They have a tremendous bowling attack, but the batsmen will have to impactfully step up to the plate.
Bilal Ahsan Dar
From Asia Cup to the recent home series against England, Pakistan’s middle order drew widespread criticism from experts and fans alike. However, it is not just the middle order that is ailing Pakistan. A flawed strategy, batting order and the selection are the key components to Pakistan’s unreliable batting lineup.
Stats may suggest that Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan are currently the best T20 openers in terms of consistency – runs scored, averages, partnerships and any other quantitative measure. The ICC rankings may also support this, but there is a serious issue with this partnership as far as T20 cricket is concerned.
Babar-Rizwan is a one dimensional pair that mostly relies on playing copybook cricket shots to score in a fast paced T20 game and is unwilling to improvise and take the attack to the opposition. The two openers who value their wicket a bit too much isn’t fearless enough to take risks to gain early momentum. Therefore, more often than not, unable to make most of the powerplay. Their strike rates, which are pivotal in determining a batsman’s impact on the game, are unimpressive when you look at other batters around the world who have the ability to change the complexion of the game within a couple of overs. In the powerplay, Babar’s strike rate in the last three years has been just 113.81 and Rizwan’s 128. After the powerplay, from over number 7- 15, Pakistan has the lowest run rate in the last two years, i.e. 7.93. Again, the reason is that most of the times Babar and Rizwan partner beyond powerplay and are reluctant to open their arms.
While all the other teams believe in taking the powerplay advantage and get a flyer upfront, Pakistan’s strategy is to preserve wickets up to the 15th over. While teams like England, Australia and India have an aggressive template, always targeting a score of 190 or 200 plus, Pakistan mostly appears to be eyeing a score of 170 -175 or even less. A strategy that needs a review if Pakistan has to challenge stronger teams on consistent basis, especially in major tournaments like the world cup.
Fragile Middle Order
There is a notion that the Pakistani batting is all about Babar and Rizwan. Once you break that partnership, the middle order, bereft of any quality, falls like a pack of cards. To a large extent, the fact is valid considering the career record and quality of the middle order that comprises batsmen like Ifhtikar Ahmad (matches: 36, average: 27, strike rate: 125), Asif Ali ( matches: 54, average: 15.49, strike rate: 134.49), and Khushdil Shah (matches: 24, average: 20.6, strike rate: 110.8). These batsmen have been around for nearly two years now and, despite their consistently poor performance, they are not replaced.
Nonetheless, it is also true that they rarely get to face a fair number of balls because of the slow but prolonged partnership of Babar and Rizwan. Most of the times they come in when the team needs 10 runs or more per over to win or set a challenging target and it is unfair to expect them to go hammer and tongs from ball one every day and produce results. So it’s the pressure that the openers build which accumulates to bring down the middle order. For example, in the last four matches, Pakistan’s top three batters combined have faced 279 balls without hitting a six. Their combined strike rate on 279 balls is 116, which is a clear reflection of a lack of intent in the opening overs.
Shan Masood was inducted into the side after regular failures of the middle order. He had some outstanding performances under his belt in the domestic circuit and the county cricket but his approach too doesn’t seem to be any different from the openers.
Flawed Batting Order
While every other team plays powerplay enforcers as openers, Pakistan does it the other way round. It is beyond comprehension that regular opener like Fakhar Zaman, who missed the last two series owing to injury, plays one drop and a highly successful one drop batter in the ODIs, Babar Azam, opens the innings for Pakistan, that too when the middle order is struggling and he can gel it together. Batsmen like Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli also play at one drop for their sides to anchor the innings and allow the regular openers who are more of bashers and better suited for the powerplay to open the innings. It is strange that despite so many failures of the middle order, Babar didn’t opt to bat at 3.
Pakistan had a chance of trying a different opening pair in the recent series against England and the following tri-series in New-Zealand to find a solution to their middle order woes but for some strange reason, the management is reluctant to experiment.
Fakhar Zaman’s comeback is a big plus for the team. He’s the only genuine impact player in the top order and if he gets going, chances of Pakistan doing better in the world cup are more. Ideally, he should be opening with Rizwan in the World Cup, but that looks improbable. If Pakistan carries on with the same strategy of preserving wickets at the cost of strike rate, no. 3 becomes a tricky position for acceleration. Shan looks doubtful and unsuited for the role and therefore Fakhar is the best candidate in the side to take the role when he is not opening. No. 4 and no. 5 are a major problem and the patchwork of promoting the lower order all-rounders may not be the answer. But, in a situation where you don’t have any specialists available for the role, the best bet is to shuffle the batting order. Nawaz did well at number 4 recently, he could be sent to up the ante in the middle part, especially when the opposition has a left arm spinner bowling. Shadab’s promotion, which wasn’t taken well by many, could still be considered. He has a good PCL record batting up the order and can improvise and manipulate the field. Also, he is someone who clears the fence more regularly than some other batters in the side. Asif Ali, though unreliable, has to be the pinch hitter who can deliver an odd cameo to seal a game or two for Pakistan. Ifhtikar, having earlier played a couple of good innings in Australia, could come handy with both bat and ball. To sum it up, there can’t be any wholesome changes in the team now but the captain and the coaches have to be tactical enough to outthink the opposition and use the available resources for maximum effect. Pakistan has a tremendous bowling attack, but the batsmen will have to step up to the plate in an impactful manner.
Bilal Ahsan Dar is a blogger and cricket buff.