In a detailed analysis of Pakistan's performances in the Tri-series in New Zealand, Rana explores the positives and negatives and the lessons learnt which can improve Babar Azam and Co's chances of winning the upcoming ICC T20 World Cup.
By Rana (15 October 2022)
They say lightning doesn’t strike twice. Well, in the case of Pakistan’s T20I side, it seems to be striking a little too often in recent history. This depends on how you interpret the word ‘lightning’ in this context. Some may consider this to be the consistent let downs of the middle order. Others may consider this to be the repetitive nature of the top order not matching the requirements of setting the tone for the team with an aggressive intent and a demonstration of bravery, which then leaves the lower order with far too much to do (considering their limitations).
With that being said, the New Zealand Tri-series must be viewed alongside the series that is taking place between England and Australia on the venues of this year’s T20i world cup. Whilst the England side that comfortably walked past Pakistan in Karachi and Lahore have beefed up their side to contest with the favorites and defending champions in their own den. Pakistan on the other hand have stuck to their guns and have travelled to the Southern Hemisphere with pretty much the same squad and strategy they have employed through the Asia cup and the England home series. This could well be due to a strict plan which the team management feels will deliver the championship, or it is most likely due to the limited resources which are available to the management for one reason or another.
Talking about the plan itself. The positive elements that can be highlighted from the 7 victories we have seen since the Asia cup defeat, four of which were achieved in this tri series are as follows:
1. Rotation of pacers: Pakistan have rotated its pace bowlers perfectly and have found at least three first team choices in case their premier bowler (Shaheen Afridi) is not fit and available to start.
Haris Rauf, Mohammad Wasim Jr and Naseem Shah have shown great maturity and belief in order to peg back the Kiwi’s twice on their home deck. The emergence of Naseem and Wasim is highly important considering the decline of Hassan Ali and the injury to Shaheen Shah Afridi. These two bowlers will not be going into this World Cup as if they are just being fed to the wolves without enough experience as the management have given them plenty of game time and overs.
2. Pakistani spinners offer variety and confidence: Pakistan have three reliable options in Shadab Khan’s leg spin, Mohammad Nawaz’s left-arm off-spin and ability to bowl bravely to the best batsmen in the world, and Iftikhar Ahmed’s experience in getting through overs against left-handers with his flat trajectory. The spin department is a base that is covered and all three are useful batsmen to add to it. To top it off, Shadab and Nawaz are both capable of providing vital breakthroughs against good batsmen.
3. The potential of Babar Azam or Mohammad Rizwan: If not one then both can give the team a respectable start chasing or setting up a total, and at least providing the opportunity for others to bat around them. I use the word ‘potential’ because the ‘consistency’ in doing so was not as such considering only Babar scored a meaningful score in the first T20I against New Zealand, whereas Rizwan has showed consistency in scoring well against the lesser in comparison attack of Bangladesh. However, the consistency and good numbers these two have put in the past helps with the potential to do well in the future.
4. Nawaz making the no.4 position his own: This has to be one of the most delightful positives of this tour. Nawaz has now played 3 blinders at the number 4 position within a space of a few weeks, and it is probably correct now to let him keep this position for the entirety of the World Cup campaign. Nawaz should no longer be treated as a ‘match up’ for left-arm off-spinners, because he has shown class and determination against spin and pace. His urgency at the crease to score runs or up the run-rate is also a huge positive.
It is also good to see Haider Ali and Iftikhar score runs in the Final of the Tri-series considering how much criticism they have copped in the build-up to this day. Haider’s innings in particular was a breath of fresh air and brought memories of Inzamam’s breakaway innings against New Zealand in the 1992 World Cup Semi-Final. This could finally be the push that gets him going and make the World Cup his grand stage to announce himself.
Whilst Pakistan may be jubilant over their victory against New Zealand, and the management finding another solid excuse to justify their tactics/selection, the fact of the matter remains that the Pakistan side does not seem to be playing cricket the way Australia and England (the two favorites) are playing at the same time they are competing with the likes of New Zealand. What are those visible negatives that differentiate Pakistan from those who are considered contenders for the trophy?
1. Pakistan’s clear lack of intent in the power play and lack of setting the correct tempo: This cannot be denied or ignored anymore. Both openers, Babar and Rizwan have come out of this series with a strike rate of 122 and a total of 2 sixes in their 5 outings. This is extremely poor considering they have the advantage of the power play! Hitting a six results in two more runs than a lesser risk shot on the ground, but the intent and bravery involved in wanting to hit a six and dominating the opposition’s bowling gives the team a major boost in confidence. In contrast to this, the opening pair of Finn Allen and Devon Conway scored a total of 15 sixes!
2. Pakistan going into the tournament with an unrecognized No.3 batsman: Regardless of whatever format, the no.3 position is still the most important batting position and should be occupied by the best technical batsman of the side according to my understanding of this game. The plan to demote Fakhar to No.3 failed with Fakhar unsuited to this position due to his technical deficiencies. On the other hand, Shan Masood’s inability to translate domestic form into international belonging is even more concerning. Shan’s elevated promotion into the team has not borne the fruit as envisioned by the Chief Selector. Babar Azam needs to make a strong decision on this as to whether he wants to continue with the ‘hope’ that the third batsman comes in and sets the tone, because the ‘middle order slope’ begins right at the failure of a reliable No.3 player.
3. Asif Ali’s struggle at the back end of an innings: Whilst Asif Ali has earned the right to be carried as of now due to his heroics in crucial stages of last year’s World Cup and the recent Asia Cup, the confidence in him is clearly starting to diminish with the fans and the management to some extent. This is indeed concerning because Asif Ali has abilities much admired by Pakistan fans and fans around the world for his raw ability to muscle the ball for 6 against good pace. For him to be axed for a more conventional batter or an all-rounder would significantly dent an already weak power-hitting outfit. Hence, Asif must understand the demands from him and what he is delivering in return.
5. Pakistan’s reserve wicket keeper going into the tournament with 1 T20I cap to his name: Whether it is a deliberate ploy or coincidence, Pakistan are taking Mohammad Haris as a reserve keeper who has only played 1 T20I since his inclusion in the Pakistan side. With the potential of an injury looming for any keeper, it is criminal for the young keeper-batter not to have played more games since the England series and not even a single game against a depleted Bangladesh side reeks of mismanagement. This in particular considering the continuous battles we are witnessing between Mohammad Rizwan and his will to keep him upright or not hobble along due to a groin injury.
5. Mohammad Rizwan’s dip in form and fluency against the stronger bowling outfit: Whilst his partner Babar may have avoided this criticism with his 79* against New Zealand in the first T20I, Rizwan on the other hand has not been as impressive against New Zealand (the greater challenge and last year’s runner up) with total scores of 54 in 58 (strike rate of 93) deliveries at an average of 19.33! The Pakistan No.1 batsman who has broken all sorts of records since his elevation to the opening spot was not as fluent as he would like to be and his lack of off-side game has become very much clear to see, with teams now looking to block off his main scoring areas. Rizwan will have to work hard to not be bogged down or not be able to improvise his game through the off-side in order to avoid the difficult starts for him and his team.
6. Pakistan’s poor catching: The dropping of easy catches is a concern for some international teams right now and Pakistan are equally guilty with its own howlers in this facet at the moment. The casual approach to catching is a real cause of concern for Babar himself before he can lay the blame on the rest of his team. This casual approach has already cost them two finals and luckily it has not cost them a third one, but this cannot be taken for granted and improvements must be made.
What needs to happen for Pakistan to do well in the upcoming ICC T20 World Cup?
Pakistan traditionally has relied on their ability to produce an unstoppable run against the odds in world tournaments in order to win them. Pakistan in its three ICC silverware outings have never actually looked the strongest team or even in the top 3 of strong teams in the world. So in this regard, Pakistan are on the right track to cause the upset or magic and go on to win another ICC tournament. However, if there were some tweaks I could make for them to actually stand a better chance than hope, they would be:
1. Positive intent by the openers and everyone to follow with the worry of a batting collapse. Pakistan learned that fortune will favor them as long as they are willing to be brave and play as if their life depends on it the way Haider and Nawaz did in the final
2. A proper No.3 batsman. For me that’s Babar Azam and ideally, I would like him to realize that the partnership with Rizwan can still happen if he comes in at three and anchors us through to the end. Fakhar Zaman is a total waste at the number three slot.
3. More trust in Nawaz as your key player. He can also be considered for number 3 in order to set the right tone instead of him having to take drastic measures at number 4.
4. Fakhar Zaman to be better utilized. If not as an opener, he should be batting at 5 or 6 after or before Asif Ali to add more depth in Pakistan’s firepower at the back end.
5. Squad rotation throughout the tournament and making sure that the lesser players are given game time in the easier matches. No player should be undercooked if called upon as an injury replacement in a crunch game.
6. Match-ups are very much real and totally matter. Do not switch off and make sure to use your options of left-arm and right-arm spinner against those dangerous middle-order players in the opposition. Also, understand that the opposition prepare their match-ups for your team and innovative strokes are an ideal way out of the difficult angles you are being challenged with.
7. Playing innovative strokes of difficult bowling lengths at the death is also a brand of fearless cricket. The execution of these shots is lacking, but the will to play them frequently at the death is also lacking. Toying with the field is far more conducive than trying to muscle everything out of the park at the death.
8. Lastly, on personal note, I would argue that Shaheen Shah Afridi should not be rushed into the side even if he is 80% fit against India and Pakistan should back the trio of Rauf, Naseem and Waseem as their three seamers. Shaheen can be brought back against the lesser teams building up to the South Africa clash with the hope that it is virtually a quarter final for Pakistan.