PAKISTAN like to shuffle around their batting order quite often. They fancy their chances by making the alterations on seam-friendly pitches or when they are participating in a global event.

The recent tour of New Zealand, which concluded with Pakistan reclaiming the top spot in the ICC T20I rankings, showed a similar pattern. Pakistan meddled with their opening pair, trying as many as four combinations in the five-match ODI series and two in the three T20Is.

But one such change in the middle-order, as Pakistan went 1-0 down in the T20I series following the 5-0 whitewash in the ODIs, provided the much-needed boost for the team and that was when their captain Sarfraz Ahmed promoted himself to number four in the batting order.

It resulted in Pakistan putting up a handsome 201 on the board at Auckland and then beating the Kiwis for the first time across all formats since January 2016. Sarfraz came out to bat at the same spot again at Mount Maunganui during the third T20I and helped Pakistan set a challenging 182-run total for the opposition. They then went on to beat the hosts by 18 runs to claim the series 2-1.

It was quite a contrast from the struggling Pakistan side that had barely managed to post 105 in the first T20 game. They just could not get the scoring rate beyond four an over between overs 10 to 15 in the first match as they looked to rebuild their innings after losing almost all of their specialized batsmen in the powerplay overs. It was indeed the Sarfraz factor in the last two T20s that helped Pakistan accelerate beyond five and six an over in the middle overs and post competitive scores.

Known for his ability to keep the scoreboard ticking with constant rotation of strike and an ability to steal boundaries with cheeky strokeplay, Sarfraz capitalised on the platform that openers Ahmed Shehzad and Fakhar Zaman had provided in the last two contests of the tour.

Out of the 24 and 21 balls he faced in the second and third T20I, Sarfraz scored runs on 20 and 15 balls respectively. On occasions, he charged down the wicket or shuffled in the crease to alter the line and lengths to open more scoring options for himself.

It was last month when during his media interaction at the Qaddafi Stadium in Lahore, Sarfraz was asked whether he would bat up the order in New Zealand to which he had said: “I hope the situation doesn’t reach that point.”

However, experts continued with the calls for his promotion up the order. They had been there since he scored a brilliant 49 against South Africa in the 2015 World Cup. But despite that innings, the Pakistan team management had preferred having him down the order across all formats.

Statistics prove that Sarfraz is much more confident as well as consistent when he bats in the upper order since he averages above 48 there as compared to mid-20s lower down the order. Moreover, both of his hundreds have come while playing in those positions.

For some reason, the Pakistani think-tank was too stubborn about sending Sarfraz early during the ODIs in New Zealand. And they paid the price for it.

Pakistan might use Sarfraz at number four in their next T20I outings and they will be well advised to do the same in the one-dayers. The move will surely serve the team better, the numbers say so.

Published in Dawn, January 31st, 2018

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