Sharjeel Khan’s return will depend on results of three-week fitness regime

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He will have to reach a level close to his 2017 standard, which was just before his two-year ban

The chances of Sharjeel Khan‘s return into Pakistan’s playing XI on the tours of South Africa and Zimbabwe will hinge on clear improvements in his fitness. Though there is no official or formal requirement that Khan has to fulfill, he’s been given a three-week target by team management to enhance his endurance levels as well as to improve his body fat counts ahead of the first T20I against South Africa on April 10. Khan will not play in the intra-squad matches taking place at Gaddafi stadium during the training camp as he works on his fitness on the sidelines.

Khan’s return to the squad has become a point of contention between the team management and chief selector Mohammad Wasim. While announcing the squad, Wasim seemed to loosen the criteria somewhat for fitness standards, by suggesting they would become less stringent to make room for more skillful players. But the current management, led by head coach Misbah-ul-Haq, is unwilling to compromise and though the ways in which fitness is measured may be simplified, the parameters in terms of selection will remain the same.

Khan’s selection, though disputed, was ultimately resolved between the captain, selection committee and coaching staff amicably enough, but it has been made clear since his return to the playing XI is far from guaranteed. The left-hander will be given exclusive access to a trainer over the next three weeks as part of the ongoing training camp in Lahore as well as once the squad flies later this week to South Africa. The camp began on March 19 and Khan has been given an April 9 deadline, which is a day before Pakistan play their first T20 in Johannesburg following the three-match ODI series.

Babar Azam, the Pakistan captain, has backed the return of the opening batsman, though he acknowledged that his fitness levels were “not great”. He insisted, however, that Khan remains a match-winner and that there is work being done on his fitness to make him a workable option going forward as his weight – said to be close to 110 kg – has come under scrutiny.

Khan returned to the domestic circuit last year after serving a 24-month ban for his role in the PSL spot-fixing scandal of 2017. His selection to the T20I side for the tour of Africa – South Africa and Zimbabwe – was largely based on his form in the PSL, which included a century against Islamabad United. He was the third-highest scorer in this year’s unfinished PSL, behind Mohammad Rizwan and Azam, but at a strike rate of 170.94, which was well ahead of the other two.

He had been a promising opener for Pakistan before his ban. He played 25 ODIs, 15 T20Is, and one Test and in that time, and built a reputation as the modern, aggressive opener Pakistan needed. The current management is willing to work with him and expect him to return to at least the fitness levels that he was operating at in 2017. The task given to him involves a customised dietary plan, alongside personalised training drills with the trainer.

Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo’s Pakistan correspondent

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