Dublin dilemma: Should Pakistan go back to Babar and Rizwan as openers? – Sport

They may want to bring Fakhar to open, but with him flourishing in his new role, would it make sense to change his batting position again?

It would not be Pakistan cricket if it were elaborate, calculated, and structured. There has to be an element of uncertainty. It is, after all, that “mercurial” tag that makes Pakistan cricket so intoxicating.

How else would you define a side that suffered a shocking loss to a team that rarely plays against bigger nations and, despite all its promise, ranked outside the top 10 in the format before pouncing back with dominating wins following a template it vowed not to?

Pakistan’s cricket discourse has been (and will continue to be until the T20 World Cup next month) dominated by numbers.

Numbers that reflect how quickly a batsman scores. Numbers that suggest what number and in what phase a batsman is more successful than others are. And, many a times, numbers that reflect how Pakistan have been falling behind in the scoring rates against teams around the world.

These numbers have often been thrown at Pakistan players and coaches in press conferences. They have been backed with fancy words like “anchor”, “finisher”, “power-hitter”, “low-value wicket” and “high-value wicket”, but the most concession that the throwers have gotten in return is the admission that the team often leave some runs in the middle.

The numbers, of course, reflect an inherent flaw in the approach towards the demanding format that is T20, which by no means is an adaptation of the one-day format. Soon, it reflected in the results. The philosophy and the template, nonetheless, remained the same as, Pakistan, in a format that has rapidly transformed into a contest of outscoring the opposition, with audacious batting becoming the very essence of it, have relied on poise and elegance.

It was not until the start of this year that Pakistan decided to do something about it. The pair of Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan, two of the most successful batters in the format, have scored heaps of runs for Pakistan together as openers. 2,400, to be precise, at a remarkable average of 49. No other opening pair in T20Is come close. The second best — India’s Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan — stands almost 700 runs away at 1,743 at 33.51.

It has often been a surreal partnership. It has given cricket those prodigious moments on which sports thrive. Remember that epic 152-0 against India in format’s biggest stage? The two had done wonders when chasing the targets, it was just that their scoring rates weren’t at the desired rates when Pakistan had to set the totals. Take for example this stat: since the 2022 T20 World Cup, Pakistan’s scoring rate when batting first is 8.08 and batting second is 9.28.

So, Pakistan decided to do away with the template of starting cautiously, building in the middle, and going berserk in death. It was going to be bang, bang right from the beginning as teams around the world are doing.

Saim Ayub was a natural choice. This young left-hander had upended games with his ferocious, yet gorgeous, shots in domestic tournaments and the Pakistan Super League. That he scored heaps in the first class recently underscored his solid technique. He was even given a Test debut in Australia. But, in T20Is, he never clicked in the way Pakistan hoped he would.

Saim has opened in 11 consecutive T20Is, since the start of this year, with Mohammad Rizwan and Babar Azam rotating as his partners, and has only been able to score 161 at an average of 14.63 and a strike rate of 137.60. His overall numbers in T20Is, since his debut in March 2023, have also been underwhelming — 284 runs in 18 innings at an average of 15.77 and a strike rate of 130.87. It can be tough to replicate the returns of domestic or league cricket in the international arena right away. The demands and toil of international cricket are unparalleled. There is a palpable gap between international cricket and domestic cricket/leagues around the world. So, no matter how hard you prepare yourself for the ultimate challenge, you, more often than not, find yourself lacking in preparation when you set foot in international cricket.

Saim Ayub struck a quick 22-ball 32 before falling just after the powerplay.—PCB/File

Pakistan backed Saim to the hilt and persisted with him at the top of the order. That rarely happens with youngsters in Pakistan. Even against New Zealand at home last month, when Pakistan extensively rotated players, they continued to open with Saim. Ireland was supposed to be Saim’s arrival on the international stage. He got going in the first match, thundering his way to 45 in 29 balls after a jittery start, but failed to build on it, scoring 20 off 16 balls across the next two matches.

Saim’s promotion to the top of the order had knock-on effects on the rest of the top four. It pushed Fakhar Zaman further down to number four and moved Babar to one drop.

There have been attempts to utilise Fakhar’s big-hitting abilities in the middle order, but none of them proved to be as successful as this time. Since being asked to bat at four, Fakhar has hit a fifty every third innings and accumulated 328 runs at a scintillating 154.71 strike rate. That’s 22.31 runs better than his career strike rate. His average has also hiked by almost 13 runs.

Bengaluru: Fakhar Zaman celebrates after scoring a century during the World Cup match against New Zealand at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium.—AFP/File

Though Babar has batted at number three and in the middle order at the start of his career, since April 2018, the Pakistan captain had permanently moved up the order. There had been sporadic instances in 2021 when he moved to number three, then also in the hope of Pakistan finding an explosive opener.

This year, he has batted at three in eight of the 12 innings. He has scored 345 runs at a strike rate of 144.35, which is almost 25 runs better than his career’s, and struck five fifties. His average in these eight innings has been 43.12. In the four innings in which Babar opened, he scored 14 at 108, 37 at 128, 5 at 125, and 69 at 157.

But, a strike rate of almost 145 and an average of 43 reflect consistent solid scores at the brisk rate that Pakistan had longed, especially the latter bit.

Pakistan had been hoping to put their combinations in order since last month. But, in terms of top order, each match seems to have left them with more questions than answers. With only four games out of the World Cup and Saim struggling to hit form, they may be tempted to alter the opening pair. They may want to replace him with the experience of Babar and Fakhar, but with the two flourishing in their new roles, would it make sense to change their batting positions again?

A file photo of former Pakistan cricket team skipper Babar Azam. — AFP

They may be tempted to use the firepower of Usman Khan at the top of the order, but is it the risk worth taking so close to the World Cup?

MULTAN Sultans batter Usman Khan plays a stroke as Lahore Qalandars wicket-keeper Sahibzada Farhan looks on during their match at the Gaddafi Stadium on Tuesday.—M.Arif/White Star/File

It wouldn’t be fun if there was an answer.

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