AnalysisPakistan’s ‘FIB’ulous Top-Order Making Heads Turn In ODI Cricket

Pakistan’s ‘FIB’ulous Top-Order Making Heads Turn In ODI Cricket

Fakhar, Imam, and Babar have been in red-hot ODI form of late and have been contributing heftily to the team’s cause.

Pakistan’s top-order scored 87% of the team’s runs, barring extras, in the recently concluded ODI series against Australia. The trio of Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq, and Babar Azam put together 676 runs in the three-match series, averaging a staggering 96.6 and striking at nearly 103. This is the second-highest runs tally by a team’s top-order in a three-match ODI series.

But this is not the first time these three have come together to wreak havoc on the opposition. Earlier last year, they put the South African bowlers to the sword in the latter’s own backyard, compiling 662 runs at 73.6 and striking at 101 – the third-highest runs tally by any top-order in a three-match series.

In fact, if we glimpse across the board and see how Pakistan’s top three have fared compared to the rest of the teams’, it’s quite clear that Pakistan’s top-order has done fairly well during this period. Despite playing lesser matches than England and South Africa and even West Indies, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, Pakistan’s top three have scored significantly more at an average of just over 50. There have been 26 top-order hundreds from Pakistan in this period, which is the 2nd highest tally following India’s 36.

In the previous graphic, it could perhaps be argued that despite averaging in excess of 50, the combined strike rate of Pakistan’s top three could have been better. Well, they have shown substantial improvement in that regard ever since the 2019 World Cup. In the 14 matches that Pakistan have played since the mega-event, the top-order (primarily comprising of Fakhar, Imam, and Babar) has struck at 96.7 (better than India and Australia and slightly behind England’s 99.2) without compromising on the stellar average of 61.4 (no other top three in this period have averaged more than 47). They have been head and shoulders above every other team.

Just how heftily have Pakistan’s top three contributed to the team’s cause since Imam’s debut is quantified in the bar plot above. This, more than anything else, illustrates the central role that Fakhar, Imam, and Babar have assumed as far as Pakistan’s ODI batting is concerned.

While there have been other players who have played in the top three for Pakistan during this period, it’s this world-beating trio that has now etched its permanent spot in the side, at least for the near future. Haris Sohail promised a lot at number 3 but he has had his issues with recurrent injuries. Abid Ali has faded away from the limelight of white-ball cricket with his cardiac health a cause of concern as well. Shan Masood has done fairly well in recent times but he’s still very much a backup option, for now, as Imam has taken center stage and performed superbly to cement his place.

Pakistan’s top-order has been exceptional in the last three-and-a-half years when it comes to batting first. They have the 2nd-best combined average and 3rd-best combined strike rate during this timeframe when setting up totals.

Babar is just behind England’s bashing opening pair of Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow when it comes to strike rate. But the Pakistan captain has a better average of 56.4, 2nd best on the list after Virat Kohli. Imam, on the other hand, has 6 hundreds to his name when Pakistan is batting first which is the joint-second highest tally in this period. His strike rate is just under 85 which is decently complimented by Fakhar’s 90.4. All these numbers suggest is potency and consistency.

As far as chasing targets is concerned, Pakistan’s top three keep piling up runs upon runs – averaging in excess of 50 with 13 top-order 100s and 21 top-order 50s in 33 matches during this period. There is definitely a margin for improvement in the strike rate column which reads 87.7 but, as we shall find out below, there have been some significant enhancements in that regard in recent times.

Among top-order batsmen who have scored a minimum of 300 runs batting second in ODI cricket since the World Cup, Babar Azam has the highest average (94.6) and the second-highest strike rate (102.3) with 4 hundreds in 9 matches. This is an astonishing record. Imam, too, has shown monumental improvement in terms of his scoring rate in run chases. Since the mega-event, he’s averaging 61.0 in the 2nd innings with a strike rate of 95.1. The ODI series versus Australia was a perfect depiction of this where Imam scored 298 runs during run-chases and maintained a terrific strike rate of 101.7. Imam scoring big runs and scoring them at a quicker rate coupled with Fakhar’s belligerence and Babar’s consistency adds a whole new dimension to Pakistan’s already red-hot top-order.

Babar has just been a different beast altogether since the last World Cup in 2019. Against pace-bowling, he has had the second-highest strike rate (107.0), just short of Bairstow’s who is one of the most destructive batsmen in limited-overs cricket. This, while averaging 52.8 against the pacemen. Both Imam and Fakhar have strike rates less than 90 against pace since the ICC event but Imam has a far more superior average of 59.3.

Over on the spin-bowling side, the results are even more skewed. With flat belters being prepared for white-ball cricket across the globe and one less fielder allowed outside the 30 yards during the middle phases of ODIs, spinners have even less leeway nowadays. Their economy rates and bowling averages are rising and spin-playing maestros like Babar are feeding on these vulnerabilities. Since the 2019 World Cup, he has been dismissed only once by spinners, averaging a barely believable 467.0 and striking at a remarkable 103.8 against them. Imam, too, averages 54.6 and strikes at nearly 95 against spinners during this period. Fakhar, who misses out on the list by 32 runs, has a similar record: 218 runs @72.7 with a strike rate of 98.2. Pakistan’s top-order has been merciless in their run-making spree against spin.

It’s almost refreshing to see Pakistan batsmen dominating international batting numbers. Babar has solidified his position atop the ICC Men’s ODI Batting Rankings and is now 80 rating points clear of Kohli. Imam has recently broken into the top three whereas Fakhar is looming at 12th, probably a couple of big innings away from barging into the top ten. Pakistan have lots of ODI cricket left in the tank before the 2023 World Cup. If they can put together a decent middle-order followed by a lower-order that bats deep and can crank it up at the rear-end of the innings, they could become a fearsome ODI unit provided the bountiful resources they have in their bowling department.

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