Fixing the top order is critical also to rebuild the once-reliable middle order. Alarm bells have been ringing for several tours now and time is running out
With less than six months to go before the T20 World Cup in India, Pakistan is as settled as its wobbly middle order. It took one T20 in Zimbabwe to expose the team’s flaws and an embarrassing loss to the No. 11-ranked team to send Pakistan scrambling to save a series. The series took the shine off a hard-fought winning tour of South Africa where it appeared Pakistan was heading in the right direction. But it should force Pakistan to make some hard choices. It is not an unusual situation though as Pakistan cricket is known for its uncertainty than stability. At the think-tank level, there is new Chief Selector Mohammad Wasim, Head Coach Misbah ul Haq and skipper Babar Azam are all new to their roles. Pakistan’s white ball cricket is yet to compete the renewal promised after the ritual culling that follows every disappointing international tournament.
What is unusual though, is lack of a national identity is a fast-evolving T20 format. Pakistan’s remarkable success and rise to the No. 1 ranking national team was built around a bowling attack that was not only potent but deep and varied enough to restrict to and defend sub-par scores. That bowling attack masked Pakistan’s weakness in batting and capitalized on oppositions which played T20 cricket as a shorter format of the ODI format.
Times have changed. England has built an all-attack line up that can bat to No. 9, with an emphasis on high strike rates and at the cost of wickets. The West Indies has built its game around power hitting, arguably the best unit in the world. No matter how slow they start, the West Indies has the power to plunder runs. India has a blended approach but one that - like the early Pakistan - can count on the bowlers to win if the batting falters.
No matter the approach or identity, teams have realized that the best batsmen should face the most balls and utilize the first Power Play to the maximum. Whereas in the early days of T20 cricket, 150 was a potentially winning score, the game has evolved so rapidly that even 180 is now considered below par.
The South Africa and Zimbabwe tours gave some hints of the direction Pakistan is heading. Pakistan’s best batsmen - Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan - took the bulk of the strike, scored the most runs and provided stability at the top. They did well enough that Pakistan didn’t get to test the middle order. But with Sharjeel Khan’s reintroduction and Fakhar Zaman’s return to form, Pakistan now has four openers. Fakhar and Rizwan both strike at 141 when they open, in the same bracket as Jason Roy, Rohit Sharma, Jos Butler and David Warner. Sharjeel and Babar, meanwhile, strike in the mid-130s, though are both game changers. Sharjeel’s T20i career is short but he has always opened the batting. Babar has played 52 innings and not opened only 18 times.
The hard choice facing Pakistan is how to adjust the top order and assign them specific roles if all four were to play. If Pakistan were to go the English way, Fakhar and Sharjeel should open with the aim to maximize the power play. Should one of both fail, Babar and Rizwan can take the game forward, with at least one of them batting to the end.
In the final T20 against Zimbabwe - a must win game - Pakistan’s think-tank showed it was uncertain. Pakistan opened with Rizwan and Sharjeel with Babar and Fakhar at one and two down, respectively. Rizwan’s brilliant 91 at a strike rate of 151 was the only bright spot and underscored that this combination was only a temporary solution to avoid an embarrassing series defeat. Nothing looked natural about it.
Fixing the top order is critical also to rebuild the once-reliable middle order. Alarm bells have been ringing for several tours now and time is running out. Mohammad Hafeez had an indifferent tour of South Africa and Zimbabwe, but to think that he is not a confirmed name of the team sheet in India will be scandalous. Hafeez is also one of only three current batsmen with experience in India where he has played four T20s, including in the 2016 World Cup. His strike rate in India is a spectacular 158. And in a long and illustrious career, he has batted from No. 1 to No. 7.
Other than Hafeez, none of the six young players Pakistan has tried in the middle order since Zimbabwe’s tour of Pakistan in 2020 can claim a confirmed slot for the trip to India. Haider Ali is a long-term prospect but is struggling to adjust to a middle order game. Asif Ali was billed as that elusive power hitter than Pakistan was desperately needs. Yet a strike rate of just 124 in 29 matches no longer justifies selection.
To mask this weakness, Pakistan may have to pack the middle and lower order with allrounders, of which there are plenty. Should Shahdab Khan recover his fitness and form in time, he can bat in the middle order behind Hafeez and reduce the need for another specialist batsman. Faheem Ashraf and Mohamad Nawaz also provide variety and depth down the order. And despite Chief Selector Mohammad Wasim characterizing Imad Wasim as a “one-dimensional player,” his utility as a lower order power hitter and an opening bowler, would be vital in India.
The cricket ahead of the World Cup will be tough. England, West Indies and New Zealand all fancy their chances of winning in India. If Zimbabwe gave Pakistan a wakeup call, these three will give nightmares the team will struggle to recover from.