Pakistan beat India and Afghanistan at the T20 tournament but lost twice to Sri Lanka to finish as runners-up.
Pakistan fell short of a third Asia Cup title in what proved to be a rollercoaster campaign. They were downed by arch-rivals India in a nail-biting opener only to avenge them in another cliffhanger a week later. Pakistan had already made short work of Hong Kong before returning to Sharjah to cross swords with Afghanistan. They barely managed to squeeze out of that encounter following a scuffle for the ages, with Naseem Shah’s heroism at the rear end seeing them across the line. Just when they looked to be peaking, and the silverware looked within touching distance, Pakistan were humbled twice in three days by Sri Lanka, and the glory wasn’t to be. In this article, we will delve into some of the pain points that dented Pakistan’s progress and some of the higher grounds achieved by them that offered them a competitive advantage over other teams.
Sluggish at the top
Pakistan’s lack of intent in powerplay overs was fairly evident throughout the Asia Cup. They banked on starting cautiously and making up for lost time at the back end, a seemingly outdated T20I batting template that they have followed religiously for a good year and a half now.
The Babar-Rizwan opening pair has been prolific for Pakistan at the top in terms of runs accumulated. Since 2021, they have scored 51% of the total runs made by Pakistan in T20Is. That’s a lot of runs. However, their below-par scoring rate has perpetually put the middle-order under excessive pressure. Many an observer of Pakistan cricket would have dreaded that this approach to T20I batting may flounder at the bigger stages. Arguably, it cost them the ICC T20 World Cup semi-final against Australia last year and the Asia Cup final now versus Sri Lanka.
Pakistan had the second lowest strike rate and balls-per-boundary ratio inside the powerplay overs in the Asia Cup. The average number of deliveries the other five teams took to hit a six in the first six overs was 21.8. Pakistan just struck three powerplay maximums in the entire Asia Cup, which is a whopping 72 deliveries per six.
The batting style of a Babar Azam or a Mohammad Rizwan in T20I powerplays is wholly different from that of a Rahmanullah Gurbaz or a Rohit Sharma. While the latter two are more intent on playing aerial and lobbed strokes when the field restrictions are in place, the Pakistan opening duo has been much more conventional in their stroke-play in their bid to preserve wickets upfront.
The problems aggravated for Pakistan with Babar’s string of low scores in the Asia Cup and Rizwan’s limited off-side game. During the Asia Cup, it became apparent that teams worked out Rizwan’s leg-side dominant stroke-play by bowling to him more frequently away from the channel. Between January 2021 and August 2022, 35.7% of the total balls faced by Rizwan in T20Is have been outside the 4th/5th stump channel. In the Asia Cup, however, a bigger chunk of balls (42.3%) was bowled to him outside the 4th/5th stump to prevent him from accessing the leg side more often. Rizwan’s strike rate on strokes played on the off-side was 100 compared to 129 on the on-side.
Impact-less number three
Babar’s lean run of form meant that Fakhar Zaman was almost always in while the powerplay was ongoing but couldn’t really capitalize on the field restrictions. He struck at under 100 during the first six overs and was challenged by spin in the middle phases. On average, Pakistan scored just 41.3 runs in powerplay overs at the Asia Cup, and Fakhar being out of sync at number three didn’t help the cause at all.
Since the start of the 2021 ICC T20 World Cup, Fakhar has the lowest average (21.9) and the lowest strike rate (110.8) among number three batters who have played at least 10 innings in this position. He couldn’t come to the fore and evidently struggled to make an impact at number three. There were perhaps merits to the argument of splitting the Babar-Rizwan combination and opening with Fakhar, given the latter’s exploits as an opener in the PSL earlier this year. However, Pakistan were adamant about keeping faith in the same opening pair throughout the Asia Cup.
Pakistan’s top and middle orders were trialed by spin across the whole tournament. Babar was dismissed every 7.3 deliveries by spin. Fakhar and Khushdil were severely slow starters and couldn’t provide the impetus during the middle phases. Iftikhar and Rizwan, too, couldn’t take down the spinners despite having fairly decent balls-per-dismissal ratios against the slower bowlers. Rizwan’s 55 off 49 and Iftikhar’s 32 off 31 in the final sucked the life out of Pakistan’s pursuit of the target and left the lower middle-order with too much to do in the dying overs.
The lack of a spin-hitting option in the middle-order, coupled with their circumspect starts, cost Pakistan at the most important stage. However, Pakistan still had two really good spin actuators in Shadab and Nawaz, who proved their mettle early on in the tournament but who weren’t adequately utilized in the final. Both Shadab and Nawaz contributed significantly with the bat in Pakistan’s respective wins against Afghanistan and India in the Super 4s.
Would Pakistan have been better off in promoting one of these at number four against Sri Lanka, or better still, bat Shadab higher up more often? They may end up trying Haider Ali at four and playing one from Iftikhar and Khushdil at five in the upcoming England T20Is, but this was one option that could have been tried and tested in the Asia Cup as well. Pakistan cricket observers must have been appeased by the team management’s belief in flexible batting orders. However, there’s still a margin for improvement regarding the role-based application of different players.
The spin-twins were generally much quicker starters than the rest of the middle-order. Fakhar was just in woeful touch, as established earlier. Khushdil’s infamous slow starts are illustrated by his strike rate of just 78.6 from the first 10 balls that he faced across all his innings. This was always going to be unsustainable for Pakistan, given their slow scoring rates throughout the first 10 overs.
Breathing fire early on
Pakistan bowled 33 out of the 36 powerplay overs through their faster bowlers, who set the stage alight with their sheer pace and control. Pakistan had the best bowling average and strike rate across powerplays in the tournament. Despite bowling so much pace upfront, their BPB was better than all of the other three Super 4s teams.
It was Naseem who usually started the proceedings and set the tone for Pakistan early on. He was extremely frugal in the first six overs in terms of economy rate (6.2). In Shaheen’s absence, Haris came to the fore, too, keeping things nice and tight and providing crucial breakthroughs every 10 balls or so. Hasnain and Dahani chipped in as well and maintained the pressure with the extra zip and lift that they extracted from the Emirati surfaces.
Spinning a web post-powerplay
Much like the faster men, Pakistan’s spinners were brilliant in backing up the good work done early on and giving nothing away. They not only took the most wickets compared to other teams’ spinners, but they also had the lowest economy rate. The extent to which the Pakistan spinners kept things under control can be illustrated by the fact that they conceded only four extras in 45.2 overs and had a combined average of 15.6 runs per wicket compared to the next best, 22.2.
Shadab and Nawaz shouldered much of the spin-bowling responsibility for Pakistan during the Asia Cup. Both had staggering tournament figures with the ball, taking eight wickets each and going for around six runs an over. Compared to their spin-bowling counterparts, the Pakistan pair made breakthroughs most often and were marginally bettered by Afghanistan’s Mujeeb ur Rahman in terms of economy rate.
With the mega-event looming around the corner and lots of cricket left to be played still, Pakistan have a decent opportunity to hone players based on the roles required by the team. They have decided to persist with the personnel, but it’s the strategy, in some respects, that needs reimagining.