The Big Question: Is Pakistan too reliant on Babar-Rizwan?

In the previous edition of the T20 World, Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan 303 and 281 runs respectively in Pakistan’s run to the semifinals. The next highest contribution was Fakhar Zaman’s 109. Only other batsman, Shoaib Malik, managed 100 runs, and the underwhelming middle order copped criticism for their middling returns. A year on, the situation remains as grim as it was during the World Cup, so much so that Zaman was recalled into the World Cup squad.

Both in the Asia Cup as well the seven-game rubber against England, besides the tri-series in New Zealand, the vulnerabilities of the middle-order was exposed. In the Asia Cup, they were over-reliant on Rizwan, with Babar enduring a rare lean patch (68 runs at 11).

Rizwan was not in his best touch either, but had to scratch around as no one really seized the opportunity. Consequently, his haul of 281 runs were scored at a strike rate of 117. Spin bowlers Shadab Khan and Mohammad Nawaz peeled out timely cameos to gloss over the middle-order cracks. Against England, Babar whipped up his old form, but the middle-order continued to under-fire.

As usual, Rizwan and Babar topped the run-chart (316 and 285). Shan Masood scored a couple of half centuries at No 3, but the struggled in New Zealand (64 runs in four innings), and there again, the saviours were Rizwan and Babar (201 and 192).

The over-reliance is captured by another stat. Whenever Babar has faced more than 30 balls, which he has 14 times, Pakistan have won 10 of those games.

Rizwan has batted for more than 30 balls as many as 29 times. Pakistan have ended up winning in 23 instances. When both of them have managed it in the same game, that is on seven occasions, they have lost just one match.

As consistent as Babar and Rizwan have been, relying on just a pair of batsmen to deliver the World Cup is wishful thinking. It would be more so the case in Australia, where a team could find themselves two down in the blink of an eye.

It has not been a case of the openers chewing up a lot of overs that the middle-order hands had been deprived of time to make an impact. In the Asia Cup, Pakistan had always lost a wicket in the first four overs, but none capitalised on opportunities extended to them.

Iftikhar Ahmed showed flashes of quality, but could not compile a knock of substance. Khushdil Shah is reputed for his six-hitting prowess in PSL, but has not yet replicated the feats in his 22 outings for his country, striking just 13 maximums. So has been the case Asif Ali, who averages 15.49 in 48 innings, his six-smearing brags now stuff of meme-lore. Masood and Zaman are not the solutions either, as both are fundamentally top-order batsmen. The team management would not be foolhardy enough to push one of Babar or Rizwan down the order to accommodate one of Masood or Zaman at the top. That would only result in destabilisation.

The feebleness of the middle-order could have a knock-on effect on Rizwan and Babar. They would be tempted to bat deeper, and hindered to attack, as they know the middle-order cannot be trusted. How they miss a Misbah-ul-Haq—Mohammed Yousuf kind of a middle-order game-changer.

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