Familiar comforts of another series win mask Pakistan's unresolved ODI issues

Babar Azam hit his ninth successive fifty-plus score across formats in international cricket PCB

If you buy a ticket to a Rod Stewart or Elton John concert, it's unlikely you're desperate to listen to their latest album. If JK Rowling was booked for a chat at your local bookstore, the chances that those crammed in will pepper her with questions about The Casual Vacancy are fairly remote. And if you ran into the Brazilian Ronaldo on a morning jog, you'd likelier want him to talk about his career than do a few keepy-uppies on the spot.

And if, in 2022, you queue up in the heat - as the Multan crowd has gamely done a couple of times this week - for a Pakistan ODI performance, it's not because of the tantalising hope that maybe, just maybe, this might be the day the middle order comes to life. Or to discover the answer to the question: who really is the best new-ball opening bowler to partner Shaheen Shah Afridi? The crowds have lined up to go in and see a Babar Azam masterclass, a long top-order partnership that breaks the opposition's backs - likely alongside Imam-ul-Haq - and a few new-ball wickets for Shaheen, followed by that already iconic celebration.

There's no false advertising here. It's what Pakistan sell, and it's what Pakistan deliver in this format at the moment. The PCB might as well start offering refunds any time Babar misses out on a big score and almost never lose money. Imam's numbers are only ever trending upwards, and that includes enhanced strike rates against both pace and spin. Shaheen's first-spell prowess is a self-fulfilling prophecy by this point. And on the odd occasion, you might see something that counts as a bonus, like a Khushdil Shah cameo or a Mohammad Nawaz masterclass, as have happened in this series against West Indies. If you're really fortunate you might happen to have a ticket on the two out of ten days when everything is in Fakhar Zaman's strike zone.

Let's be real here, though; most of the stuff you see from Pakistan in ODI cricket besides those cast-iron guarantees is not a harbinger of a problem solved, a box ticked, a platform laid for future construction. It's just an ode to the inherently boring truth that international cricketers will, from time to time, have a good game, and when it happens might sometimes be random. It is why Khushdil was able to hammer this West Indies attack out of the ground on a Wednesday night in Multan, but, in the face of similar bowling, incapable of doing the same on Friday evening. It's perhaps also why Nawaz went for 61 in ten overs in the Wednesday-evening heat and took 4 for 19 under the twinkling stars on a muggy Friday night. It's why, perhaps, on the Sunday, Fakhar might smash a scintillating century, or Shadab Khan get a quickfire lower-order 40 off 19 balls.

But it's impossible to say without guesswork which of those is more likely, and that, effectively is where Pakistan's ODI cricket is at the moment. It is, of course, better for this series to be played than not, even if for the longest time it felt as if no one really wanted to play it if the ODI Super League hadn't forced them to. But from the hosts' perspective, anyway, it tells us almost nothing that wasn't already known to even the most casual observers, just like the Australia series, and probably just like whatever series will follow this one. Pakistan are almost exactly where they were when they played their first game after the ODI World Cup in 2019, except the facets that were already strong are now exceptionally, world-beatingly so.

The tempting arc to draw from here would be Nawaz becoming an integral part of Pakistan's ODI planning and preparation, but if that were to happen, it would be a fairly dramatic departure from how involved he has been thus far. The allrounder has only featured in 18 of Pakistan's 84 ODIs since making his debut, taken more than one wicket just six times, and scored more than 20 runs just three times. Khushdil, meanwhile, is only six matches into his ODI career, and while his heroics from the first ODI should shield him from too much premature criticism for now, it only takes a handful of indifferent performances for the knives to be sharpened again.

There is much made about the depth in Pakistan's ODI batting, epitomized by Shaheen's improved lower-order hitting that resulted in a shift of momentum at the death on Friday, but the reliability of everyone from No. 4 downwards is an awkward question for a side that's gearing up for a tilt at the World Cup trophy in 16 months. The stumbles of the middle and lower order are well-documented but still worth repeating. In this World Cup cycle, 66% of Pakistan's runs have been scored by the top three, far and away the highest among all 20 teams to have played ODs in this period. New Zealand are a distant second, needing their top three for 53% of their runs. What has been on show this series exacerbates rather than ameliorates that problem.

The fast-bowling unit in the format isn't quite settled either. Shaheen may be a lock, but Hasan Ali, Haris Rauf, Mohammad Hasnain, Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Wasim and even Usman Shinwari have taken the new ball from one end since the last World Cup. Hasan and Haris, the ones who've done it most frequently besides Shaheen, have the worst strike rates and the worst economy rates when tasked with this responsibility. There's no obvious fix at present, and time is running out to find one.

But the crowds that have packed out Multan perhaps have other things on their minds, as they might well. Elton John and Rod Stewart continue to pack out stadiums, playing their hits, while Harry Potter fans will keep JK Rowling in demand wherever she happens to booked for a talk.

And Pakistan continue to seal series win after series win; this is their fifth in six series since the 2019 World Cup. Babar and Imam still score buckets of runs, and Shaheen strikes with such regularity you could set your watch by it. The problems might still be Pakistan's to try and solve, but for the punters who turn out to watch this side these days, Pakistan still deliver exactly what they promise. No less, but perhaps worryingly, no more.