It was only a year ago when Pakistan looked an invincible team in 20 overs cricket. They were elevated to the number one position in the T20 Rankings on the back of some stunning performances in the short format. After starting 2018 with a 2-1 away series win against New Zealand, who were number one in the rankings at that time, Pakistan chased 184 against Australia to win the tri-series final in Harare and whitewashed both Australia and New Zealand 3-0 in home series in the UAE.
But one year can be a long time in sports. Pakistan’s series loss at the start of the year in South Africa was mitigated by the fact that they were without their regular captain Sarfaraz Ahmed, who missed the series due to a four-match ban for passing racially sensitive remarks on Andile Phehlukwayo. But the one-off T20I loss in England and now a series defeat at the hands of Sri Lanka in Lahore has left Pakistan with some questions to answer.
The series against Sri Lanka is Pakistan’s first T20 assignment under a new think-tank in which Misbah-ul-Haq is both head coach and chief selector. His decision to call back Ahmed Shehzad and Umar Akmal hasn’t gone well as both batsmen flopped in their comeback series. Shehzad’s two scores in the series are 4 and 13 whereas Akmal bagged a golden duck in both innings.
Pakistan’s strategy in the series has been surprising on several counts. To mention a few, they dropped or rested, if you will, Fakhar Zaman who scored back to back 50s in the ODI series last week from the first T20I and also left out Haris Sohail, who in his last T20 Innings had scored 50 off 36 balls against England.
Shehzad, who had been struggling to find boundaries even in the Powerplay, was made to bat at three in the second match. If to have him in the side ahead of Fakhar wasn’t surprising enough, to have him at one drop, where his strike-rate dips to 112 from 125 as an opener, was a hope against hope.
Iftikhar Ahmed, the only off-spinner in the team, someone who could have been handy against the four left-handers in Sri Lanka’s top six and solution to the team’s power-hitting problems, was dropped from the second match despite two unbeaten cameos of 32 and 28 in the ODIs and the fact that he had not been dismissed by any bowler across three innings on this tour. Also, when three of Pakistan bowlers were conceding over 9.50 in the second T20, they didn’t have a sixth bowler to look to.
Babar is yet to play a match-winning innings when eying a big target ©AFP
Even though Akmal terribly failed, to have him back in the team might have some justification. Pakistan’s power-hitting problems are well-known and with the next series and the T20 World Cup in Australia, where pitches are likely to be true and 170-180 could be expected totals, they needed batsmen who have the skill to accelerate the scoring rate and bat around Babar Azam, who tends to take time before going big.
Akmal may have sounded ridiculous three years ago when he requested Imran Khan to make him bat at one down, the fact is it is the position which has been most fruitful for him. We are talking about 1065 runs at an average of 42.60 and a strike-rate of 142.37, including his only century in the format and a 35-ball 56 against Australia in the semi-final of T20 World Cup in 2010. Ideally, Haris should have played at three but once the decision was made to use Akmal at one down it should have continued in the second game too.
Acceleration has been Pakistan’s weak link in recent years. Their success in 2018, the year in which they created a world record of 17 wins, was mainly because they played most of the games in UAE and Zimbabwe, where 150 can be a winning total due to slow and low pitches.
This year Pakistan have lost 5 out of their 6 T20Is chiefly because they were played on the true pitches in Lahore, Cardiff, Centurion, Johannesburg and Cape Town. Lahore in some perceptions might be just another spin-friendly and slow Asian pitch but among the subcontinent venues that have hosted at least 5 games in the last five years, its run-rate (8.46) is only behind Pallekele (8.86) and Mumbai (9.48).
This illustrates that Pakistan batsmen are found wanting when asked to bat outside their comfort zone, which is setting totals or chasing targets near to 200. Even Babar, despite so much success in the format, is yet to play a match-winning innings when eying a big target. His strike-rate while chasing shrinks to 120.05 from 132.00 when batting first in T20Is. His major role, however, is to anchor the innings which he has done wonderfully in his short career.
Pakistan need to find batsmen who can support Babar’s long innings and offer him support in terms of acceleration. The knowledge that both Akmal and Asif have failed to play this will make the alarm bells louder in Pakistan’s dressing room. But the question is if not Akmal and Asif then who else? It is a headache that Misbah the chief selector is going to have a year before the T20 World Cup.