Head coach Misbah-ul-Haq has dismissed concerns Pakistan are heading into the T20 World Cup later this year unsure of their best side, pointing to a "nucleus of seven-eight players that were almost the same". With the side ringing the changes once more for the T20I squad, the current Pakistan unit is a far cry from the one that was ranked No.1 when Misbah took over as head coach in 2019. There have been several changes from one series to the next, though Misbah felt the side - especially the batting line-up - now had a "settled" look to it.
"Your nucleus is important in T20I cricket," Misbah said during a virtual press conference, "and about seven-eight players that we have are almost the same wherever we play. Even in a 15-man squad, about 10-12 players remain the same. The batting nucleus remains the same, with only one-two changes in terms of form. This team, and the overall line-up of our T20 batting looks settled. Shaheen Afridi, Haris Sohail, Hasan Ali, Faheem Ashraf, Shadab Khan, Babar Azam, Mohammad Rizwan, Haider Ali, these form the core of our side. In terms of players, we are very much clear about where we are going to be come the World Cup."
If the names Misbah mention appear to provide stability now, that wasn't always the case in the past two years. In his first squad as chief selector and head coach - a T20I series against Sri Lanka, Misbah named a number of players currently out of the side for a number of reasons, including Umar Akmal, Ahmed Shehzad, Usman Shinwari, Imad Wasim, Mohammad Amir and Haris Sohail. The squad for the following T20I series - in Australia - saw another revamp, with Mohammad Hasnain, Khushdil Shah, Musa Khan Abdul Qadir and Mohammad Irfan being included. Pakistan went on to lose all completed T20Is in both series.
The chopping and changing has continued, though not quite to that extreme, of late. However, there continue to be concerns around the form of a number of middle-order players who were considered staples of the T20I side. Iftikhar Ahmed and Khushdil have struggled to find form in the format, while Haider Ali lacks consistency. Mohammad Hafeez, not part of those initial squads, is now a key part of Pakistan's plans, as is Mohammad Rizwan, whose sudden form has blindsided just about everyone. Misbah, however, expressed satisfaction with the progress of the side, saying the immediate focus remained on the tour of South Africa and Zimbabwe.
"We're looking ahead to this challenge at the moment," he said. In terms of bounce and pace, it's different in South Africa. The Wanders and Centurion are grounds we have performed well at in the past in white-ball cricket. Besides, with the emergence of fast bowlers like Shaheen and Hasnain, as well as allrounders like Faheem, the balance of our side is really good. We also have good spinners. In the past, we might have had problems with our balance, but we're in a good position to hopefully win the white-ball series there.
There will be plenty in Pakistan still upset that a side which was nailed-on favourites for this T20 World Cup now go to the tournament at a time when they are mid-table, at best, but the extra year afforded to them by the pandemic has allowed a relatively young squad to begin to settle once more. They might have a challenge getting so far as the semi-finals - let alone walking away with the trophy - but Misbah seems to feel there is more to be optimistic about than he might have cared to admit a year earlier.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000