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Pakistan’s Superb Start

Ben Jones takes a look at the excellent start to the T20 World Cup from Babar Azam’s side.

Two matches, two wins. Two rivals for the semi-final spots defeated. Too far to go to get excited – yet, here we are.

Pakistan have started the 2021 T20 World Cup like a runaway train. The victory over India on the opening night of the Super 12 stage set the tournament aflame, the favourites for the trophy rolled over by their closest rivals; 48 hours later, a low-scoring scrap saw Pakistan just about dispatch a New Zealand side underpowered with both bat and ball. Sum total: two games, four points. 

There are plenty of reasons to be cautious about this early success. In both matches, Babar Azam’s side have fallen behind after taking a strong early position. Against India, they stumbled with the ball in the second half of the innings, and against New Zealand their middle order was less than clinical. However there have been key, subtle tactical shifts which make you think, tentatively, that this is sustainable. 

Shaheen Shah Afridi, a proven Powerplay star as detailed on this site, has been used in a far more effective role than previously, bowling the 1st and 3rd overs of the innings, rather than the 2nd and 4th. As shown below, the movement on offer in the first over of a T20 innings is almost double what’s there in the second, and you need only ask KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma what can happen when Shaheen has a full range of lateral movement at his fingertips. In a game like T20, the sport shrunk down to it’s smallest acceptable form, the margin for tactical error follows suit; giving your new ball bowler just six of the first 18 deliveries, rather than 12 of the first 18, is a foolish mistake but one too large a group of teams make. Pakistan have taken themselves out of that group. 

Haris Rauf’s record is not outstanding on paper, but it’s easy to forget he’s still far more inexperienced than many other bowlers of his age. He’s still learning his game at the top level, and captains around the world are still working out his best role. At time in the last 12 months Pakistan have used Rauf as an all-phase option, but so far his World Cup role has been almost DJ Bravo-esque – with a few extra kph thrown in for good measure. Rauf has bowled 48 deliveries in the last two matches, and 42 have come after the 10th over; by backloading him, Pakistan are getting the best out of a man with a T20I death economy of just 7.9rpo. Shaheen’s Powerplay genius makes it easier, but this move has paid dividend so far, with Rauf the best performing Pakistan bowler according to Bowling Impact.

There have been encouraging signs of instinctive, reactive captaincy on Babar Azam’s part. When New Zealand promoted Jimmy Neesham into the middle order yesterday – on the face of it, to take down Shadab Khan and Imad Wasim – the obvious move was to bring in Mohammed Hafeez. Yet some may have been spooked by Kane Williamson’s presence at the crease, given him being a right-hander and a “good player of spin”, and may have been reluctant to bowl the borderline part-time off spinner without the safety net of two left-handers at the crease – a luxury which might not have been far away, given Devon Conway was lurking just behind. Babar took the aggressive option, focusing on the more dangerous hitter, and Hafeez yanked Neesham out with his first ball.

Similarly, Pakistan have run into some far from ideal tactical choices from the opposition in these opening two matches. Of the first 36 balls Imad Wasim has bowled at this World Cup, just one has been faced by a left-hander, despite both New Zealand and India having plenty of left-handed batting options in either their starting XI, or in their squad. In T20Is, Imad goes at less than a run-a-ball against right-handed batsmen, but 7.5rpo against left-handers. Teams don’t have to disrupt this usage to beat Pakistan – matchups are not everything – but a run of RHB at the top of the order certainly makes it easier for Babar to manage his attack.

There are areas in which they have not been tested yet, and where they have had more than their fair share of good fortune. Shaheen’s early overs have either been utterly destructive, or have induced a nervousness in the opposition which has limited their attacking intent in the Powerplay phase. In a Super 12 stage where every match has been won by the toss-winning team, Babar twice calling correctly has been hugely influential. Their catching has been solid, but their ground fielding has been sufficiently flawed that by CricViz metrics it’s a net-negative to the performances. Hasan Ali’s form has been excellent this year, but he’s started the tournament itself poorly; Mohammad Hasnain’s removal from the main squad has left the talented but inexperienced Mohammed Wasim as the only alternative seamer. Should Hasan’s numbers continue at this level, Pakistan have limited options to change things up.

Enough caution though. This is, in many ways, a new Pakistan. It’s a Pakistan team built on the success of the PSL, a tournament which was less than one year old when the last T20 World Cup took place. It’s perhaps a more nuanced, subtle version of the teams we have seen at other tournaments, perhaps even the one which won the whole damn thing in 2009. 

But this team still retains enough of the Classic Pakistan, that “mercurial” spirit which lifted them from wherever they were, to wherever they wanted to be. Regardless of the reasoning behind New Zealand’s decision to withdraw from the tour of Pakistan last month, you’d be naive to suggest it didn’t add an extra spice to today’s contest; should either England or Pakistan themselves stumble to the extent they meet in a semi-final, then expect that spice to increase considerably, and then yet more again should that meeting come in the final of the entire competition. It’s early days in this tournament, but there’s enough of the old days in Pakistan’s performance to fire the innovation and modernity on which their success could well be built.

As it stands, according to our model Pakistan has an 81% chance of progressing through to the semi-finals stage. It makes sense, given they have an encouraging net run rate and have beaten two of the three serious competitors for one of those spots. The main obstacle between them and a 100% record in the Super 12s is Afghanistan, a mightily talented team who have a very reasonable dart at making the knockouts themselves, but who should – on paper at least – be defeated. It’s this sort of cold, logical, terrifyingly blunt reasoning which leads the model to give Pakistan a 21% chance of winning the tournament itself, making them the favourites to take the title. 

Is that putting pressure on the team? Yes, unequivocally. As it stands, they are better placed to win the World Cup than any other team – in no world can that be interpreted as smoothing things over, or encouraging a climate of gentle focus. But pressure is a privilege, and right now, it’s a privilege they have emphatically earned. 

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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