Agha Salman, Abdullah Shafique and this year's leading first-class run-scorer in Pakistan, Kamran Ghulam, have been dropped from the original 20-man for the first Test against South Africa. The PCB insist they are very much part of the larger squad but won't be considered for selection for the opening Test starting January 26 in Karachi.
The 20-man squad, named on January 15, was always meant to be whittled down to 16 two days before the Test but the PCB ended up naming 17 instead. ESPNcricinfo understands that the board wrestled with the choice between Haris Rauf and Tabish Khan but ended up retaining both, even though neither is expected to make their Test debuts in Karachi. The squad now has four spin options and five fast bowlers including Mohammad Nawaz and Faheem Ashraf as allrounders.
With Shafique now out of contention, the team has only two potential openers - Abid Ali and Imran Butt - who is set to be handed a debut. The spot was left vacant after Shan Masood was dropped from the larger squad following a dismal run. Saud Shakeel - who holds the second best first-class average (48.81) in Pakistan over the last five years - has been retained. He was also the second leading first-class run-getter this season with 970 runs at 57.05. Agha, who accumulated 924 runs at 48.63 missed out.
Head coach Misbah-ul-Haq said his side is "fully ready". "Understanding how poor we were in the field on our previous New Zealand tour, we have given fielding much importance while preparing," said Misbah. "We are having extraordinary training sessions, with dedicated sessions to bring improvements. We are overall ready and looking forward to taking on South Africa."
The PCB, for once, have relayed a sense of empowerment for the captain Babar Azam, giving him a much stronger say in choosing the starting line-up. Misbah downplayed concerns his role with the side had been reduced, but said the captain needed to independently develop his strategies and ideas.
"Even when I began, like everyone else, I started from zero," said Misbah. "You have to start somewhere and the important thing is that when we did some scenario practice, there were discussions with me, the coaches, the bowlers, about what plan we take forward and how we execute it. Babar is an intelligent cricketer and if anyone who scores runs like he does at this level, they should understand cricket mechanics and how to deal with the opposition . Babar should be given a free hand to plan, so he learns how to handle things on the field and hopefully he will learn and improve his captaincy along the way."
The series holds a major significance as this is South Africa first tour to Pakistan since 2007 and the result from it can directly reflect on Misbah's future as head coach. The PCB had already intended to bring about changes in team management after the New Zealand tour but the cricket committee recommended a stay of execution, opting against making a knee-jerk reaction and resolving instead to meet again after the home series against South Africa. The committee believed a series in home conditions can have "no points for second place".
Misbah knows the pressure is on him but he cut a relaxed figure at the press conference. "Nothing really matters right now, I played cricket under pressure, my whole life" he said. "Here [in Pakistan] it's not like you have the certainty and security so the most important thing I have learnt is that you have to do well with the job in hand in the moment. I am not thinking about what is going to happen ahead and the only focus right now is to perform and learn from our mistakes."
Pakistan: Abid Ali , Imran Butt, Azhar Ali, Babar Azam (capt), Fawad Alam, Saud Shakeel, Faheem Ashraf, Mohammad Nawaz, Mohammad Rizwan (wk), Sarfaraz Ahmed (wk), Nauman Ali, Sajid Khan, Yasir Shah, Haris Rauf, Hasan Ali, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Tabish Khan