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Pakistan look to plug ODI holes against depleted Netherlands

With the T20 Asia Cup less than two weeks away, it might seem like an odd time to schedule an ODI series, but both sides have plenty to play for

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Pakistan have only played a handful of intermittent short ODI series since the 2019 World Cup  •  PCB

Pakistan have only played a handful of intermittent short ODI series since the 2019 World Cup  •  PCB

For the Pakistan cricket team right now, this is a decidedly weird time to find themselves in the Netherlands' second largest city. It is less than two weeks to the start of the T20 Asia Cup, whereas Pakistan are here to play three ODIs against the Netherlands. The Asia Cup is to be held in the UAE, a place that's hot and dry almost no matter what time of year you're talking about, while Rotterdam this week is expected to be wet and windy. The surfaces Pakistan will encounter, Babar Azam mused last week, would be similar to the ones they deal with in the UK, worlds removed from what Sharjah and Dubai and Abu Dhabi will throw up.
And yet here Pakistan are. To give everyone their due, they didn't exactly schedule it this way; this is a series carried over from last year, one of the victims of the sledgehammer the Covid-19 pandemic took to the cricketing schedule. It's perhaps also an encapsulation of where the ODI game sits right now, with any games in that format feeling out of context just about whenever they're played.
But then again, if there's anything more tedious than the alleged impending demise of the one-day game, it's the relentless talk about it, so we might as well get into the actual cricket. These ODIs might feel something of a chore to Pakistan but they're likely very welcome to all stakeholders at the KNCB, not least the players who get a rare opportunity at taking on a world-class side. That's even truer in the wake of Pakistan's squad announcement, with the visitors announcing nigh-on a full strength side for the three games, with Shaheen Shah Afridi's likely absence from at least the first two games the only elite omission.
Pakistan, like most other nations, have only played a handful of intermittent short ODIs series since the 2019 ODI World Cup, making it tricky to gauge their form and the side's overall health ahead of next year's showpiece event in India. But even from the scraps that can be gleaned, there's some evidence of a side building up steam leading up to that tournament.
The first half of this cycle saw them lose a home ODI to Zimbabwe, sneak past a depleted South Africa and find themselves utterly outclassed by a third-string English side. Since then, a come-from-behind series win against Australia and a clean sweep of the West Indies has injected confidence into the side. While anything but an undefeated series against the Netherlands would be a failure, these games also give Pakistan the opportunity to plug some of the holes in their 50-over side.
There is perhaps an opportunity for the middle order to find some runs and confidence, with Pakistan's top three responsible for about two thirds of all ODI runs since the 2019 World Cup, for no other side is that figure above 55%. There's a compelling positive reason for that, of course - Imam-ul-Haq and Babar Azam are the most consistent ODI batting pairing in the world, and with Pakistan having won 11 of the 17 ODIs they have played this cycle, that leaves little for the rest of the lineup.
However, on the occasions the middle order has been left with work to do, more often than not, that work has been left undone. No one from outside the top three has scored a single ODI hundred in this cycle, and just four half-centuries have come from outside the top four. Haris Sohail and Wahab Riaz were responsible for two of those, not exactly batters Pakistan will rely on in the long term.
The new-ball bowlers, too have a chance to shine in Afridi's absence; for the most part, it has proved a struggle from the other end. As many as seven bowlers besides Shaheen have been used as new ball options, without anyone really looking like making that slot theirs. Babar did speak glowingly of fast-bowling depth, but quantity is far less likely to win World Cups than quality.
The Netherlands find themselves depleted for reasons beyond their control, with the Hundred and the One-Day Cup tying down more than half a dozen players the home side might have wanted to call upon. Fred Klaassen, Colin Ackermann, Roelof van der Merwe, and Timm van der Gugten are all currently participating in the Hundred, with Paul van Meekeren, Shane Snater and Brandon Glover involved in England's domestic one-day competition.
Pieter Seelaar's retirement leaves a hole to be fulfilled, but Scott Edwards, the replacement skipper, was outstanding in the recent series against England, scoring 214 runs, and half-centuries in each game. (Incidentally, he also bats outside the top four, so in that series alone, he was responsible for nearly as many middle order half-centuries as Pakistan have managed in the past three years.)
While that series might have been dispiriting for the Dutch - England swept them aside in all three games, record-breakingly so in the first - Netherlands have since had something to cheer about. They had a successful T20 World Cup qualifying campaign in Zimbabwe, going through to the tournament proper in Australia alongside the hosts. In the bigger picture, that was much more significant in lifting Dutch spirits than anything England did to deflate them in July. Netherlands have generally tended to play attacking cricket, but with that weight off their shoulders, that might be exacerbated against Pakistan.
In a sense, both sides have more exciting challenges to look forward to. The cricketing world will move past this series without taking so much as a second glance, with both Netherlands and Pakistan putting it to the back of their minds soon after it's over.
But even the most curmudgeonly would find it difficult to moan about spending a week in Rotterdam in August. The weather is cool and mild, far removed from the heatwaves and droughts ravaging so much of Europe currently. It isn't quite as crowded as its big brother Amsterdam, which gets most of the tourist crowds and the concomitant problems that go with that. A stroll around the Old Harbour is always relaxing, and those world-famous cube houses are iconic enough to merit a visit on their own. Oh, and there's cricket on.
Come to think of it, perhaps it isn't such a strange time to be in Rotterdam.

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