Shan Masood’s ODI comeback for Pakistan has been a puzzling contradiction.

For the first of Pakistan’s ODI series against New Zealand this year, Masood was picked in their squad for the first time since 2019. Not only that but he was also made their vice-captain. Inexplicably, when Pakistan walked out for the first match of that series, Masood was not in their starting XI.

Pakistan won that match by six wickets, with Fakhar Zaman, Mohammad Rizwan and Babar Azam all scoring half-centuries. But after Pakistan were bowled out for 182 in the second game and lost by 79 runs, Masood was brought in to replace Imam-ul-Haq for the series decider. He was out in the second over of the match for a two-ball duck. New Zealand won the game by two wickets and claimed the series 2-1.

When New Zealand came to Pakistan for the return trip, a five-match series this time, Masood was again in the squad. But, the vice-captaincy title had been taken away from him, Shadab Khan was instead named as Babar’s deputy. This time Masood was picked for the series opener, batting at four. He was out for one off 12 balls. The rest of Pakistan’s top five all scored at least 42 – Fakhar hitting 117.

Masood now finds himself at a crossroads; his List A stats are outstanding but he’s now scored 112 runs in seven ODIs – the bulk of those runs coming from a half-century and a 40 against Australia more than four years ago.

Masood’s call-up at that time came in the middle of his fifty-over peak. In the 2017-18 domestic season in Pakistan, he averaged 128.80 from 17 games in List A cricket. The following season, he played five matches and averaged 60. But, in international colours, he averaged 22 from five innings against Australia in the UAE and picked up two single-figure scores. Even after finishing the series with his maiden ODI half-century, Fakhar – who was rested for that series – came back in for the 2019 World Cup three months later.

The major pitfall of Masood’s stunted ODI career has been the strength of Pakistan’s top order. Both Imam and Fakhar boast top-five averages across all openers in the world since the 2019 World Cup (with a minimum of 10 innings). If you expand those parameters to all players, Babar’s average sits at the top of the list. In the same series that Masood made his ODI debut, Rizwan made the move up to No.4. The result was two centuries in that series and an average of 43.64 in that position ever since.

That’s left Masood to continue to churn out List A runs. He averaged 50.75 in the One Day Cup in England last year, and 118 in the 2020-21 Pakistan season.

After he opened in place of Imam in New Zealand, his place in the side this time can largely be credited to a change in tack from their team management. Despite his opposition, Rizwan has been dropped down to five in an effort to spread out the reliance on the top order, meaning a space opened up for Masood at four.

But, having not capitalised on that chance in game one, his challenge to securing further opportunities in ODI colours now manifests itself in Abdullah Shafique. In the three ODI caps he has been awarded, Shafique has demonstrated no more superior ability in the format than Masood. He has scored 2, 7 and 19 in those three innings, the first as an opener. Before he was selected for the ongoing tour, he had played six List-A games and averaged 13.2.

The crux of the issue is that he’s ten years Masood’s junior and Pakistan’s next promised one. Having made a blistering start to his Test career despite limited experience, there’s scope for him to make a similar transition in the fifty-over format. While, on paper, Shafique and Masood have the potential to fulfil similar roles for Pakistan, Shafique could do so for the next 15 years.

There is the crossroads for Masood. Despite being given limited opportunities in ODI cricket, he has failed to replicate his List A calibre when they have come. Now, there’s a new kid about who promises similar potential with a longer shelf-life. If Shafique fails to overcome his slow start, Pakistan could turn back to Masood. But time is fast running out for him to establish himself as a starter in the XI, particularly in time for the World Cup.