Asif Ali and Khushdil Shah have both been included in Pakistan's T20I squad for the upcoming home series against New Zealand and England, as well as the 2021 T20 World Cup which begins in October. Both players had been dropped from the team in April this year, but earned their places back because they are seen as "trusted options" by the PCB for the bigger tournaments.
In a surprising move, though, opening batter Sharjeel Khan was left out of the 15-man squad completely, and was even ignored from the travelling reserves. His exclusion is believed to be in some part due to the influence of incoming PCB chairman Ramiz Raja and his keenness to keep players tainted with corruption out of the side. Sharjeel's disappointing performances since his comeback in March has made the decision easier for the selectors to drop him. Sohaib Maqsood, who has been retained in the squad, is likely to fill in the top-order role left by Sharjeel.
The selectors have also dropped allrounder Faheem Ashraf, instead naming Usman Qadir, Shanawaz Dahani and Fakhar Zaman as travelling reserves. Pakistan have till October 15 to make any changes to their 15-man squad.
Pakistan's T20I assignments will begin on September 25 with a five-match series against New Zealand, in Lahore. This will be followed by two home matches against England in Rawalpindi, on October 13 and 14. Pakistan will then head to the UAE to kickstart their T20 World Cup campaign, with the marquee clash against India in the Super 12 phase, on October 24.
"We have tried different combinations, identified different areas and found final options for the best selection," PCB chief selector Mohammad Wasim said while announcing the squad in a press conference on Monday. "There were things required but had been missing and now you will see the difference as we tried to cover all the bases specially considering the conditions in UAE where we are carrying an advantage.
"We are very much familiar with the conditions and have a good T20 record so taking every aspect in account including the opponents we have combined this team. The team has a tendency required for modern day cricket, a brand we often talk about. We tried to load specialist players for the role. So we are quite hopeful that with all the preparation our team will play outstanding and perform."
The inclusion of Asif and Khushdil in the squad is likely to raise some questions, as both players had been given a number of chances before they were completely dropped. Asif shot to prominence as one of Pakistan's most hard-hitting batters in the circuit, but could never quite display that talent on the international stage. He is currently averaging 16.38 with a strike-rate of 123.74 from 29 T20Is. His domestic T20 career is decorated with a strike-rate of 147.02. Asif is presently playing in the CPL, with 32 runs at a strike-rate of 96.96 from five games.
"We tried different batters in the middle but we didn't get performances," Wasim said when asked what made him recall two players who didn't have the performances to back it up.
"I do agree they [Asif and Khusdil] didn't perform (since they were dropped) but then none of the other made their case as well. So we figured out which player we can lay our confidence in, who can do well under pressure and can perform in those conditions against the bowling line-ups expected in the UAE. They are the best options we have with left and right combination in the middle. Asif Ali is still the best striker of the ball in Pakistan. I believe he can do well in pressure handling and will do well in the tournament. We considered a lot of players but we have our trust on them as compared to others."
Sarfaraz Ahmed, who has been travelling with the team in recent games as a back-up option, has also been excluded, with Mohammad Rizwan slotted in as the main wicketkeeper-batter in all three formats. Sarfaraz has been replaced with a younger option in Azam Khan, who made headlines for his hefty strike-rate in domestic T20s, though he is yet to establish himself in international cricket.
"Azam is selected as a back-up keeper with Rizwan as our number one keeper and he will remain on top. Earlier we had an option to pick a larger squad and there were always room, but now when it comes down to pick a 15-man squad, then Azam can easily edge anyone because of his ability as a power-hitting batter. If on any day we want anyone with a high strike-rate in the middle order, he offers the luxury of being able to fill in as an extra batter as well."
Pakistan have until 16 October to make changes to the World T20I squad.
Pakistan squad: Babar Azam (capt), Shadab Khan (vice-captain), Mohammad Rizwan (wicket-keeper), Asif Ali, Sohaib Maqsood, Azam Khan (wicket-keeper), Khushdil Shah, Mohammad Hafeez, Mohammad Nawaz, Mohammad Wasim Junior, Shaheen Afridi, Haris Rauf, Hasan Ali, Imad Wasim, Mohammad Hasnain.
Reserves: Usman Qadir, Shanawaz Dahani, Fakhar Zaman