Fakhar Zaman’s superb hundred against New Zealand shows his integral role for Pakistan in ODIs, writes Katya Witney

When Babar Azam was stumped inside the powerplay in yesterday’s ODI series decider against New Zealand, Pakistan easily could have capitulated. Shan Masood had already been and gone on his return to the ODI side after nearly four years leaving the score at 21-2. The pressure was on Mohammad Rizwan and Fakhar Zaman to deliver.

27 overs later when the next wicket fell, the pair had put on 154 runs between them at just under a run a ball. While Rizwan was the main aggressor on 77 off 74, Fakhar had shown shades of a return to his aggressive style. A slog sweep over the rope off Mitchell Santner and, at that stage, nine fours had seen him to the brink of an eighth ODI century. Two overs after Rizwan was dismissed, he reached the landmark. His first hundred on home soil and first against New Zealand.

It wasn’t his most brutal of innings, nor did he go on to register the mammoth total the likes of which have put him at number one and three on the highest scores by Pakistan players in men’s ODIs list. But when Pakistan needed him to perform, with the series on the line, once again Fakhar stepped up and delivered the goods when Pakistan had few other options.

Despite having held a more or less consistent spot in Pakistan’s ODI starting XI since his debut, this latest century comes at a time of stagnation in Fakhar’s career trajectory. The main protagonist in Pakistan’s fairy-tale Champions Trophy victory in 2017, his future was mapped out in front of him immediately upon his arrival to international cricket, earmarked to become one of his country’s greatest batters in the format.

The first four matches he played were all essentially knockout matches for Pakistan. In the first, his innings against South Africa where he laid into Kagiso Rabada and Wayne Parnell marked him head and shoulders above the rest, adding impetus to the batting lineup which had looked so far off when they had subsided against India days before. And then there was the final, after two consecutive fifties in between. A maiden century, so far the only man to reach three figures for Pakistan in an ICC final, and cementing his place in Pakistan folklore in their greatest modern-day underdog story. As he paraded around the outfield at The Oval with a winners medal around his neck and trophy in one hand, he had the world at his feet.

The runs kept tumbling. Just over a year later he became the fastest men’s player to reach 1,000 ODI runs, bettering the record shared by Viv Richards and Kevin Pietersen by three innings. The double hundred he scored against Zimbabwe in 2018 was the highest ODI score for Pakistan and his second-three figure score in the series. In five matches, Zimbabwe were only able to dismiss him twice and never before he had scored at least 60.

[breakout id=”0″][/breakout]

With Imam-ul-Haq also newly established as a force for Pakistan at the top of the order, he missed out on Fakhar’s 1,000 runs record by just one innings, the years in between the Champions Trophy and 2019 World Cup saw Pakistan establish a group of batters who could keep pace with the rapidly evolving landscape of ODI cricket. Fakhar’s aggression at the top of the order and the consistency of Imam and Babar gave Pakistan the ability to match up to the best sides in the world in all areas of the game. Despite the disappointment of that campaign which never properly recovered after their dramatic first game loss to the West Indies, the foundations of their side remained solid for the future and Fakhar continued to pile up his milestones.

Denied another double century after a controversial run out on 193 against South Africa, in the four years after his debut, his strike rate (97.12) was in the top six of all openers who had batted 20 innings or more in that time period. Contrary to claims that Fakhar’s aggressive role in the side limited his consistency compared to Imam as he took more risks to advance Pakistan’s scoring rate, his average in the same time frame is only a fraction less than Imam’s at 49.17, compared to Imam’s 51.73. That average places him seventh on the list of all openers in those four years. He is the only Pakistan batter with more than 2,000 runs at an average of above 45 and a strike rate above 90.

Yet in his leaner run in 2022, where he still scored one fifty against Australia and a hundred against the Netherlands, doubt was cast over his role for Pakistan at the top of the order. The resurgence of Imam after his own slightly leaner spell in 2021 on highlighted his drop in form, averaging 33.66 but still striking above 80 (86.07). With rumours circling in the last week that Masood could replace Babar as ODI captain after he was appointed as vice captain despite having not played a match in the format before yesterday since 2019, Fakhar could easily have found himself shunted towards the sidelines.

In the currently volatile landscape of Pakistan cricket, players have been dropped from all three sides for less than Fakhar’s own dip in form.

But, having now registered centuries against New Zealand, India, South Africa and England, there should be little doubt of Fakhar’s importance to Pakistan in ODIs. At the beginning of a World Cup year, with Fakhar at the top of the order along with Imam, Babar, Rizwan and a plethora of hopefully fit fast bowlers, Pakistan have a side that should go into the competition as serious contenders. Fakhar’s importance to that should not be underestimated.