Pakistan back facing RizBabar conundrum ahead of World Cup 2024 – Sport

Once the duo inevitably resorts to cautious cricket, calls for change in opening order would not take long.

Hang on a minute. Don’t tell me you did not know it would be this way at this time of the year. Of course, the corresponding period was going to be utterly chaotic. But, you knew from the beginning it would be this way at this time of the year.

For the past six months, Pakistan have remained obsessed with the concept of experimentation. They tried all different shapes and forms of it.

An apparent lack of tactical astuteness? Change the captain.

Poor scoring rate in the powerplay? Change the top order.

Fast bowlers and spinners struggling for form? Get some retirees to unretire.

Then there was rotation, which concisely named the players on the nominations sheet in a new order every match. It remained in vogue in Pakistan over the last month.

Then came March 30 and, amidst the tumbling Pakistan batters and relentless drubbing of the bowlers in London’s early summer mizzle, the realisation that it all was for nothing.

It all began with the brave call to separate arguably most successful T20I opening pair ever to inject explosiveness at the top of the order.

It is widely believed that a side’s most successful batter(s) should face the maximum deliveries in T20 cricket. That’s why teams tend to slot the most consistent of the lot — take Jos Buttler for England, Virat Kohli for Royal Challengers Bengaluru or Travis Head for Sunriser Hyderabad — at the top.

Pakistan had been in a conundrum for the last few years. Mohammad Rizwan and Babar Azam have been the most consistent T20I batters for Pakistan, scoring 3,023 and 2,618 runs in this decade. No other Pakistan batter comes close to them.

Fakhar Zaman, the next best on the list, trails Babar by almost 1,500 runs. That’s understandable because of the nature of T20 cricket.

Fakhar Zaman had a slow start but finished with a 43 off 33.—AFP/File

Your top three get to face the most deliveries and that’s why they get to accumulate more runs. Because they face the most deliveries in some of the most belter scoring conditions with the ball new and hard and only two fielders guarding the boundary in the powerplay, scoring briskly becomes essential.

Rizwan and Babar average 50.22 as an opening pair. This figure underscores mind-boggling consistency. They have added 2,511 runs — the most for any first-wicket partnership.

Their partnerships, however, have been punctuated with risk aversion. They have erred towards caution; often leaving runs unscored in the powerplay, which has shadowed their stunning average.

Babar and Rizwan first opened for Pakistan on February 11, 2021, in Lahore and they would continue to do so regularly for the next two years, till 24 April 2023. During this phase, they scored 2,400 runs at a run rate of 7.92. Among the teams whose first-wicket partnerships have played at least 150 overs, Pakistan’s run rate is sixth behind England, South Africa, New Zealand, West Indies, and India — all of whom have scored at least 8.30 runs per over.

Qualification — at least 150 overs

In this period, Pakistan have tried five different opening partners. Their data is removed from the table to reflect only Rizwan and Babar’s in comparison to the other teams. The other four pairs for Pakistan in this period were Haider Ali-Rizwan (one innings, RR 8.27), Rizwan-Sharjeel Khan (three innings, RR 8.23), Babar-Mohammad Haris (one innings. RR 4.94), and Haris-Ayub (three innings, RR 4.44).

Pakistan decided to do something about the slower run rate and alternated Babar and Rizwan with young Saim Ayub. Pakistan, uncharacteristically, tried to make it work by giving a fairly long run to the youngster on the basis of his incredible success as an opener for Peshawar Zalmi in the last two PSLs. But, Ayub could never stretch domestic form in international cricket.

So, for the first time this year, out came Babar and Rizwan, together, at The Oval in the last England T20I on Friday to open the innings for Pakistan, once again. They had to do with the sheer pace of Mark Wood and Jofra Archer, two of the quickest and most feared bowlers in international cricket, on a fast and bouncy wicket under a persistent drizzle. It took them a couple of overs to adjust.

Babar Azam keeps the Pakistan inning chugging along after Saim Ayub fell.—PCB/File

Pakistan’s dressing room, especially Babar, had been calling for instilling that explosiveness, which has eluded their batting, since the defeat against Ireland. So, the pair took charge and scored at almost 10 an over before Babar was dismissed on the last powerplay ball with the scorecard reading 59-1. They attacked Wood and Archer and smashed Moeen Ali, the destroyer-in-chief from their last meeting at Edgbaston, for a towering six and a deft four.

Babar and Rizwan have had a decent year. Before Friday’s match, Babar scored at 141.40 and hit fifty almost every second inning as he had breached the 50-run mark six times in 13 innings. Rizwan’s strike rate had also jumped — from 128.17 to 133.91. But, it was his staggering average of 54.71 that attracted everyone’s attention.

If they could do it now, why did not they do it before? The subsequent collapse answered that question. Either it has often been the case of openers clicking or Pakistan’s batting crumbling apart, courtesy of a fragile middle-order. Pakistan found themselves five down for 86 soon and were folded for a mere 157 with a ball spare.

England made a mockery out of the score and chased it down with 4.3 overs remaining.

It is worth looking at the averages and strike rates of the batters to have batted in the middle order in the aforementioned period. The numbers underscore the reason behind the conservative approach from Rizwan and Babar.

It is certain Pakistan will open with Babar and Rizwan when their campaign begins on Thursday against the USA in Dallas. The two lived up to the expectations (and to their words) with their sparkling powerplay knocks in the last match. Babar scored his 36 at 164 and Rizwan made his 24 at 144. But, how long will it be before they resort to being conservative to arrest impending collapses? Especially, after the recent collapse.

Pakistan are back to the very conundrum they resolved to find a solution for at the start of this year. Don’t tell me you did not see it ending this way.


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