Asia Cup 2022: Pakistan Team Preview

The 2022 edition of the Asia Cup, this time in the T20 format, gets underway soon with a marquee India-Pakistan clash.

Pakistan have announced a 15-man squad for the 15th edition of the Asia Cup, which is to be held in the UAE between August 27 and September 11. Hasan Ali is the notable exclusion, having been dropped from the national squad for the ODI series against the Netherlands as well. Shaheen Afridi, who missed the second Test against Sri Lanka last month and all three ODIs against the Dutch, was ruled out of the Asia Cup owing to a knee injury that he sustained while fielding in the first Test versus Sri Lanka. Mohammad Hasnain has been called up as the left-armer’s replacement for the Asia Cup.

The uncapped Naseem Shah has also been included in the squad. He made his debut ODI appearance in the Netherlands and was the highest wicket-taker in the series. In this article, we will set about previewing the squad, and we will explore the different batting and bowling combinations that Pakistan have for different phases of a T20I game.

Squad

Babar Azam (captain), Shadab Khan (vice-captain), Asif Ali, Fakhar Zaman, Haider Ali, Haris Rauf, Iftikhar Ahmed, Khushdil Shah, Mohammad Nawaz, Mohammad Rizwan, Mohammad Wasim jr, Naseem Shah, Shahnawaz Dahani, Mohammad Hasnain, and Usman Qadir.

Batting

We start by looking into how Pakistan have performed in powerplay overs in their more recent outings. As per the numbers, Pakistan have tended to tread on a very different trajectory than some of the other teams when it comes to batting in the powerplay. For starters, their collective batting average inside powerplay overs since the start of 2021 is nearly 50.0. The second-best on this list amongst top-ranked cricketing nations is South Africa’s 35.0. Additionally, Pakistan’s balls-per-wickets ratio in powerplays during this period is an extraordinary 42.4 compared to South Africa’s somewhat normal-looking 26.7.

So, Pakistan consume more than seven overs and score 49.5 runs on average in T20I powerplays before losing a wicket. However, only Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Zimbabwe have worse scoring rates in the first six overs than Pakistan. The scatterplot below depicts a whole cluster of teams that tend to lose a wicket within 3-5 powerplay overs, on average, but score upwards of a strike rate of 130. Surely, with the batting depth offered by the likes of Shadab, Nawaz, and Wasim, Pakistan can afford to see their balls-per-wickets ratio in powerplay overs dip slightly, and their scoring rate touch the 130-mark? Is there really room for any such optimization?

For that, we will look into the records of the individuals in question and see how they have fared in their respective roles. Since 2021, Babar has been very circumspect when batting inside powerplays. His numbers, segregated by bowler type, suggest that only against left-arm pace has Babar shown any sort of intent in the first six overs in T20Is. Elsewhere, he has genuinely struggled to get things moving – especially against slower bowlers - and does not have an impressive strike rate versus right-arm pace-bowling either. Even in this year’s PSL, his powerplay strike rate was a meager 104.4. However, the construction of that Karachi Kings side was different from the Pakistan side featuring in this year’s Asia Cup.

On the other hand, Rizwan has a better scoring rate against right-arm pace-bowling and right-arm off-spin inside powerplay overs. However, he too seems to have struggled to up the ante against slow left-arm despite being dismissed only once in 103 deliveries of this bowling type. We are thinking of the likes of Keshav Maharaj and Akeal Hosein here. Another notable thing here is Rizwan’s balls-per-dismissals ratio of 88 in the first six overs. So, the wicket-keeper batsman tends to survive through to the middle overs more often than not and looks to take the attack to the opposition in the latter half of the innings (SR of 129.6 in the middle overs and 229.2 at the death).

The Babar – Rizwan partnership has romped Pakistan to several one-sided victories in T20Is. On other occasions, it has proven to be an Achilles heel for a side that usually boasts batting depth and backloads power hitters. It’s quite difficult to split them, given how consistent their run-scoring has been when batting together in T20Is.

Yet, if Pakistan were to explore another option, Fakhar is the likeliest candidate who can open for them. He was the highest run-getter in this year’s Pakistan Super League (PSL). While he had his share of struggles against left-arm spin-bowling during the first 10 overs, he was brutal against right-arm pace and did decently against right-arm off-spin – a supposedly less favorable match-up. However, Pakistan are unlikely to tinker with their opening combination for now.

Fakhar, when batting at No. 3, has not had as much of an impact as Pakistan would have expected of him. Since 2021, his strike rate is a scanty 109.9 when batting at No. 3 in the first 10 overs of T20Is. His counterparts, the likes of Dawid Malan, Mitchell Marsh, Charith Asalanka, Nicholas Pooran, etc., have better averages and scoring rates when batting at No. 3 in the first ten overs. Fakhar’s uncustomary defensive starts coupled with the cautious approach followed by Babar and Rizwan at the top does not give Pakistan the much-needed impetus moving into the latter stages of a T20I innings and often leaves the middle-order with too much to do, especially when setting up totals. If Pakistan stick with Babar and Rizwan as the opening pair, which they will, in all likelihood, Fakhar would need to alter his approach.

It will be interesting to see whether Pakistan play Haider or Iftikhar at No. 4. Both of them offer different skill sets for the position. Iftikhar is essentially a pace-hitter, and even in the middle phases of T20 games, he has fared better against pace-bowling than spin since 2021. On the other hand, Haider has done well against both and most forms of spin. The only type of bowler against whom he has really struggled during the middle phases is slow left-arm – a naturally unfavorable match-up for most RHBs.

Since 2021, Iftikhar has majorly batted at the No. 5 position (26 innings out of 42 appearances). Think back to the National T20 Cup 2021/22, where he wreaked havoc upon the oppositions while batting at five – scoring 242 runs at a strike rate of 175.4 with a balls-per-boundary ratio of 3.7. Haider, contrarily, has played 22 T20 innings out of 47 at No. 3 since 2021. He has also played nine innings at No. 4, where he has averaged close to 30 at a strike rate of 130.8. His No. 4 numbers, segregated by pace and spin, are extremely polarized (Pace: Avg 26.3, SR 162.9 - Spin: Avg: 80.0, SR: 94.1).

It is a gamble that the team management will have to take, but Pakistan will need someone to counter spin in the middle-overs, and Haider’s spin-hitting ability, which propelled him to the international scene initially, can come in handy in the Asia Cup with teams potentially fielding three spinners.

Pakistan have loads of power-striking options at the backend of T20I innings. As a team, they have one of the best death-batting numbers since 2021. Pakistan’s collective strike rate in overs 17-20 during this period is 185.4, only behind New Zealand’s 189.1. Their boundary runs % is 64%, only behind West Indies’ 66%.

Several players have upped the ante for Pakistan at the backend. For players who have faced at least 30 deliveries in overs 17-20 of T20Is since 2021, Rizwan has the second-highest strike rate (229.2). Asif has a balls-per-boundary ratio of 3.1 in the last four overs. Fakhar strikes at nearly 190 and Shadab, too, has a strike rate upwards of 160 at the death. Khushdil had the highest boundary runs % and boundary balls % in the last four overs in PSL 2022. As illustrated in the bar chart below, all of Pakistan’s potential batters for No. 5 – No. 8 have strike rates upwards of 160 on the first 10 balls they face at death. Pakistan have got death-batting pretty much covered for the Asia Cup.

Bowling

Over on the bowling front, as aforementioned, Pakistan have sustained a major blow with Shaheen’s knee injury ruling him out of the entire Asia Cup. He was, inarguably, the spearhead of Pakistan’s T20I side, and with him missing out, Pakistan’s bowling attack suddenly looks a dimension short.

Pakistan can potentially turn to the uncapped Naseem Shah to start the proceedings. His consistency in line and length with the new ball in the recently concluded ODI series versus the Netherlands was mightily impressive. Since the start of 2021, he has bowled 58 overs in T20 powerplays at an economy rate of 7.8. For Quetta Gladiators in this year’s PSL, Naseem bowled in powerplays in nine different innings, taking five wickets at an economy rate of 7.4.

Pakistan can look to couple either Nawaz or Wasim with Naseem inside powerplay overs depending upon the batting combination at the crease. In T20Is during this period, Wasim has done exceptionally well versus LHBs in powerplay overs (three wickets at an economy rate of 5.5 and balls-per-boundary ratio of 9.2). He can, thus, take that burden off Nawaz’s shoulders, who, understandably, has bowled only 17 deliveries to LHBs since 2021.