From a statistical point of view, what would be the ideal lineup for Pakistan to put up at the National Stadium in Karachi?
Opening in Test cricket is hard. It always has been, but in the last five years, it’s been bordering on torture. Since Jan 2016, openers have averaged 33.40. That isn’t a very impressive number considering the fact that normal cricket discourse has determined that an average of 40 is the minimum expected of any Test batsman.
If an opener was averaging 35.34 since his comeback despite touring all of the “important” countries, maybe he deserved a chance to prove whether his New Zealand series was a one-off or an actual decline in his abilities. I digress.
|Year Span||Opener’s Average|
Pakistan’s opening options for this series are an opener looking at his final series if he fails, an aging number 3 who will promote himself for the good of the team, a 25-year-old who scored most of his runs in his breakthrough domestic season batting at #3 and finally the 21-year-old who has played a total of ONE First Class match.
Abid Ali has crossed the 14-over mark 77% of the time in his short Test career. He doesn’t have a propensity to be dismissed early. The problem is that only 23% of the time has he crossed the 40th over mark. He does the opener’s job of seeing off the new ball quite well, but he doesn’t seem to cash in most of the time. But his record at home is mighty impressive – 324 runs at an average of 107 with two 100s to his name. Pakistan will be hoping he fires as they are already short of opening options.
Azhar Ali averages more opening the batting than he does batting at number 3. It’s an example of how numbers can be deceiving. From October 2016 to March 2017, Azhar Ali opened the batting for Pakistan and had a dream run – 1256 runs at an average of 62.3 with four 100s and five 50s. It was a purple patch; the kind batsmen only get once in their careers. Any other time Azhar has opened the batting, he has accumulated 310 runs at a poor average of 22.1. In addition, Azhar as an opener is vulnerable early on; 48% of the time, he has been dismissed before crossing 15 runs.
Imran Butt’s FC average of 36 will always be brought up when comparing him to Pakistan’s other batting options. As usual, no consideration will be given to the fact that he is an opener in Pakistan’s domestic system, which is famously not kind on openers (Opener Average for QeAT 2020/21: 31). Or maybe the fact that only four openers have more domestic FC runs than him in the past six years, all four being at least five years older than him (the 4 being Imran Farhat, Khurram Manzoor, Israrullah, and Salman Butt). In an ideal world, Imran would be eased into the side at number 3 after being groomed as Azhar Ali’s successor with countless A tours under his belt. We don’t live in an ideal world; he may be the best of the three less-than-ideal options to partner Abid Ali at the top of the order.
Fun Fact: In his first QeAT season (at the age of 17), Imran Butt finished as the 3rd highest run-scorer with 740 runs at an average of 61.67.
It’s high time that teams start looking at number three as a specialist position, especially in an era where openers are failing more often. In the likely event of an early wicket, you need your number three to come out and basically do the opener’s job of blunting the new ball to protect the star batsman batting at number four.
|Position||Average since 2016|
Azhar Ali has shown some semblance of being back to his best. Since Dec 2019, he has 571 runs at an average of 47.58. He may be finally be performing the senior batsman role that was expected of him back in 2017 with the departure of MisYou. It would be ill-advised to move him from his batting position just as he struck form.
However, if the team management did plan to move Azhar to opening the batting, maybe they should have considered selecting the man averaging 83 at number 3 in this QeAT season – Usman Salahuddin. Instead, they are likely to go with Saud Shakeel. Saud is a wonderful batsman; it isn’t often that a batsman is easy on the eyes and also a belligerent run-scorer. But batting him at number 3 may prove to be a mistake because although he batted most of this QeAT season at #3, his first to second innings break up was skewed. His first-innings average was 33.4, while his second-innings average was 90.8. The breakup indicates a struggle against pace early on in his innings. With Azhar and Saud both vulnerable to early dismissals, Pakistan could find themselves two down early, with Babar having to face a fired-up Rabada and Nortje with the new ball.
Fast-Bowling All-Rounder, Spin-Bowling All-Rounder, or Extra Batsman?
Babar Azam, Fawad Alam, and Mohammad Rizwan will most likely bat 4, 5, and 6. That leaves the number 7 spot up for grabs; the man currently in possession of it is Faheem Ashraf, who enjoyed a fruitful tour of New Zealand with the bat where he finished as Pakistan’s 2nd highest run-scorer. He is a more-than-handy bowler with an impressive average of 19 at National Stadium, Karachi (NSK).
However, if Pakistan feel the pitch may turn square, they could also opt for Nawaz. Nawaz had a stellar QeAT season with the bat in which he finished as the eighth-highest run-scorer with 744 runs at an average of 49.60. His bowling was less impressive with 22 wickets at 37.41 apiece, but he picked up a five-wicket haul at NSK and generally has an impeccable record there with the ball.
Alternatively, Pakistan could decide to retreat to their former position of playing six proper batsmen plus the wicketkeeper and hand Saud a debut at a position he would be more comfortable at. But with Rizwan coming off overseas tours where he performed better than most batsmen in the side, you would think the team management would back him to make the number six spot his own.
Who Is the Second Spinner?
Despite not playing a Test match since Jan 2019, Hassan Ali’s place seems to be given. He will partner Shaheen Shah Afridi with the new ball, coming off an impressive First Class season where he took 41 wickets at an average of 20.07 and knocked off 273 runs with the bat for good measure. Yasir Shah’s place as of yet doesn’t seem to be in jeopardy despite him averaging 52 with the ball since Dec 2018. With the Karachi pitch likely to be a turner, the management will have to choose between Nauman Ali and Sajid Khan for their second spinner.
Nauman Ali has been the highest wicket-taker across the last two seasons of the QeAT and the second-highest wicket-taker this season, while Sajid has been the second-highest in the previous two and the highest this season.
Sajid has outperformed Nauman by nearly all metrics this season. His average at NSK this season (35.4) has been better than Nauman’s (57.3). He has taken a higher percentage of top-order wickets (82%) in comparison to Nauman (65%). There is little difference between their first innings averages (Sajid 25.5 and Nauman 25.6), but Nauman does trump him in the second innings (Nauman 21.0, Sajid 24.0). Both would be excellent choices, but Sajid’s off spin variety matches up well with Yasir’s leg spin. Furthermore, the fact that he’s no mug with the bat could shift the balance in his favor.