At the Asia Cup, there was a growing consensus that Babar Azam, Mohammad Rizwan and Pakistan needed to revamp their batting approach in the shortest format. The situation, though, is not straightforward, writes Shashwat Kumar.
T20Is have come a long way since the inaugural T20 World Cup. Teams are now more inclined to attack from the outset. Building an innings is a thing of the past. ‘Intent’ is the only buzzword that matters.
Except, that is, if you’re Pakistan. Their T20 approach, especially when batting first, is old school: they aim to get up to a par total, and then count on their bowling attack to defend it. Rarely are opposition sides batted out of the game. Instead, the platform is laid, the singles are milked, the bad balls are put away, and only at the end is caution truly discarded.
Central to this are Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan. By every traditional metric, the pair are out on their own as the most consistent batters in the format in the world. STATS. Each is a model of technical perfection. Watching them in action can feel like witnessing cricket the way it was meant to be played.
There is a downside, however, and slowly the grumbling among Pakistan fans and pundits has begun to grow. They look at the likes of India and England, racking up massive totals time and again, with envy. The unthinkable question needs to be asked: are Babar and Rizwan hurting Pakistan, rather than helping them?
Pakistan, semi-finalists last time out, are stumbling and stuttering into this year’s T20 World Cup. Two consecutive defeats to Sri Lanka saw their Asia Cup campaign fizzle out, with a series defeat to England following. Even in this, there was one magic partnership, a double-century stand helping Pakistan chase a big total against England. But with Pakistan struggling despite the excellent form of their two openers, could it be that they are the problem?
There are a few things at play here. First, there are signs that Babar and Rizwan are trying to change the way they play. Against England, both attacked more during the powerplay, with that historic run-chase in the second T20I illustrating how belligerent they could be.
The bigger issue for Pakistan, though, is not their openers, but their middle order, and the struggles of the latter undoubtedly influence the approach of the former. Since the start of 2021, only two of the batters in Pakistan’s T20 World Cup squad, Babar and Rizwan apart, have enjoyed any sort of regular success. Shadab Khan has averaged 25.50 and struck at 157.73, while Shan Masood, recalled to the international set-up for the England series, averaged 31.20 and struck at 131.09 in that rubber.
Those aside, none of Pakistan’s batters have averaged even 20. Mohammad Nawaz and Asif Ali are the only two to strike at above 130. After Babar and Rizwan, there is very little to follow. If they attack and get out before Pakistan are sure to bat out their overs, the danger of a collapse is high. And even if there is a recovery, it’s unlikely to be a quick one.
So there is some merit to Babar and Rizwan’s approach. But really, the only way to see if their method is working is to look whether their success matches Pakistan’s. Since the start of 2021, Babar and Rizwan have batted together 38 times. Pakistan have won 26 of those games, and lost 12. So straight away, we can see that Pakistan are a good side, even with Babar and Rizwan partnered together.
Delve deeper, and the situation is an intriguing one. In that time, Babar and Rizwan have put on partnerships worth 90 or more eight times, and worth between 50 and 90 five times. Pakistan have won every game in the former category, but only one of those in the latter. Stranger still, Pakistan have lost only one of the five games in that time in which the first wicket has fallen with the score in single figures. Since the start of 2021, Babar and Rizwan have an average partnership in wins almost 30 runs higher than they do in losses. But when they reach 50, Pakistan’s win percentage of 69.2 per cent is only slightly higher than compared to when they don’t, when it is 68 per cent.
Interpreting this data: if Babar and Rizwan get in, get set and bat deep, Pakistan inevitably win. But if they get in, get set and get out, the rest of the side is left with too much to do. Whereas if one falls early, Pakistan have shown, at times, that they are able to recover. This, along with the middle-order struggles, explains their approach. The risk to Pakistan is greatest if one falls in the middle overs. And it is at this point that the pair are at their most conservative.
Against England, both of Babar and Rizwan were dismissed in the same powerplay twice. Pakistan lost both contests. The other match they lost (in which both played) saw Babar and Rizwan stitch a 85-run stand in 9.3 overs. Despite the strong partnership, in which the run rate was not an issue, Pakistan only ended up making 158-7. All three games that they won had either Babar or Rizwan batting till at least the 18th over.
In an ideal world, Babar and Rizwan might love to blaze away at the top of the order, to tee off against the new ball and then keep on attacking, safe in the knowledge that those following could capitalise on whatever platform had been laid. But because of the middle-order struggles, Pakistan seem to need at least one of the two to bat deep, and if both get started, the numbers show they are better off when the pair choose to regroup and then accelerate later.
You can debate for hours. Purists can jump in, as can Pakistan fans and wonder what could have been had Babar and Rizwan attacked as much as some of the other openers. This safety-first philosophy is not ideal. Yet, it is perhaps what Pakistan need.