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Shaheen Shah Afridi – New Ball Superstar

Ben Jones analyses Shaheen’s Powerplay excellence, and reflects on his potential role in the World Cup.

In the lead-up to this tournament, much of the talk has been about “maximising the Powerplay”. The UAE has the lowest run rate of any country for T20 cricket since the last World Cup, and scoring briskly with fielders on the fence is a tall order, so the emphasis placed on those opening overs – when the the field is up – is even greater. We would expect to see players coming out with even greater intent, taking risks greater than usual, giving the bowlers more opportunities for wickets than we’re used to seeing in exchange for some early batting impetus.

If that is indeed how things play out, then one man is in pole position to dominate across the coming weeks. As the best new ball wicket-taker in T20 cricket, Shaheen Shah Afridi stands as the biggest obstacle to teams making the most of those early overs. In the last three years, nobody in the game has taken more Powerplay wickets than the Pakistan left-armer, and none of those with even a faintly comparable total can match his remarkable strike rate. When it comes to top order incisions, and the necessary break that they apply to the scoring rate, nobody can match Shaheen.

When you imagine the dream Shaheen delivery, we all see the same ball; straight, swinging, full, clattering into the stumps. Textbook. That stumble into which a batsman collapses, as they resign themselves to their fate, falling to off as Shaheen sprints in celebration. Yet analytically, what’s interesting is that Shaheen doesn’t actually swing the new ball that much. His average Powerplay swing in T20 is 0.9 degrees, a substantial amount compared to T20 bowlers more generally – and more than enough to deceive – but mid ranking among the new ball specialists who make it their job to swing the ball up top. What marks Shaheen out, among those new ball aggressors, is twofold. 

One – Shaheen is just so much quicker than the rest of them. His average Powerplay speed is 137kph, at least 7-8kph faster than those moving the ball a comparable amount, reducing the reaction time available to even the most alert and talented batsmen. When you’re hurrying players, a little swing goes a long way. And two – he bowls terrifyingly, giddyingly, magnificently full. Shaheen’s length in the Powerplay is just 6.4m from the batting stumps, with 41% of his deliveries in the “full” zone. No other seamer in the world bowls fuller. No other quick embraces the pumped up compromise of pitching it up,  accepting the risk and demanding the reward, as much as Shaheen. Full, swinging, quicker than he has any right to be. It’s a potent combination.

And so, to tonight, and the play-within-a-play that is India v Pakistan. When Shaheen takes the new ball, facing down KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma – two of the best T20 openers in the world – we could be in for something rather special. Rahul has never faced a delivery from Shaheen in any form of cricket, and Rohit Sharma’s experience is limited to 19 balls in the 2018 (ODI) Asia Cup, a different format with different technical challenges, and well before Shaheen became the phenomenon he soon would be. Rahul has an excellent record against left-arm pace, and while Rohit’s is far more middling it’s still far from poor. For all three at the crease, Sunday night in Dubai will be a period of rapid acclimatization.

Generally, a third of Shaheen’s deliveries swing left, a third swing right, and a third go straight on, and while the extensive research with which the Indian batters will be presented should aid their preparation, there’s nothing quite like facing a new bowler, particularly one who can move the ball in every direction. It’s even more the case on this occasion, given that’s not a regular experience for India’s international stars. Through their all-conquering tournament, India’s best T20 players are constantly exposed to the best in the world, constantly learning and developing alongside them. The one objectively world class player about whom this is not true, is Shaheen Shah Afridi.

Pakistan’s squad is weaker now, post-augmentation. The absence of Sohaib Maqsood is significant given his strength as a six-hitter, an area Pakistan have struggled in for some time. Azam Khan’s unique spin-hitting abilities were more than worth spending a spot on, a rare opportunity to launch an extreme talent on an unsuspecting global game. But a mistake that analysts and pundits – myself among them – can often make, is placing too much emphasis on depth, on covering all bases, and as a result placing too little emphasis on the stars, the players who stand above their teams, notably and conspicuously better. Some talk about T20 as a “weak link” sport, defined by the quality of the worst player; some see at as a “strong link” sport, where your best player is your key point. 

If it’s the latter, then Pakistan – far from a one-man team, but a team very lucky to have this one man – are in a good spot. If they lean into that star’s primary strength, and allow him to bowl three overs in the Powerplay as often as possible, then the template for success is there. Use him properly, use him liberally, adding twice as much garlic as the recipe suggests. Let him counter the tactical trend that has dominated the discourse, let him express that power in the opening stages, and it could well be Shaheen’s World Cup.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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