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Up and down Pakistan seek consistency in World Cup

Just a month ago, Pakistan were riding high as the world's top-ranked ODI team and one of the favourites to win the World Cup in India.

But a crushing 228-run defeat to arch-rivals India and a narrow two-wicket loss to Sri Lanka in the Asia Cup have cast a shadow over their prospects.

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This unpredictability is a constant feature for Pakistan, who frequently swing between highs and lows.

Adding to their challenges, the team suffered a major blow with the loss of key fast bowler Naseem Shah, who was ruled out of the World Cup with a shoulder injury.

Nevertheless, team director Mickey Arthur remains optimistic.

"Losing a player of Naseem's calibre is a massive setback," Arthur told AFP.

"But we have a mix of experienced and young bowlers who are more than capable of stepping up to the challenge."

To fill the void, Pakistan have recalled experienced pacer Hasan Ali, who has regained fitness after finger surgery last month.

Arthur, Pakistan's head coach at the 2019 World Cup when they failed to make the semi-finals, is confident the team can bounce back from recent disappointments.

"This is a very capable team that can turn things around. Remember that we were ranked number one before the Asia Cup, and we've only lost two games," he said.

"This team has the potential to go all the way."

The challenges facing the team reflect the broader issues plaguing Pakistan, including a struggling economy, rampant inflation, and political turmoil, with cricket legend Imran Khan, who led Pakistan to their only World Cup victory in 1992, currently behind bars.

The Pakistan Cricket Board has also seen instability, with three different chiefs in the last ten months and current leader Zaka Ashraf uncertain about his position.

On the field, Babar Azam faces the dual challenge of lifting the team's performance and improving his own much-criticized captaincy.

Despite being the top-ranked ODI batter, Azam had a lacklustre Asia Cup, scoring just 207 runs in four matches -- 151 of those came against Nepal.

However, Azam remains confident that the team can overcome its issues.

"Our preparation for the World Cup is on track despite our Asia Cup setbacks," he said.

In addition to concerns about spinners Shadab Khan and Mohammad Nawaz not taking enough wickets, opener Fakhar Zaman -- a specialist in white-ball cricket -- has been struggling with form.

Zaman, the only Pakistan batter to score a double century in an ODI, managed just 65 runs in four Asia Cup matches and was on the brink of being dropped.

The middle-order, comprising wicketkeeper-batter Mohammad Rizwan, Iftikhar Ahmed, Agha Salman, and Saud Shakeel, needs to fire on all cylinders if Pakistan hopes to qualify for the semi-finals, a stage they last reached in 2011.

Despite these challenges, Pakistan remains a formidable and unpredictable team, capable of upsetting expectations, particularly on slow and turning pitches in India, conditions similar to those they are accustomed to at home.