REACHING THE TOP
Pakistan’s bowling has remained as sharp as it has been during any purple patch in their history. © Getty
When Pakistan beat Australia in the final of the tri-series in Harare last Sunday, it was only the second time they beat Australia in a final across formats. The last time it happened, only three members of the playing XI on Sunday were born then – captain Sarfraz Ahmed, the man who anchored the chase Shoaib Malik and Player of the Match Fakhar Zaman, who was just 24 days old. The win might have taken 28 years to arrive, but anyone who has been following Pakistan’s white ball cricket off late wouldn’t be surprised. In fact, they have been on a roll in the shortest format in the last two years ascending to the top of the rankings earlier this year.
While their fortunes have fluctuated in the longer formats, they have been a force to reckon in 20-over cricket thanks to the new crop of players that have arrived on the back of their exploits in the Pakistan Super League. The tide started after an indifferent showing in the World T20 in India in 2016 when they failed to progress from the league stage with their solitary win coming against Bangladesh. The think-tank decided to blood in youngsters with seniors Umar Akmal, Mohammad Hafeez, Shahid Afridi all being shown the door. The move has bore fruit as the results suggests – 23 wins and four losses across nine series, winning all nine.
Pakistan in T20Is post WT20 2016
Pakistan were one of the top sides initially in the shortest format and were the only team to finish in the top four, including two finals, in each of the first four World T20s. Till August 2013, Pakistan’s win percentage of 63.38 from 71 matches was the best for any side in the world. They always possessed a handful of match winners with the ball and they were the chief architects of their wins in this phase. Their bowling average of 20.07 and economy rate of 6.87 were the best among the Full Member sides and despite a mediocre batting average of 21.17, they had a positive difference between bat and bowl which was only behind that of Australia.
T20 cricket was emerging with extensive data analysis coming into it. Players became specialists at various phases of the game, mystery spinners evolved, batsmen striking at 150-plus was more of a norm than exception and the average totals were ever on the rise. It was here that Pakistan got left behind from the rest of the pack. Their T20I side was an extension of their ODI side with hardly any T20 specialists emerging. In the period between September 2013 to the World T20 in 2016, their fortunes plummeted in the format losing more games than winning (16 wins to 19 defeats). Their win percentage in this phase was only ahead of Zimbabwe and Bangladesh among the Full Member sides.
Pakistan’s T20I journey
Jan 2006 – Aug 2013
Sep 2013 – Mar 2016
Jul 2016 – present
Stability being the key
While the decision to blood in youngsters post the WT20 2016 debacle was enterprising, the mandate to give them an extensive run was the key. Out of the six players who made their debut between July 2016 and December 2017, five of them have played more than 15 matches and have formed a solid core alongside the veterans Shoaib Malik, Sarfraz Ahmed and Mohammad Amir. The five are Hasan Ali, Babar Azam, Shadab Khan, Zaman and Fahim Ashraf. Hussain Talat and Asif Ali, who made their debut in the first match of the home series against Windies, went on to play all the matches since. To bring in perspective, Pakistan handed out caps to 14 players in the period between September 2013 and June 2016 and only one among them – Imad Wasim – has so far featured in 20-plus matches, while nine of them played fewer than ten games.
While it would be too early to entirely accredit PSL for Pakistan’s ascent in T20Is, there’s enough evidence to testify Pakistan’s 20-over cricket is enriched with the talent pool graduating through PSL. The opportunity to rub shoulders with the world’s best players have benefitted the youngsters in a big away. The rise of Zaman as their batting superstar in two big finals is a strong indicator that they are not overwhelmed by the big occasions as their predecessors were often used to.
Malik has been a vital cog in the Pakistan batting lineup. © Cricbuzz
The redemption in batting
The bowling numbers for Pakistan is uncannily similar during their two successful phases – average of 20.07 to 20.16 and economy rate of 6.87 to 6.96. However, the biggest change has come in their batting. Their batsman strike at 131.75 since July 2016 compared to just 116.81 till August 2013 and 118.41 from that September till WT20 2016. Although their strike rate is some way behind the leaders Australia (145.23) but it’s a marked improvement for Pakistan compared to its past.
In the last two years, Pakistan have made several strides up in their batting as the following facts testify. They have equaled their highest total in the format which they set a decade ago and went past it the very next day. It was the first time Pakistan scored 200-plus totals in back-to-back T20Is. In the last match of the series, they became the only side to post 175-plus in four consecutive T20Is. Last Sunday, they had successfully chased down a target greater than 180 for the first time in their T20I history of 133 matches.
Batting and bowling
|Period||Bat Avg||Bowl Avg||Diff||Rank||SR||ER|
|Jan 2006 – Aug 2013||21.17||20.07||1.10||2||116.81||6.87|
|Sep 2013 – Mar 2016||20.21||28.79||-8.58||18||118.41||7.63|
|Jul 2016 – present||31.24||20.16||11.07||1||131.75||6.96|
Zaman’s emergence meant an addition of firepower which Pakistan have badly required at the top of the order. Asif Ali, who had the highest strike rate among Pakistani batsmen in PSL 2018 with 169.04 including a match-winning six-ball 26 in the final, is a potent force down the order along with skipper Sarfaraz. But the man who holds the entire batting together has been the old warhorse Malik who rediscovered his mojo in white ball cricket after he retired from Test cricket late in 2015. In the last two years, he has aggregated 653 runs from 22 innings at an average of 59.36 coupled with a strike rate of 152.21, compared to 26.69 and 113.18 prior to that.
On the other hand, bowling has remained as sharp as it has been during any purple patch in Pakistan’s history. While it has been Amir and Imad that tie down opponents in the Powerplay, Shadab and Hasan Ali chip in by making regular dents in the opposition lineup during the middle overs. Imad is the leading wicket taker in the first six overs with nine wickets, conceding at just over a-run-a-ball. Mohammad Nawaz (5.20), Rumman Raees (5.12), Amir (5.88) and Sohail Tanvir (5.87) have all been difficult to put away and as a result, their economy rate in the first six is a miserly 6.55, way better than next placed India’s 8.01. Shadab is the leading wicket taker among all teams in the middle phase taking 30 scalps at 18.86, conceding at less than seven an over (6.83). Amir has proved deadly at the death taking 14 wickets at 9.14 with an economy rate of 6.73.
Together they have hunted as a pack and sit comfortably on top of the bowling charts. Pakistan pacers possess the best average and strike rate among all teams while their numbers in spin department are dwarfed only by Afghanistan, thanks largely to Rashid Khan’s feats and the quality, or the lack of it, of the opponents they get to face.
Pakistan – Spin & pace since July 2016
The next WT20 is still two years away, but Pakistan’s resurgence in T20Is will mean no one can take them lightly in the upcoming 50-over World Cup. A strong core is being formed in white ball cricket which can surprise many as we have witnessed in the Champions Trophy last year. They have won a record nine series in a row and deservedly sit on top of the T20I rankings. With the bowling riches at their disposal, it would take some effort for others to break the winning run.