CricViz analyst Freddie Wilde identifies five talking points to look out for in England’s T20 series v Pakistan.
How will England structure the top order without Roy and Buttler?
The absence of Jos Buttler due to being in the bio-secure Test bubble and Jason Roy due to injury means England will be without their two first choice openers. It will be interesting to see how England set up at the top of the order with Buttler and Roy’s absence likely to provide opportunities to Dawid Malan, Tom Banton, Joe Denly and potentially Liam Livingstone. With England’s batting at full strength—as it was in South Africa—Jonny Bairstow batted at number three. If England are set on maintaining that for the World Cup then keeping Bairstow at three for this series would give him the best opportunity to become familiar with the role. The absence of Buttler and Roy may encourage England to promote Bairstow but opening and batting at three are subtly different challenges.
Can England identify their seventh batsman?
Again, if we are to use the South Africa series, with England’s batting at full strength, as being illustrative of their strategic thinking for the World Cup then they are likely to structure their side with Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes as their fifth bowler meaning they have a spot in their top seven for a batsman. Exactly who that batsman will be remains unclear. In South Africa England used Dawid Malan and Joe Denly in this position but now also have Banton, Livingstone, Lewis Gregory and Sam Billings in the squad and with Buttler, Roy and Stokes missing from this series most, and possibly all, of these batsmen are likely to get game-time and push for that last spot in the top seven.
Can England find a Powerplay wicket-taker?
Perhaps the clearest weakness with England’s T20 team is their impotency in the Powerplay phase. Early wickets in T20 cricket are so valuable but England’s bowling attack have struggled to make early breakthroughs with most of their pace bowlers exhibiting a death-over preference. Chris Jordan and Tom Curran are both death overs specialists, Jofra Archer is a bowler of supreme skill and can operate in all three phases of the innings but in the Powerplay is more of a run-saver than a wicket-taker with his natural attacking length of around 8 to 9 metres more suited to enforcing through the middle overs rather than finding new ball swing. Mark Wood is perhaps England’s only pace bowler who prefers the Powerplay to the death overs but he too is not a classical swinger and is just an out and out quick bowler. Adil Rashid is a spinner who operates almost exclusively through the middle overs but off spinner Moeen does provide a Powerplay spin option against left-handers. This was something they utilised against Quinton de Kock in the South Africa series and may do again against Fakhar Zaman in this series. However, across that series England took just one Powerplay wicket across the three matches and since the last World Cup their strike rate in the phase is the fifth worst in the world.
England will be without Wood for this series due to him being in the red ball bubble in this series they do have David Willey and Saqib Mahmood in the squad – two bowlers who could offer solutions to England’s Powerplay wicket-taking problem.
Willey appeared to slide out of favour from England’s white ball plans after Archer replaced him in England’s World Cup squad and Sam Curran and Mahmood were preferred in England’s T20 squad for the tour of New Zealand last winter. However, Sam Curran being in the red ball bubble appeared to open up a slot for a left-arm swing bowler in the white ball squads and Willey made a successful return to the England fold in the ODI series against Ireland, picking up eight wickets across the three matches. Quite quickly he has found himself back in the frame and his method of pitching the ball up and looking for early movement is something only Sam Curran also offers and he has struggled to make an impact in white ball cricket for England so far. Quite suddenly Willey finds himself with a genuine opportunity to push for that specific role in England’s side. Willey’s pedigree for the role is better than most in the world, indeed no bowler in T20 history has taken more Powerplay wickets than Willey at a lower strike rate.
Mahmood is far nearer the start of his career than Willey but his raw materials: good pace – he touched 140 kph in the Ireland ODIs, and the ability to swing the ball, make him well suited to the first six overs as well.
Can Pakistan improve their power-hitting?
Since the T20 World Cup no ICC Full Member team have hit sixes less often than Pakistan. Their balls per six of 28 is the worst in the world.
The PCB have recognised this as something to remedy and encouraged the production of flat pitches and small boundaries in the most recent Pakistan Super League not only to attract crowds and viewers but because they acknowledged the national side needed more power-hitters. Well, the PSL threw up two such players and both of them now find themselves in Pakistan’s squad for this series: the 19 year-old Haider Ali, who also impressed during the World Cup, and the 25 year-old left-handed finisher Khushdil Shah. Haider drew flattering comparisons with Kevin Pietersen during the PSL thanks to his power, height and stance while Khushdil combines down the ground power with 360° range.
With Asif Ali—Pakistan’s most powerful batsman according to CricViz metrics—seemingly out of favour, it will be exciting to see whether Haider and Khushdil can help solve Pakistan’s six-hitting problem.
Where will Shadab Khan bat?
It will be interesting to see where Shadab Khan bats for Pakistan. Before this year’s PSL Shadab had played 88% of his innings for Islamabad United outside the top four but this season he played six of his nine innings at three of four and offered real impetus through the middle overs, scoring 263 runs at a strike rate of 159.
Freddie Wilde is a CricViz analyst, @fwildecricket.