Pakistan chased down a whopping 182-run target against India in the crucial Super 4 round match on Sunday. Their formula was simple enough. Of the top two, one focused on anchoring the innings, while the others scored quickly to close in on the the total.
In fact, this has been the winning formula driving Pakistan’s resurgence in the shortest format of the game. Since the start of the 2021 T20 World Cup, Pakistan have played 15 games and lost only three.
While the results are impressive, it may be interesting to note that Pakistan’s losses have come on days where they had to bat first – two of those on bigger stages – the T20 WC semi-final and the Asia Cup.
This may be a rudimentary note, but doesn’t it seem like more accomplished teams like Australia and India have figured out Pakistan’s playbook?
As a result, they do not hesitate to launch a full-throttle attack on the top order, squeezing runs, knowing that the middle order’s lack of exposure will put them under pressure. So far – the tactic seems to have worked.
The same happened during the first T20I against India in August.
Pakistan lost Babar and Fakhar within the power play, and Rizwan struggled to lend the innings momentum in collaboration with the middle order. His strike rate was below 100 for parts of his innings before he was dismissed in the 15th over for a 42-ball 43.
Even Pakistan’s bowling line-up - one of the fiercest in the world - remained unable to defend the total, probably because there were not enough runs on the scoreboard.
So, who gets to decide what’s a par total batting first? Generally, it’s the top order that gets to set the tone for the innings. However, stats prove that Pakistan’s top order bats slower in the first innings as compared to the second.
Since 2021, Babar’s strike rate is 126.29 batting first and 132.48 batting second. Rizwan, somewhat plays at a monotonous rate, with his strike rate going from 131.15 in the first innings to 132.36 in the second.
Consistent but cautious
There is no denying the fact that the dream Babar-Rizwan pair has brought much-needed stability to the top order. However, it seems to have come at the cost of runs and strike rate.
Before the start of the Asia Cup, Rizwan, Babar and Fakhar collectively accounted for nearly 67.5% of Pakistan's runs since the start of the 2021 T20 World Cup. No other top three players have attained even 60% of deliveries internationally.
While that has its advantages, there are drawbacks too.
Despite being the most consistent, Pakistan’s top order also has the largest negative variance - about 4.5% - for any top three between runs scored and balls faced in that period.
In comparison, South Africa's top three are at the second least productive, facing 3.5% more balls than the runs they score, but unlike Pakistan, they do leave 51.3% of balls for the middle order to make up the shortfall.
Powerplay strike rate
The top order rarely allows the middle order in early, and almost never in the power play, where the intent has been most notably lacking.
Since 2021, when the Babar-Rizwan pairing surged at T20 openers, Pakistan’s strike rate in the power plays has been 114.85, which is one of the lowest. Even Ireland, and Afghanistan, have better power play strike rates.
While Pakistan generally do not mind Babar and Rizwan opening in a chase, it can be very exasperating to see the openers consuming vast numbers of deliveries in the first innings. For all his qualities, Babar has not quite proven himself to be the best judge of what a good first-innings score is, and if he has, his ability to bat accordingly is questionable.
In contrast, Pakistan's middle and lower-middle order are more effective when they bat first.
During the clash with Hong Kong, Pakistan sent Khushdil Shah at number four. He batted freely and scored 35 off just 15 balls, scoring at a rate of 233.33.
The method has been the same lately. Since the last World Cup, Pakistani batters between number 4 and 8 managed a strike rate of 161 in such situations, the highest in the world. That number drops to 142.19 when Pakistan chase, the second highest after India.
These numbers show that Pakistan have more runs available in their lineup, but refusing to score them, and missing out on a massive opportunity.
Now, with ten more games to go before the start of the next T20 World Cup, Babar Azam's men have the opportunity to learn a lesson and figure out an effective formula for batting first. And they have Wednesday's game against Afghanistan to test it.
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