22-year-old Azam Khan has been selected in Pakistan’s T20I squad for the first time. What led to this selection?
On Friday morning, the first Friday of June 2021, the PCB announced the squads for the upcoming tours of England and the West Indies. After the squad announcement, the usual proceedings followed. Social media was rife with discussion and debate about who did and didn’t deserve to be in the squad, why others were dropped, etc.
This is standard procedure after every squad announcement. Perhaps no one in the world loves discussing hypothetical lineups as much as Pakistanis. It’s only fitting that a squad announcement should result in such joy and outrage – take your pick. However, there was one narrative that we’ve seen repeatedly in Pakistan cricket taking center stage. That of the ‘parchi’ a.k.a. undeserving player picked due to family connections – allegedly Azam Khan.
Pakistan’s Middle Order Problems
It’s no secret that Pakistan’s T20I middle order has been struggling for a while. Pakistan’s batsmen between #4 and #6 over the past two years are striking at a terrible 114 with an average of under 20. They have failed to establish themselves at the crease while also struggling to score quick runs. Mohammad Hafeez has been the lone standout in the middle order; one shudders to think what the numbers would look like without him.
No less than 12 batsmen (other than Hafeez) have played multiple innings for Pakistan in these roles over the past two years, with practically all of them failing to make a mark. Khushdil Shah, Asif Ali, and Iftikhar Ahmed combined for 24 innings, with miserable outputs (barring a couple of notable knocks from Iftikhar). Danish Aziz was also tested and quickly discarded after some poor showings against pace bowling in particular.
What Pakistan Needs in the Middle Order
Not to sound like captain obvious, but make no mistake – Pakistan needs runs at a high scoring rate. That is to say that despite the middle order struggles, the Babar Azam-led side doesn’t have an issue with being bowled out. They have only been bowled out three times in 27 T20Is in the last two years. There are two reasons for this: Highly stable openers and excellent batting output from the ‘tail.’
With Babar Azam anchoring the innings from the top, Pakistan already had one stable opener. With the introduction of Mohammad Rizwan in late-2020, Pakistan’s two regular openers are now dismissed every 35-40 balls on average. That means that you can usually expect a good partnership, with potentially one opener going deep into the innings. Babar and Rizwan, however, do not score as fast as the best T20 openers in the world. But Pakistan doesn’t have any such resources at the moment, with Fakhar Zaman and Sharjeel Khan not really taking advantage of powerplay restrictions.
In a world where teams think of 180-200 totals as the norm and are concerned about having anchoring batsmen in their team at all, Pakistan has two anchors. In such a scenario, Pakistan needs attacking batsmen in the middle who can get going in quick time. Boundary hitters and six-hitters are of utmost importance. The problem with Pakistan’s recent middle order options hasn’t necessarily been their propensity to get dismissed. It’s their struggle to score fast. 10 (12) kills the innings in the middle order. On the contrary, 20 (12) usually keeps the momentum going (or re-injects it).
What should give the middle order batsmen the license to bat freely is the lower order. Pakistan’s batsmen from #7 to #9 consistently put up excellent numbers, comparable with the world’s top teams. The likes of Faheem Ashraf, Imad Wasim, Mohammad Nawaz, Hasan Ali, etc., are all capable of making useful contributions. Besides Imad, the others also have quite a decent track record of boundary-hitting in the death overs.
Azam Khan in T20 Cricket
When Quetta Gladiators first picked up Azam Khan, many (including yours truly) were skeptical of his selection. There is no doubt that much of that was influenced by his (lack of) fitness. The overweight batsman quickly became an easy target for social media memes. He made his debut in PSL 4, playing just one match. However, it was in PSL 5 that he made a strong impression with some impressive knocks, answering his critics in style. The standout thing about his PSL performances so far has been that he has scored at a good rate whenever he’s batted for a reasonable time.
Azam’s breakthrough season saw him represent the Gladiators’ sister franchises as well. First, he played for Galle Gladiators in the Lanka Premier League. Then, he participated in the Abu Dhabi T10 Cricket League, making an impression in both tournaments. Earlier, he had also been impressive in the 2020/21 National T20 Cup. Now, the 22-year-old has also been drafted by Barbados Tridents for the 2021 edition of the Caribbean Premier League later this year.
Azam is among the quickest scorers in the country at the start of the innings. Considering the other options in the current middle order, he is perfectly suited for the role of the fast-starting impact player that Pakistan needs. Moreover, his strike rate in the first 10 balls is 150+ when he starts batting in the 2nd half of the innings.
When it comes to the middle overs, Azam’s rate of scoring is by far the best in Pakistan. He finds boundary-hitting remarkably easy in the middle overs, and unlike some batsmen who take it easy after the powerplay until over #10, he maintains a good rate throughout. Hence, he offers a unique dimension to the team.
With the T20 World Cup likely to move to the UAE, striking ability against spin will be crucial. Key to Azam’s success in the middle overs is his scoring rate and boundary percentage against spin, among the best in the country once again.
Azam is one of the best six-hitters in the country, just short of Asif Ali who is the only one with over 10% sixes in T20 cricket. He also has a high rate of hitting fours, which combines for an excellent overall boundary rate of just under 24%.
- Like most high-impact batsmen who aren’t named AB de Villiers, Azam has a high dismissal rate against pace (being dismissed every 14-15 balls on average). This means that attacking pace is a very high-risk strategy. His ability against hard length and high pace is still up for debate, and further matches at the top level will show how well he can perform against the best bowlers in the world.
- A continuation of the first point is that Pakistan may view Azam as a death overs power hitter rather than seeing his utility in the middle overs. While there is no doubt about his power-hitting ability, most of Azam’s good work in T20s so far has come in the middle overs. While he does have some success at the death, he has only faced around 50 deliveries in overs 17-20, being dismissed 7 times.
- Most of Azam’s success so far has been outside the PSL. The PSL likely has the highest quality of bowling that he’s faced so far in his career, which is why most new Pakistani batsmen take some time to get going in it. In an ideal situation, Pakistan would want him to show more aptitude here before selecting him for the national team. However, few alternatives are remaining for the middle order.
When Pakistan includes a hard-hitting batsman in the team, the usual procedure is to put that batsman at #6 or even #7. Out of his 35 T20 innings so far, Azam has only batted at #6 four times, scoring just 55 runs, including two ducks. Batting position in itself is a volatile term in T20 cricket, with batsmen having to be far more adaptable to different situations.
Considering Pakistan’s current options, it looks like the ideal position for Azam Khan would be #4 or #5. However, this is entirely dependent on Mohammad Hafeez. The Professor has fairly average numbers against spin, while he has attacked pace with a lot of success in T20 cricket. Therefore, his game is most suited to number 6. But he doesn’t seem keen on moving down the order, which could mean that Azam may need to bat at #6 unless one of Fakhar Zaman or Haider Ali is discarded from the playing XI.
There is never any guarantee in professional sports, especially for a young player looking to make his way to the top level. Data and numbers can only paint a picture about a cricketer; he or she may go on to perform or not. That’s the nature of cricket, especially considering the role that Azam Khan plays for T20 teams. What can be said with certainty is that if Azam performs, he would be an asset for Pakistan.
Analysis and discussion should always revolve around facts, figures, and numbers, rather than conspiracy theories and hypothetical situations. Simply because Azam Khan comes from a high-profile cricketing family doesn’t mean that he has been selected out of the blue on the whim of a father or uncle’s wishes. Dig a little deeper, and the reasons for selection become crystal clear.
People need to read the room as well. Cricket fans and Pakistan team supporters are getting tired of stereotypical narratives and cliches regarding selection and performances. Constructive discussion and fact-based and logical arguments are the need of the hour. These are the only things that will interest a rational, objective person… if that’s the aim of the discourse, of course.