Babar Azam says Shaheen Shah Afridi will be rested for at least two ODIs against the Netherlands

Pakistan captain Babar Azam has said the team is looking to manage Shaheen Shah Afridi’s “long-term workload and health” as he recovers from a knee injury, with the aim of getting him ready in time for the Asia Cup.

“We’re taking a couple of doctors on the way to take care of Shaheen,” Babar said at a press conference before Pakistan’s departure for the Netherlands. “We’re looking long term at his fitness and health. We want him to play a game against the Netherlands if he’s fit and be ready for the Asia Cup. Our combination is quite good. In T20s the middle order responded well to challenges.”

With Hasan Ali dropped from the side, that opens the door for less experienced fast bowlers to make their mark in the Netherlands, especially as Babar believes the conditions on offer will be similar to what England throws up, and therefore presumably suitable to fast bowlers. Haris Rauf, Shahnawaz Dahani, Naseem Shah and Mohammad Wasim are all part of the traveling contingent, and expected to be heavily involved in the three ODIs.

There will be particular interest in who Pakistan pick as their opening bowling pair, an area where, Afridi’s reliable brilliance aside, Pakistan have been unsettled in the ODI format. Each of Rauf, Dahani and Wasim have taken the new ball at some point or another, and since the 2019 World Cup, so have Hasan Ali, Mohammad Hasnain, Mohammad Amir and Usman Shinwari. Haris and Hasan, who have been tasked with this responsibility most regularly aside from Afridi, have the worst economy and strike rate with it. In Afridi’s absence, that will be a weakness Babar hopes to address properly.

“Our fast-bowling bench strength is excellent,” he said. “They’ve now got an opportunity to showcase their skills. This is how you expand your pool. I support Hasan Ali because he’s a team man. Yes, he’s not in form, but it’s not like he has to prove anything. Domestic cricket is coming up. He’ll play that and make a strong comeback hopefully.

“We have 11 trump cards. Each of them can be matchwinners on their day. I have faith in every one of them, whether batters of bowlers. I think the conditions will be similar to England. The weather will be cooler. We practiced with the air conditioning on indoors, perhaps that helps simulate the conditions! We couldn’t practice much because of the rains, but we got a practice match in, which gives you a good sense of conditions.”

Babar also appeared to pour cold water on murmurs of a return to the side for veteran Shoaib Malik ahead of the Asia Cup and T20 World Cup, emphasizing the importance of backing young players who had been assigned to replace him.

“The team has been announced after discussions with everyone. We met with the coach and chief selector and did what was best for Pakistan. There are matches immediately after the Netherlands, so it’s unlikely there will be time for changes.

“When senior players leave the side, those replacing them need focus. Hafeez and Malik were huge players and we’ll miss them a lot, and players like Asif Ali, Khushdil Shah and Iftikhar need to fill their boots. We want to give them plenty of matches and confidence, and these players have performed. We’re also looking to utilize Shadab Khan’s batting, because batting depth is very useful in T20 cricket now.

“We’re not going to just rest our senior players, we’ll play with a combination of senior and junior players. There are important Super League points at stake which we can’t lose. I’m going to the Netherlands for the first time, too. If things go badly after we field young players, we’ll cop criticism then, too. Everyone won’t be happy with our decisions, but we have to do what’s best for Pakistan cricket.”

Babar, or indeed any of his team-mates, may want for nothing or need no introduction in Pakistan, but that is emphatically not true of other athletes in the country who happen to pursue a sport not called cricket. Babar paid rich tribute to Pakistan’s most successful athletes at the Commonwealth Games, where the country came away with a gold medal each in weightlifting and javelin throwing. He called for increased support to athletes across sports, bemoaning the facilities they enjoyed as being “not good enough”.

“I was very proud to see Noah Dastagir and Arshad Nadeem win gold medals. There’s so much respect for how much hard work they put in. You cannot praise them enough. But you need to give them better facilities. I saw the conditions they were practicing in, and I think that was unacceptable. When you give the athletes better facilities, they’ll win many more gold medals.”

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

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