Babar Azam ‘proud’ of fast bowling trio Shaheen Afridi, Naseem Shah, Haris Rauf


For much of this World Cup cycle, it is Pakistan’s top three with the bat who have generated the most encouraging headlines. But ahead of their second meeting against India in just over a week, the focus is now firmly on the three with the ball.

“I feel very proud of the fast bowlers I have. They’re among the best, and help us dominate,” he said on the eve of playing India in Colombo on Sunday. “Tournaments and matches are won by fast bowlers, and I fully believe in them. There’s no secret; they just believe in themselves and cover for each other.”

And the trio has done that in abundance of late. Even as Afridi and Naseem took charge while opening the bowling against India in Pallekele last week, Rauf proved a touch expensive. But once the seam movement and swing began to fade, it was Rauf’s extra pace that provided Pakistan breakthroughs.

Against Bangladesh on Wednesday, Shaheen and Naseem struck early, but when Naseem went down with an injury after a boundary dive went wrong, Rauf was there to chip in, taking two wickets off his first seven balls, and four overall. And while Afridi has been less successful at the death, Rauf and Naseem have made up for it, combining for six lower-order wickets in the last two matches.

“We’re testing out different combinations to see what works for us,” Babar said. “We haven’t quite worked out exactly how to best approach the middle overs, but we’re finishing and starting very well thanks to our fast bowlers. It’s a team effort. As a team, we try and get the best out of our players.”

It is the one area where Pakistan have tinkered with personnel to try and hit upon the right formula. Against India, they went for the extra spinner in Mohammad Nawaz, but lost momentum through the middle overs as Hardik Pandya and Ishan Kishan pressed home the advantage against an off-colour Pakistan spin attack, with 21 overs of spin going for 133 wicketless runs.

Haris Rauf’s extra pace comes into play once seam and swing are goneā€¢Associated Press

But in Faheem Ashraf, Pakistan found more control against Bangladesh, with the allrounder conceding just 27 in seven overs, as well as breaking the hundred-run fifth-wicket partnership, something which has now been Pakistan’s bane for two successive games.

Faheem’s effectiveness has prompted Pakistan to stick with him for the game against India – they will be fielding an unchanged XI from their victory over Bangladesh – thus opting for more control, and the extra seamer over the spinner. Babar justified that call as one of “trying to keep our options open rather than being stuck to a combination”.

But with Pakistan having travelled from Pallekele to Lahore and then to Colombo in the preceding week even as India stayed put in Sri Lanka, Babar brushed aside any concerns about fatigue. Instead, despite the tournament’s Pakistan leg now over – though they were the official hosts – Babar was keen to point out the competitive advantage they still enjoyed.

“We have spent two-and-a-half months in Sri Lanka, including the Test series, LPL, Afghanistan series, and now the Asia Cup,” he said. “So you could say we have a slight edge over India because of that.”

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