There were other encouraging signs, too. Mohammad Rizwan scoring a half-century suggests he has an anchoring middle-order role to play, while Agha Salman's strong debut gives Pakistan options. There will be sterner tests, but for a middle order that had virtually nothing going for it, this could be a start.
Naseem Shah is good…
… isn't he? Naseem is the first Pakistan bowler to get to ten wickets in his first three ODIs, but more than that, it's the discernment that stands out. Despite his inexperience, he was the best among the Pakistan bowlers in this series at judging what lines and lengths to bowl, and the best at withstanding pressure in key moments. The extreme pace, of course, is an added bonus, something that bothers batters regardless of who they play.
But Naseem's impressive showing in his first ODI series isn't just an added bonus, it is a necessity for Pakistan. They have struggled to find a new-ball bowler to operate alongside Shaheen Afridi. Seven bowlers besides Shaheen have taken the new ball in the last 20 ODIs, and Haris Rauf and Hasan Ali, who have been tasked with the responsibility most frequently, have also been the most expensive. Naseem's arrival could not be timed better.
Pakistan are a better ODI side than we think
This might be an odd thing to say about a side that has lost a home ODI to Zimbabwe not long ago, been clean-swept by a weakened England side, and then overcame hiccups to bring up this victory over Netherlands. But Babar's men have won 14 of their 20 ODIs in this Super League cycle. They are third in the ODI Super League table, they have won a series away against South Africa, and came from behind to beat Australia. They are on an eight-match winning streak. Perhaps the sense of doom and gloom - some of it reflected in the words above - doesn't do them justice.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000