At one time, Rizwan wasn't considered good enough for T20s. How has he become one of Pakistan's crucial T20 players?
March 2020: Mohammad Rizwan arrived for a presser at the National Stadium, Karachi, after representing Karachi Kings for only the 2nd time in the season – in the team’s 10th match. He had earlier batted at #6, faced one ball, and remained not out on zero. The other match that he played for the soon-to-be champions in PSL 5 was almost a month earlier. Slated to come in at #7, he didn’t get a chance to bat.
Rizwan isn’t one to show a lot of emotion or even express any kind of disagreement with his team’s plans. Yet, he was visibly frustrated at this presser. Asked why he didn’t get to play more often, he stated that he was working as hard as he could in training. However, the Kings management considered him a top-order batsman – where he was competing with Babar Azam, Sharjeel Khan, and Alex Hales, all established T20 top-order batsmen.
“Only my captain can tell you why I didn’t play more matches.” And that was that for Mohammad Rizwan in PSL 5. He played Kings’ first and last group stage matches and would be a silent spectator as they would seal their maiden PSL title.
A Stagnating T20 Career
Averaging 29 with a strike rate of 115 is not really ideal for the modern T20 batsman. In fact, it’s rare for a good team to want such a batsman in their lineup at all. With just 120 balls available, you want to best utilize your resources rather than waste them.
However, looking at Mohammad Rizwan’s record until then (i.e., mid-2020), one thing is obvious: He had no set position in T20 cricket. The thin majority of his innings came at #5, where his output was decent without being exceptional.
Numbers 4 and 5 have historically been positions in the middle order where teams put ‘reasonable’ batting options, who can perhaps execute a decent finish to the innings and chip in a bit here and there elsewhere. That has taken a turn in the past few years, focusing on specialists who can exert maximum advantage over that part of a T20 innings, usually in the form of spin hitters and/or dynamic batsmen.
Rizwan, unfortunately, never really fulfilled any of those specialist requirements. With Pakistan, he faced an additional problem. His apparent ‘best’ positions, #4 and #5, were usually occupied by Shoaib Malik and Umar Akmal, with Mohammad Hafeez more recently becoming another batsman to take up these roles.
Thus, whenever Rizwan represented Pakistan, he was invariably forced down the order at #6, #7, or lower, with the team aiming to promote handy slogging options like Hasan Ali when needed. He was there primarily for his wicket-keeping. That was it.
Opening the Batting
Before 2020, Mohammad Rizwan had little experience opening the batting. He did it early on during his career, opening the batting six times (in 7 days) during the 2013/14 edition of the Faysal Bank T20 Cup. The only other time where he opened the batting was during his short Bangladesh Premier League stint at the Sylhet Sixers – where Babar Azam ironically batted down the order. Despite a couple of notable innings, Rizwan opening the batting never became a thing in T20 cricket – contrary to what some people thought ahead of 2020.
Early Days for Pakistan
When he did play a few games for Pakistan in 2015/16, the Peshawar-born batsman showed some interesting traits with the bat. For starters, he played some impactful innings right away. He debuted against Bangladesh in the doomed 2015 ODI series – the famous Banglawash. Despite Pakistan suffering a big defeat, the then 22-year-old showed what he was capable of with a neat 58-ball 67 on debut.
However, it was two months later that Rizwan really showed what he was capable of – in his second ODI series against Sri Lanka. Playing in the 2nd ODI of the series, he slammed 52* off 38 balls. However, this innings wasn’t all about big hitting and smashing sixes. Rather, he played it smart and took the innings deep, taking advantage of the bowling where he could. Lasith Malinga, one of the greatest death bowlers of all time, bowled the 47th over in this match, and Rizwan took 20 off it with two fours and a six, besides some quick running between the wickets.
Rizwan repeated the feat in the next match, caressing his way to 35* off just 22 deliveries. Once again, it wasn’t all about the big hits. Rather, Rizwan ran hard between the wickets (as always) and pre-empted some slower balls, hitting them square and behind square on the leg-side. Once again, Malinga suffered as Rizwan hit him for 11 runs in the final over of the innings.
What Did the Earlier Part of His Career Show Us?
What was notable during this whole time was that Mohammad Rizwan was not a big hitter of the ball. Therefore, finishing off a couple of ODI innings from #6 didn’t mean he’d be able to do the same in the other formats. However, what it did show was that he was a smart batsman, capable of maximizing his strengths. Those were, namely, running hard between the wickets and batting smart, manipulating the field to his advantage, especially against pace.
At the same time, Rizwan had a problem. Of his first 14 dismissals, 8 were against spin. In 2015-16, there was a period where he got out 6 consecutive times to spinners, 5 of the dismissals being against leg-spin (four of them to Adil Rashid). He scored considerably faster against pace, struggling to rotate the strike and hit boundaries against the slower bowlers – traits often seen in openers.
Now, to be a successful batsman at #4 and #5 in T20 cricket, one has to be a good player of spin at the very least, preferably excellent. At the time, Rizwan was none of those. While working on his deficiencies against spin, this should have been the time when Rizwan, or the people guiding him at the time, should have advised him to bat up the order – at least in the shorter formats.
While Rizwan may have found it strange that the Karachi Kings management considered him a top-order batsman, it was an assessment that was to be proven correct later the same year. The late Dean Jones and the rest of the decision-makers at Karachi Kings were right.
Fast forward to 2020, and by now, Mohammad Rizwan had slowly but surely edged Sarfaraz Ahmed out of the side. He was now the #1 Pakistani wicket-keeper for the first time. However, T20I batting was still a problem. He was still not considered dynamic enough to bat in the middle-order. Therefore, he was a lower middle-order option, essentially playing as a specialist wicket-keeper and a backup batsman if Pakistan needed solidity in the middle rather than quick runs.
As the 2020 National T20 Cup neared, rumors close to the tournament indicated that Mohammad Rizwan had been told to open the batting (or bat higher up) for his side, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Naturally, Rizwan was the captain, so the decision was in his hands. Various media outlets attributed the decision to Misbah-ul-Haq, while some were of the view that Rizwan’s coach at KP, Abdul Razzaq, was the one to take this decision. As they say, success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.
Rizwan had a successful tournament overall, but it wasn’t an earth-shattering display. He finished with almost 400 runs, but his strike rate of 128 was the lowest among the top ten run-scorers in a high-scoring tournament. Still, he played some notable knocks. After batting at #3 in the first match, he opened the batting in the next two and rattled off quick fifties. Then, a few failures followed, and he dropped down the #4 for one match – where he proceeded to hit a blistering 99* off 68 balls (coming in at 16/2 in the 3rd over). He would go back to opening and hit another important fifty in the semi-final as well.
It was the T20I series against New Zealand that was to herald Mohammad Rizwan’s T20 career as an opener – for real, this time. After a couple of low scores in the first two games, he hit 89 off 59 deliveries to win the 3rd T20I for Pakistan from a position where Pakistan are not renowned for winning games. The visitors needed 54 off the last five overs when Rizwan killed the chase with 29 off his next 12 balls.
This began a remarkable run for Rizwan, as he has now settled into the role of an opening batsman facing the first ball of the innings – something that he’s done every time he’s gone out to bat in a T20 since December 2020.
- 18 innings
- 5 not outs
- 955 runs
- 682 balls
- 1 hundred
- 9 fifties
- 99 fours
- 27 sixes
- 73.5 average
- 140 SR
Style of Play as an Opener
With all said and done, Mohammad Rizwan would currently have to be classified as an anchor in T20 cricket. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but ideally, you don’t want too many batsmen of this type in a T20 side. That is perhaps one of the main reasons why Multan Sultans have signed big-hitting batsmen Rahmanullah Gurbaz and Shimron Hetmyer for the upcoming second leg of the PSL – to complement their captain.
Rizwan remains a relatively slow starter in T20 cricket, something that most anchors have in common. During his phase since December, where he has been scoring runs non-stop, Rizwan has been striking at just 114 in his first ten balls.
However, he does up the ante fairly quickly after that, striking at 141 between balls 10-30. This normally means he finishes powerplays with an SR of around 130 – good and better than most Pakistani openers going around, but unfortunately well below elite when it comes to the global standards. He pretty much matches Babar Azam here, including his rate of boundary hitting.
The good news is that Rizwan doesn’t let his strike rate falter during this period. The bad news is that he can’t really up the ante well, especially while the spinners are on. This is one aspect where Babar Azam excels; he strikes at around 140 in the middle overs, compared to Rizwan’s SR of around 130 at the same stage.
The difference in their SRs is almost exactly the same as the difference in their SRs against spin. Babar strikes at 136 against spin (since 2019), while the corresponding number for Rizwan is 126. During this phase since Dec 2020, Rizwan’s numbers are no better – SR 122 against spin. The gap widens further if we only look at numbers for the middle overs.
This stage of the innings is where Mohammad Rizwan has really made an impact for Pakistan. Not many would have expected him to manage it, but he’s proving everyone wrong. While Babar Azam has shown the ability to finish off innings in T20 cricket occasionally, he has fallen woefully short of the mark when it comes to T20Is. Mohammad Rizwan has no such problems. With his recent displays, he is already among Pakistan’s all-time top ten run-scorers in overs 17-20.
This table shows us two things: Mohammad Rizwan has been very good at the death, and Pakistan have a terrible track record in this part of the innings. In a world where batsmen are focusing on striking at 200 at the death, Pakistan are still well short of the mark. Still, Rizwan is doing his best. Since Dec 2020, in the 18 innings we mentioned earlier, his SR at the death is more than 200, and he’s been hitting a boundary every four balls. That’s exceptional.
How Does He Do It?
It’s no secret: Mohammad Rizwan isn’t a big hitter of the cricket ball in the traditional sense. He won’t be muscling sixes over long-on like Chris Gayle or effortlessly pulling the ball into the stands like Rohit Sharma. Nor is he in the same stratosphere as AB de Villiers. However, what he does well is what I mentioned earlier: He runs hard between the wickets, and he bats smart.
Take the final T20I against Zimbabwe as an example. Rizwan hit 35 off 14 deliveries in the final four overs of the innings. Babar Azam was at the crease alongside him, and he looked like an amateur in comparison. Rizwan, by now, had realized the nature of the pitch wasn’t conducive to hitting the ball down the ground. Moreover, the long-on boundary was quite… well, long. Hence, he focused on hitting the ball square of the wicket and behind square.
- 16.2 – Jongwe to Rizwan, SIX. Full toss, hit over square leg
- 17.2 – Ngarava to Rizwan, SIX. Full delivery, picked up over fine leg
- 18.5 – Muzarabani to Rizwan, SIX. Slow, full ball, lofted over fine leg
Babar got a full, slow delivery from Jongwe in the final over of the innings. Unlike Rizwan, he opted to hit it down the ground. Caught at long-on. In the same over, Rizwan faced multiple deliveries of the same type. Realizing that there wasn’t much he could do to hit boundaries, he took 5 off 3 deliveries in singles and doubles.
Rarely has Rizwan entered the death overs of the innings recently and failed to make an impact. That’s the hallmark of top-class batsmen. Once they’re set, they make it count.
Pakistan’s Team Combination
Mohammad Rizwan’s positional break-up and style of play show us that he is only suited to opening the batting in T20 cricket. He has struggled massively at #3, perhaps going into a shell due to the fall of an early wicket. Down the order, he isn’t dynamic enough, especially early on in his innings.
But how does that suit Pakistan’s batting lineup? Well, it all depends on who is batting around him. Ideally, Rizwan should be paired with an aggressive opener who can take the attack to the opposition. However, Fakhar Zaman has been woeful in that role recently, while Sharjeel Khan has struggled as well. Plus, Babar Azam is the captain, and his game is also best suited to opening the innings. There aren’t many other options available right now.
Babar and Rizwan
The Babar-Rizwan opening partnership can be a successful one if both are at their best. However, Babar hasn’t been at his best recently. When Babar gets going, he tends to bat faster than Rizwan early on and maintain a better rate in the middle-overs. That can inject some momentum into Pakistan’s batting.
However, with essentially two anchors opening the batting, Pakistan can not afford any other slow starters or anchors in the lineup. The management must maximize the ability of the rest of the batting lineup to bat at a high SR, with two of the most consistent T20I openers batting at the top.
With all said and done, this would likely be a risky strategy on true surfaces where you can expect totals of 180+ or 200 regularly. On such pitches, you would want your batsmen to be scoring at a high rate throughout. But Rizwan’s style of play means he is quite reliant on the death overs to transform a decent innings into a very good or excellent one, albeit he is excellent at doing just that.
Still, with the T20 World Cup set to be moved to the UAE, where lower scores are more common, this tactic could yet pay off for Pakistan, especially if they focus on introducing spin-hitters in the middle-order. The second leg of the PSL coming up in Abu Dhabi can be an interesting dress rehearsal for Pakistan as they look to finalize their preparations for the World Cup.
Whoever had a major role to play in Mohammad Rizwan’s elevation to the top of the order deserves credit. There’s no doubt about that. However, Pakistan, in this regard, are well behind the times. Recognizing player strengths and weaknesses is one of the biggest parts of coaching and strategizing, and we’re seeing this play an increasing role in international cricket in recent times.
Take the example of the three top run-scoring openers of the 2010s: Hashim Amla, Rohit Sharma, and Tillakaratne Dilshan. Amla is the fastest to 2000, 3000, 4000, 5000, 6000, and 7000 ODI runs, narrowly missing out on the 8000 record (to Virat Kohli – by one innings). Rohit and Dilshan are/were monsters at the top of the order in the 50-over format.
What do these three openers have in common? They were never really thought of as openers. Until they starting opening. This is quite apparent with Rohit and Dilshan, but it applies to Amla too. Amla didn’t open at the Under-19 level or in List A cricket. The first time he opened in 50-over cricket was during a tour of England in 2008. By then, he had played almost 50 List A matches in various batting positions in the middle order, not having a great amount of success.
Meanwhile, the cases of Rohit and Dilshan are apparent at the highest level. Rohit debuted in ODIs in 2007 but wouldn’t open regularly until 2013. Dilshan debuted in 1999 but didn’t open until 2008! And that too at the age of 32. He scored 7296 ODI runs after turning 32, the most by any batsman after that age.
Without going into too many details, this shift is happening in T20 cricket too. With more analysts in the game and more money involved due to franchise cricket, teams have to effectively utilize their resources. Yet, Pakistan continue to lag behind by preferring to stick by the traditional definition of an opener, with few middle-order batsmen making the transition to opening the batting. But it’s only a matter of time.
If a batsman’s game is more suited to the top of the order, that’s where he should be batting, as long as it works in favor of the team. Mohammad Rizwan is definitely one of the batsmen more suited to the top order, at least in T20s and possibly in 50-over cricket as well. Now he may or may not be a long-term solution for Pakistan, especially in T20s where Babar is a similar type of batsman and an aggressor is needed alongside him. But to be the best version of Rizwan – the batsman – Rizwan should be opening. It’s as simple as that.