Should Babar Azam be the captain in all 3 formats?
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Ahead of England-Pakistan series, we look at the strengths of the main batsmen in the Pakistan side.

By Waqas Ahmed (10th July, 2016)

In this day and age of the modern T20 format, attritional cricket seems like the odd memory which neither fades nor captivates the mind. It acts somewhat like a blunt knife which might not slice through butter on most occasions, but on the offset if you accidently ring your finger; in the struggle to extract butter i.e., it wouldn’t do half the damage, that a sharper more well rounded knife would generally induce.

The same can be said, extensively I might add, about how Pakistan have approached their Test campaigns in the last 6 odd years – more or less. Their rise in the rankings has been predominately built on the back of a single most defiant strategy of yesteryears; occupy the crease as long as you can and grind the opposition into the zapping heat of the desert. They did it against the English back in 2012 and comprehensively have managed to keep the U.A.E. fortress from falling over ever since.

Now with the first Test at Lord’s in sight, in almost as little as 3 days, Pakistan may need to conjure up a batting strategy that might suit their strengths and at the same time give them enough of a cushion to negate the foreign soil dilemma. In such a scenario, attritional cricket, although one of the most unpopular choices, serves up to be the most effective option under the current circumstances.

To begin with, the team management on tour needs to identify Pakistan’s batting strengths and the cogs that make it a competitive unit. In practice, the line up can be broken down into 3 different sets:

  • Openers – Mohammad Hafeez and Shan Masood
  • Middle Order – Azhar Ali, Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq and Asad Shafiq
  • Lower Order – Sarfraz Ahmed + The Tail

In this particular analysis, we will provide a hypothetical run down of how, if given small manageable targets, can this Pakistan batting lineup compete in testing and unfamiliar conditions. The data sets used subsequently range from 29th Aug 2010 (the last day of the last Test from our previous English tour in 2010) up until our most recent Test assignment in 2015. Our focus would entail the number of balls faced by each batsman over the course of the entire periodic range and how it enables us to identify the role of each and every batsman.

Historically speaking, Pakistan have always had their fair share of troubles whenever it came to finding decent opening pairs. In retrospect it can be said that apart from the Mohammad Hafeez and Taufeeq Umar pairing, nothing comes to mind when speaking of substantial numbers in the recent past.
Such a mindset does not increment a lot of confidence if you’re a Pakistani team strategist or someone that would be looking to strategise a batting plan; however, what we can do is to look at what can be achieved with the resources at hand.

At this very moment, Mohammad Hafeez and Shan Masood are all set to make it to the Lord’s test as our openers, while in order for them to flourish, we will first need to identify how they’ve fared over the course of the entire preceding period.

In the course of the prescribed time period (29th Aug 2010 – Present), Mohammad Hafeez, as seen from the table, has faced approximately 4500 deliveries in 69 odd innings with an impressive strike rate of 60+ and healthy average consisting in the early 40s. Shan Masood on the other hand, while relatively new on the block, has faced 780 deliveries in as much as fourteen innings with a par strike rate and average of 46.28 and 25.78 respectively.

Since both these batsmen are locked in for the first match, it is unwise and practically unrealistic to expect blazing hundreds from each of them therefore the best possible batting strategy would be to enable them with smaller achievable targets that might benefit and complement the strong middle order that is to follow suit. Dissecting the above data sets we can extract the following information:

The above numbers signify that if, based on historic data documented over the course of the prescribed time period, Hafeez and Shan play out the average deliveries per innings; their combined score would establish the Pakistani opening stand with a sixty plus score in as much as approximately 20 overs.

An opening stand like this will maximize the run rate to 3.xx and would almost completely scale the first session. This batting strategy based on grind work and attritional batting would be in line with the deficiencies of the shaky top order and while the conditions would be totally different to what they might have faced earlier, it is a very basic and achievable starting point for Pakistan’s opening batsmen.

Following suit is the much talked about and celebrated middle order consisting of Azhar Ali, the veteran Younis Khan, the Pakistani skipper Misbah-ul-Haq and Asad Shafiq. A look at their numbers seems more than appropriate and in line with the same above concept, we deduced:

The difference in stature and quality is quite apparent when the numbers are seen in comparison with the openers earlier; out of the above four, Asad Shafiq, someone who features at #6 in the lineup has 4 innings less than the experienced Mohammad Hafeez but has faced 1000+ more balls in comparison.

He is also someone who has the least number of innings across the five settled top order individuals and on most occasions faces the second new ball in a Pakistani innings. That said, we can now extract the following information from the above table:

It is noteworthy that if everyone plays to their average potential, the middle order would be adding 180 odd runs and consuming 400 odd deliveries in the process. This kind of a batting, featuring on the back of a 60 run opening stand would automatically make Pakistan’s score hover between 250+, on most occasions and seeing the bowling resources we have, it would definitely make a very stiff challenge for the English batsmen whenever the Pakistani boys take the field.

Another glaring stat that came up in analyzing these data sets was the difference of Average Difference / Data Normalization for Younis Khan and Misbah ul Haq from their periodic average of 60.25 and 56.87 respectively. For Younis Khan Aggregate Expected Runs came down 8.19 units to 52.06 and for Misbah it subtracted to more than 10 units coming in at 45.80.

This clearly shows that both these veterans have quite a few not outs in their Test careers. While this may downplay their achievements in the long run, it is something quite encouraging for our batting lineup as it articulates the notion that both these individuals can spend long amounts of time at the crease and consume pressure so that lesser experienced batsmen bat around them; the likes of Azhar, Shafiq, Shan and the wicket-keeper Sarfraz can score within their comfort zone.

The last bit of deduction requires our attention to move over to the wicket keeper (Sarfraz Ahmed) and how his bit (with the bat, that is) could potentially result in Pakistan scoring 100 runs with the tail or being bundled out for 20 odd runs. Initially, his data sets provide the following information:

Looking at the above, what’s extremely apparent is the escalated strike rate of 74.56 and with an extremely decent average of 46.28, Sarfraz can be the perfect counter attacking foil to the solid preceding middle order. However, once we take into account our Balls faced per Innings and Data Normalization for the average we get:

It is evidently clear that attritional cricket is not the strongest suit in Sarfraz’s game since his deliveries faced per innings is even lower than Shan Masood’s, an out and out rookie in Test cricket; but what’s encouraging is that the average difference comes to 11.24 units which again clarifies that if given the opportunity, he might have it in him to play a longer, more steadied hand as his previous stints have quite the number of not outs.

Sarfraz also has the added responsibility of playing with the tail, and as the Pakistan tail has fared to be below par in recent times, the responsibility on his shoulders to properly farm the strike and at the same time add sufficient runs to the tally becomes doubly important.

With all things said and done, we might as well look at a scoreboard scenario where every one of the above bats plays to the minimum of what we’ve deduced; while as said in the early bit of our analysis the best way forward to devising a batting strategy based on our strengths would be to set small incremental targets in occupying the crease for as long as possible, and if every of our batsmen successfully conjures to the notion, then at a bare minimum, we could be looking at something like this:

The scoreboard shows only one batsman reaching a score of 50 runs with no hundreds tallied either, while for argument’s sake we have given 30 runs for the occupation of 50 odd deliveries for the entire tail of 4 bowlers. This practically amounts to 7.5 runs per tail ender who might survive for 12 odd deliveries in one given innings; a fair enough conclusion for a struggling tail, for an international Test team.

Three hundred and eleven runs scored in excess of 100 overs constitutes that Pakistan, if they play minimum to what their historic stats suggest, would carry out batting 4 sessions every given time they come out to bat. Coupled that with the bowling resources at hand, it can be safely be said that if our players and management put their minds to the task there could genuinely be a case of an English upset this summer.

However, the key to success lies in playing to your strengths and as the data has fundamentally shown, occupation of the crease and setting achievable targets should be the immediate strategy for our boys in green.

Blazing stroke play and aesthetically pleasing cover drives can win you a bucket load of fans and other artificial incentives, but an overseas win in testing conditions can only be overhauled by the virtue of patience and the application of the tried and tested method of attritional Test match batting. The sooner we realize this, the closer we’ll get to creating history.