Can Khushdil answer questions around Pakistan's brittle middle order?

His international prowess hasn't yet come close to matching his domestic T20 and league exploits, but he has the chance to change it now

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Khushdil Shah (left) played a big part in setting up a last-over win, Pakistan vs West Indies, 1st ODI, Multan, June 8, 2022

Khushdil Shah (left) played a big part in setting up a last-over win for Pakistan  •  AFP/Getty Images

The cynical might call it showy, the converted would insist it was true leadership. But either way, at the post-match presentation, Babar Azam was making a point.
Called up to receive yet another Player-of-the-Match award after his 17th ODI hundred had helped Pakistan to a nervy five-wicket win over West Indies in the opening ODI, he turned it down on live TV, insisting he wanted it presented to Khushdil Shah. Khushdil then shuffled up to the stage, a little uncertainly, as if a little unsure whether he was actually about to be presented with an award earmarked for his captain. But Babar, whose comfort in this role as Pakistan leader grows by the game, meant what he said, and moments later, the man who had smashed an unbeaten 23-ball 41 at the death was picking up the award.
It made perfect sense. Narrating the story of a Pakistan win through the lens of a Babar ODI hundred almost doesn't tell you anything anymore, so frequently does it happen. His place atop the ODI format is currently so undisputed it's become an accepted feature of a game involving Pakistan rather than an intriguing plot point in any particular match. He has scored four hundreds in his last five ODIs, six in his last 11, eight in the last 18. It can be the curse of a reliably brilliant sporting feat; like Rafael Nadal's victories at Roland Garros, Babar's ODI masterclasses can sometimes all mesh into one, unable to tell the unique story of a particular, individual performance. Babar scores a hundred, Babar wins Player of the Match doesn't exactly narrow anything down, does it?
But while Babar's batting has verged on perfection for a while now, few people have failed to notice that explicitly cannot be said about most other batters in this Pakistan side. In the handful of ODIs Pakistan have played since the 2019 World Cup, the dominance of the top three of Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq and Babar has been such it has papered over the cracks of a brittle middle order that has tended to go putty when the slightest pressure has been applied.
In Rawalpindi against Zimbabwe in 2020, Fakhar and Imam fell early, forcing Babar into trying to produce a one-man epic in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to stave off defeat; numbers 4-7 managed just 74 runs between them. In Centurion in the first ODI against South Africa last April, Pakistan stumbled from 186 for 1 to 203 for 5, only winning off the last ball in a game they had been cruising to victory in. In Cardiff against England, Imam and Babar fell for ducks, Pakistan folded for 141. The following game, the top three put on 30, Pakistan managed 195. Against Australia in March, Pakistan went from 120 for 1 to being skittled for 225; the bottom eight managed 43 between them.
In this World Cup cycle (since the 2019 final), 66.1% of Pakistan's runs have been scored by the top three, far and away the highest among all 20 teams to have played ODs in this period. New Zealand are a distant second, needing their top three for 52.7% of their runs.
So when Babar miscued a pull shot with Pakistan needing 69 off 51 with seven wickets in hand, it appeared a routine white-ball chase most sides would have backed their middle order to coast through. In Multan, however, the angst rippling through the crowd felt more than justified. Mohammad Rizwan, still searching for the best version of himself in this format, awaited the arrival of Khushdil at the crease, whose international prowess hasn't yet come close to matching his domestic T20 and league exploits.
"When I was going in to bat, Rizwan was out there with me. We saw we still needed about 70 runs. We decided we wanted to take it deep," Khushdil said later.
Rizwan fell soon after, and Khushdil decided he needed to take the game even deeper. The asking run rate continued to drift until it was almost touching 12, and, with few signs Pakistan had the ability to take it to a West Indies bowling unit who were executing the basics with impressive reliability, the questions around the middle order, and particularly Khushdil, abounded.
In a country not blessed with reservoirs of patience, Khushdil as a T20I prospect has already begun to wear thin on many; aside from one pressure-free game against Zimbabwe, the batter has never once looked like the domestic powerhouse Pakistan thought they were getting. In ODIs, Pakistan are less dependent on his all-round skills; his bowling is unlikely to be major consideration when his involvement is debated. And so, on this repressively hot night in Multan, Khushdil simply needed to find a way to drag his domestic form, kicking and screaming if necessary, to the international stage.
He targeted the 47th over. "At that time we needed almost 12 an over. I decided that I would wait for the balls that were in my zone, and I found a few in that over so I went for it," he said.
A first six was muscled over midwicket, but the following two really went on to demonstrate the devastating impact of a power hitter. The next ball wasn't even in the slot, it was one of those low full tosses 99% of batters squeeze out to long-on for a single. Khushdil found the timing and the strength, however, to send it straight into the sightscreen. After that outrage, the third six, low off the bottom of the bat, almost appeared a routine shot. For Khushdil in the zone, perhaps it was.
Khushdil has been around long enough to know questions around Pakistan's middle order will continue to linger. But through a few swishes of the blade he wields like a hammer in moments like these, it can sometimes feel like he has most of the answers.

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