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Why Pakistan's loss to Afghanistan might not be such a bad thing

They were given the chance to experiment with their team and they took it. Now the question is, will they give their new players time to find their way?

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Ihsanullah picked up three wickets, Afghanistan vs Pakistan, 3rd T20I, Sharjah, March 27, 2023

Ihsanullah finished the series against Afghanistan as the highest wicket-taker  •  Afghanistan Cricket Board

Almost seven years ago, Pakistan turned up in Manchester on a cool September night to cap off a miserable white-ball tour with a one-off T20I. The prospects for a relatively inexperienced Pakistani side looked bleak; they had just come off a wretched 2016 T20 World Cup campaign, while England's incipient rise to the top of the white-ball game was picking up steam. The ODI series just prior hadn't gone to plan for the visitors, brushed aside 4-1, including a humbling defeat that saw England post a then-world record 444 at Trent Bridge.
Pakistan made a number of changes from that ill-fated T20 World Cup five months prior. Shahid Afridi was finally done away with, and Sarfaraz Ahmed was handed the captaincy. Mohammad Sami was phased out, and 22-year-old Hasan Ali made his debut. Mohammad Rizwan earned a recall after six months. Another slight, unassuming 21-year-old also made his T20I debut; Babar Azam would go on to hit the winning runs in a nine-wicket romp.
That night sent Pakistan on a journey that allowed this game to assume great importance in hindsight. New captain Sarfaraz led the side to 11-straight T20I series wins. Rizwan went on to become one of the most consistent T20 openers in the world. Hasan took home the player-of-the-series award when Pakistan won the 2017 Champions Trophy nine months later. And Babar, well, you get the point.
England on the other hand didn't really care about the loss. Not as much as they did about the chance to test new players transitioning into a new system. One that resulted in the ODI World Cup win in 2019 and, further down the line, the T20 World Cup win in 2022. That old nine-wicket thumping in Manchester wasn't a harbinger of anything inauspicious; nine of those who started that game would also start at least one of those World Cup finals.
Which brings us to Pakistan's historic defeat at Afghanistan's hands over the past week and why it might not be such a bad thing.
Pakistan were right in giving their newfound PSL stars a go in international cricket. They have the time now, with the next T20 World Cup almost two years away, to supplement the talent they have with the experience they will need.
Saim Ayub lit up the PSL. Mohammad Haris was the catalyst for a Pakistan revival at last year's T20 World Cup. As opening batters, they are very different to Babar and Rizwan, but given the way T20 cricket is being played right now, it almost feels like they are the conventional choice rather than their more decorated, more conservative counterparts. Only, Ayub and Haris found themselves thrown in on surfaces that were much better suited to the accumulating instincts, as well as superior techniques, of Babar and Rizwan.
The value of this series to Pakistan was never about bringing home that T20 trophy, ornate as it was. Shadab Khan, Babar's deputy for some time now, had the opportunity to juggle his all-round role with the captaincy. He was allowed to make his mistakes while the stakes aren't suffocatingly high. Things didn't go perfectly to plan but it was important that Pakistan found out what life beyond Babar will look like. Shadab might never end up being a permanent captain for Pakistan, but there were few better occasions to see what he can do, something that he himself touched upon at the end of the series.
"Unfortunately, we didn't win the series," Shadab said. "But the way our youngsters showed their talent was very exciting, and I'm confident they'll end up becoming stars. The conditions were evidently totally different to the PSL, and young players can get nervous when they put on the green shirt for the first time. But what I liked was how quickly they adapted. After two difficult matches, they showed in the third their calibre and quality.
"These conditions were new for them, and they should learn from it. Those who succeeded in this series and those who failed we might need to work on game awareness a little bit, about when to play what shot. But they're young, and when you're nervous, you make mistakes. But with their talent and attitude, they'll pick up these things quickly."
Imad Wasim and Abdullah Shafique found themselves back on the international stage, and only time will tell if they, or indeed Tayyab Tahir, end up being a part of Pakistan's long-term plan. But the general discomfort at the idea of Pakistan selecting players who might not necessarily be part of their best squads speaks to a culture where rest, rotation and experimentation have never been allowed to take root.
Since the start of 2021, until this series began, Pakistan had fielded 32 players in the T20I format. Only Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Ireland, whose talent pools are infinitely shallower, fielded fewer. For starts per T20I played, only Ireland experiment less than Pakistan. The leaders, India, handed out nearly 50% more starts, with 45 different cricketers donning T20I caps in this period.
But rotation can be as illuminating as it is rejuvenating, as Pakistan would have discovered after watching Ihsanullah and Zaman Khan this series. Knowing Pakistan's penchant for knee-jerk volte-faces, it wouldn't be surprising to see a full-strength T20I side gear up for the home series against New Zealand next month, even though the visitors will send in a significantly weakened squad. Should that happen, it is entirely likely that New Zealand will be the team that walks away having learned more about themselves, regardless of the series outcome.
The roles from that night in Manchester have been completely reversed. It is Afghanistan who should view this series as their springboard to something special. Pakistan - just like England that night - need only move on.

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