CRICKET: DEATH AT THE DEATH

Published February 25, 2024
During a team talk | AFP
During a team talk | AFP

The discussion surrounding Pakistan’s performance in Twenty20 International cricket has deepened, drawing attention to its challenges in the death overs, where it has struggled despite getting starts in the power-play phase.

Recent statistical analyses, spanning from January 2022, illuminate Pakistan’s struggle to maintain competitive strike rates during the pivotal 16-20 over period. This deficiency places Pakistan in a sobering position, with strike rates only better than Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Netherlands. It signals a pressing need for strategic recalibration and improved execution in the latter stages of the innings.

The scrutiny intensifies as Pakistan navigates the intricacies of T20 cricket, where the dynamics of run-scoring and wicket-preservation hold paramount importance, highlighting the criticality of addressing the team’s shortcomings particularly in the final overs.

In the Asia Cup final of 2022, Pakistan encountered a significant challenge. Despite a seemingly attainable target of 170 runs, as the innings progressed, the duo of Mohammad Rizwan and Iftikhar Ahmed struggled to contend with the relentless pressure exerted by the Sri Lankan bowlers.

Pakistan’s quandary in T20 performances stems largely from its struggle to capitalise on the death overs, which is partly the result of inconsistent selections

This struggle culminated in a collapse of the lower order, amplifying Pakistan’s predicament and ultimately resulting in a comprehensive defeat.

Similarly, in the 2022 T20 World Cup final, Pakistan’s prospects appeared promising as they batted first. However, their initial momentum gradually waned, and they managed to accumulate only a modest total of 137 runs in the 20 overs.

Once again, the lower-order batsmen failed to seize the opportunity presented on the grand stage. This failure to capitalise denied Pakistan the chance to clinch the coveted T20 World Cup title after a prolonged 13-year hiatus.

Amid the prevailing criticism on strike rates, Babar Azam emerges as a standout performer. As the linchpin of the team, Babar boasts the highest strike rate in the death overs since January 2020, among players who have faced 100 or more balls in that phase, recording an impressive strike rate of 176.35.

This statistic not only underscores his prowess but also highlights his significant contribution to the team’s performance. Of particular note are the six innings where Babar remained unbeaten. In these instances, Pakistan emerged victorious five times, showcasing his ability to thrive in pressure-packed scenarios and deliver impactful performances.

Babar’s consistency and adaptability in the death overs epitomise his pivotal role in Pakistan’s T20I endeavours, solidifying his status as a key player in the team’s batting line-up.

The root of Pakistan’s struggles in the death overs can, in fact, be traced back to inconsistent selection policies and the prevalent insecurities among players. Over the years, Pakistan’s team management has experimented with various combinations, often without providing consistent opportunities to budding talents. This inconsistency has created a sense of uncertainty within the team, and has hindered the development of a stable line-up.

In the recent T20I series against New Zealand, the swift exclusion of Azam Khan after just three games raised eyebrows among cricket enthusiasts. This decision was particularly puzzling considering the series’ significance as preparation for the impending T20 World Cup.

The abrupt removal of Azam Khan from the squad highlights the lack of clarity in Pakistan’s selection process and raises questions about the team’s long-term planning and strategy.

Meanwhile, Mohammad Haris, a promising talent who showcased his potential with a match-winning performance in Sydney, has only been given nine opportunities so far in T20I cricket. Despite his impactful contributions, Haris was overlooked for the recent series, further emphasising the inconsistencies in Pakistan’s talent management approach.

His impressive knock against South Africa and crucial role in the World Cup semi-final against New Zealand during the 2022 World Cup underscore his potential as a valuable asset to the team.

It is imperative for Pakistan to recognise that talents such as Haris and Azam Khan cannot be judged solely based on batting averages and occasional failures, especially in the dynamic realm of T20 cricket. The team management must adopt a more strategic and inclusive approach to talent evaluation, providing consistent opportunities and support to emerging players, to foster their growth and maximise their potential on the international stage.

In an interview with Shoaib Malik for a YouTube channel, Azam Khan provided insights into his cricketing journey, shedding light on his contrasting experiences between franchise cricket and the national team set-up.

Azam expressed a profound sense of comfort and assurance when participating in franchise cricket tournaments. He described these platforms as environments where he feels liberated to showcase his natural game, unencumbered by the weight of expectations and pressures that accompany representing the national team.

In franchise cricket, Azam emphasised that he enjoys the freedom to express himself fully on the field, leveraging his skills and instincts without the fear of reprisal or scrutiny. This environment fosters a sense of confidence and creativity, enabling him to explore different facets of his game and contribute meaningfully to his team’s success.

In stark contrast, Azam alluded to the perceived insecurities and pressures he encounters within the national team set-up. Despite his undeniable talent and potential, he hinted at a sense of unease and apprehension about his role and place within the team hierarchy. The heightened expectations and intense scrutiny inherent to international cricket can sometimes stifle his natural flair and inhibit his ability to perform at his best.

Azam Khan’s revelations offer a glimpse into the complexities of professional cricket, where players navigate a delicate balance between personal fulfilment and external pressures. His candid reflections underscore the importance of creating a supportive and nurturing environment within the national team, one that empowers players to thrive and express themselves authentically on the field.

An intriguing statistical anomaly in T20I cricket is the unparalleled performance of Virat Kohli, boasting an average of 50+ and a staggering strike rate of 200 since January 2020, a testament to his unparalleled mastery.

The evident scarcity of T20 batting resources in Pakistan’s line-up is glaring, with a heavy reliance on openers extending to the fifth spot, while talents like Azam Khan and Mohammad Haris remain underutilised. Urgent attention from captain Shaheen Shah Afridi and the management is imperative to rectify this imbalance.

It is crucial to foster an environment that cultivates confidence and maximises the potential of all players, especially with the impending T20 World Cup on the horizon, set to take place in the West Indies and the United States. Addressing these issues comprehensively will be pivotal in Pakistan’s quest for success on the global stage.

The writer is a software engineer who employs data and statistics to dissect cricket intricacies with precision and insight.
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Published in Dawn, EOS, February 25th, 2024

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