Pakistan’s Final Push to Prepare for the 2022 ICC T20 World Cup

Babar Azam's men are touring New Zealand for a tri-series that involves the two sides alongside Bangladesh.

Following a closely fought home T20I series against England in which the visitors triumphed by 4-3, Pakistan have now touched down in New Zealand for a T20I tri-series comprising themselves, the hosts, and Bangladesh. This will be their last-ditch effort to address the concerns regarding the ideal team combination they want for the T20 World Cup, which is less than a fortnight away now. In this article, we look at how different personnel fared in the recently concluded T20I series against England and how Pakistan can maximize their resource utilization in this tri-series.

Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan had to face up to a truckload of criticism with regard to their powerplay batting approach following the conclusion of the Asia Cup last month. The two openers turned things around in what was to be, generally, a high-scoring series against England. Both Babar and Rizwan upped the ante when the field restrictions were on and played with much better strike rates than they did in the Asia Cup. However, could they have gone even harder upfront, given the generally flat surfaces that were on offer throughout the series?

Contrary to how the Pakistan batters approached things in the first overs, the English batters were belligerent in exploiting the field restrictions. They struck at 152 during the powerplay, and while they lost wickets more frequently than the home side, they clung to the offensive ploy. 70.5% of England’s runs in powerplay overs came through boundaries compared to 54.0% for Pakistan, and the visitors scored a boundary every 3.9 balls.

Across the seven-match series, Rizwan ended up scoring 316 runs (63.5/138.6), while Babar notched up 285 runs (57.0/143.2). These are fairly decent returns for the opening duo. In the powerplay, however, they could have gone a bit harder, given how much better their English counterparts fared. The relatively circumspective approach at the start could have something to do with the misfiring middle order, a malady that Babar has time and again highlighted in press conferences.

In order to rectify the middle-order woes and bring a spin-hitting option to the fore, Pakistan introduced Shan Masood in place of the injured Fakhar Zaman. Shan didn’t get a proper go at showcasing his spin-hitting ability and had a series of mixed returns. One major highlight was how difficult Shan found it to adapt his gameplay when Pakistan batted first. He averaged just 8.8 at a strike rate of 97.2 in the four matches where Pakistan were setting totals and needed impetus from the top order.

While chasing, Shan scored two half-centuries but couldn’t quite keep up with the required run rate. In the 3rd T20I, he came in at 21/3, with Pakistan requiring upwards of 12 runs per over. Shan top-scored for his 65* (40) in a game that Pakistan lost by 63 runs. Similarly, in the deciding T20I, Shan walked out into the middle, with Pakistan needing 10.8 runs per over to win the game. He visibly struggled to score at a quick rate, managing 56 (43) in the run-chase, where Pakistan fell short by 67 runs.

If he is to be the answer for Pakistan at number three, Shan has to be amongst the runs and manufacture them at a healthy strike rate, too, given Babar and Rizwan’s sluggish approach during the powerplay overs.

During the middle overs, Shan was, in fact, slightly better than Khushdil Shah and Iftikhar Ahmed and looked fairly comfortable against the slower bowlers. Rizwan and Babar were undoubtedly the standout batsmen for Pakistan in overs 7-16. They had the lowest dots percentages among all batsmen who faced at least 30 balls during this phase, and both of them struck at nearly 150.

However, England still outperformed their hosts when it came to batting during the middle phases. All of their batters had better balls-per-boundary proportions, with the likes of Harry Brook and Ben Duckett striking in excess of 150 during this period. Collectively, they scored 43.9 runs per wicket during the middle overs at a strike rate of 149.6 compared to Pakistan’s 139.8.

Another metric that reflects how Pakistan’s middle order couldn’t keep up with the pace is the batsmen’s strike rates across the first 10 balls that they faced. We can observe that only Asif Ali, who plays as a pinch-hitter in this side, has a somewhat reasonable strike rate in the first 10 balls. The other players who make the bulk of the middle order have been slow starters, something which Pakistan cannot afford, especially in high-scoring affairs.

Despite losing early wickets in all three matches in Lahore, Pakistan were adamant about not testing a flexible batting order and promoting Shadab Khan up the order to arrest the slide or to counterpunch. This reaped fruits for Pakistan in the recently concluded Asia Cup, but the flexible batting order, somehow, didn’t materialize throughout the latter half of the series against England.

Bizarrely, Shadab only faced two balls in the three matches that he featured in; the first one was pummelled down the ground for six while he was run out on the second. This is one area where Pakistan can potentially experiment in the upcoming tri-series and see if they can use the likes of Shadab or Mohammad Nawaz to inject some impetus into the innings in case of early wickets falling or during the middle overs when the spinners are operating.

It will be interesting to see how Pakistan utilize Haider Ali in this tri-series. Haider had an unpleasant time with the bat in the series against England, where he managed just 36 runs in four innings at a strike rate of 94.7. All four of his wickets fell to the pacers, and he was particularly troubled by the short-pitched stuff. Haider seemed to be regaining his nick in the 6th T20I, where he scored 18 (14), and would be itching to get a big score under his belt that could potentially bolster his confidence. Given Haider is a part of the squad for the T20 World Cup, Pakistan are likely to give him an additional run in the tri-series to see if he can come to the fore at number four.

Pakistan were, once again, outplayed by England when it came to death-hitting. England scored at 11.6 runs per over in the last four overs and struck a boundary every 3.6 balls. Pakistan, contrarily, scored at 9.2 runs per over, losing a wicket every 9.9 balls and taking more than an over, on average, to strike a boundary. Here, too, Babar starred for the home side, scoring 48 runs at a strike rate of 192 while not getting dismissed even once in overs 17-20. Pakistan, however, would need more contributions from their middle and lower middle orders in the latter half of the innings in this tri-series.

Over on the bowling front, Pakistan got a boost with Mohammad Hasnain’s exploits in the powerplay overs. Naseem Shah only featured in one match before he fell ill and Shaheen Afridi has already been missing since the side’s tour of Sri Lanka a couple of months ago owing to a knee injury. Pakistan were short on two frontline new-ball bowlers, and Hasnain rose to the occasion, taking four wickets at a terrific economy rate of 6.4 while bowling more than four overs of dots during the powerplay. Mohammad Wasim was a touch on the expensive side, whereas Haris Rauf was at his usual best, hardly giving anything away when the field restrictions were on. With Naseem not a sure starter in the tri-series opener, Hasnain will take the new ball and may enjoy bowling at the Hagley Oval, where pacers take 86.5% of the wickets in powerplays while maintaining an economy rate of 7.8.

Pakistan’s spin attack, as a whole, was also impressive throughout the series versus England. Nawaz was the pick of the spinners, taking five scalps across seven innings at an economy rate of 8.4. Shadab bowled well, too, aside from a rare loose spell that he bowled in the decider. Iftikhar offered another dimension into the spin-bowling arsenal with his skiddy off-breaks. He scalped just one prey in 12 overs but kept things nice and tight, bowling at a miserly economy rate of 6.1. If Shadab is not fully fit for the first half of the tri-series, Pakistan may turn to Usman Qadir, who went for plenty of runs in the series against England but has a knack for making breakthroughs.

Pakistan pacers were trialed at the back end of the innings, where they were taken to the cleaners by the English batsmen. Hasnain conceded 70 runs in four overs at the death, whereas Wasim and Shahnawaz Dahani went for 13.8 and 15 runs per over, respectively.

The difference was stark between these bowlers and Rauf. The speedster took six wickets in overs 17-20, the most by any bowler in this period in the series. Additionally, 38% of his deliveries were dots, and he conceded only 8.5 runs per over. Rauf will be a vital cog for Pakistan not only in the tri-series but also in the upcoming global event. Pakistan would ideally want Hasnain to come good at the back-end, too, in the tri-series, which would provide them cover in the absence of Shaheen and possibly Naseem.

The whole tri-series is scheduled to be held at the Hagley Oval in Christchurch, where teams batting first have won 22 T20s compared to 20 for teams chasing. The average 1st innings score here is 161/7, whereas the average target chased is 151/4. The maximum target chased, however, is 222 runs by Canterbury against Northern Districts in January 2020. Leg-spinners average 1.1 wickets per innings at this venue at a fine economy rate of 6.8, and the likes of Shadab and Ish Sodhi can come into play. Overall, teams have majorly decided to bat first after winning the toss (59.1%).