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Pakistan have problems, and they begin at the top

There are concerns elsewhere too: in taking on quality spin, and in assembling a solid pace attack if Shaheen Afridi isn't good to go

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Babar Azam leaves the field after being dismissed by Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Dubai, August 28, 2022

Babar Azam has just one half-century in seven T20I innings this year  •  AFP/Getty Images

Five weeks out from the men's T20 World Cup, and closing in on the deadline to announce the final squad for it, Pakistan's selectors and team management are grappling with a number of challenges. Some have been magnified further after an Asia Cup campaign where they reached the final but lost twice, including in the final, to Sri Lanka, won one and lost one to India, and nearly stumbled against Afghanistan. We look at the key issues that need addressing.
The Babar-Rizwan conundrum
We have talked about this before. Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan have scored over 60% of Pakistan's runs in all T20Is since the start of last year's T20 World Cup and have been, over the last two years, a wildly prolific pair. But, like in the semi-final loss at the T20 World Cup last year, the Asia Cup has made it clear there's merit in trying to break them up.
Rizwan top-scored at the Asia Cup, but he struck at just 117.57. There's a growing chorus over how his approach might not be the most optimal for Pakistan. Where middling targets haven't been that much of a problem - their World Cup game against India last year being a prime example - bigger targets have magnified their issue with strike rates.
In the Asia Cup final, for example, Rizwan played 22 deliveries in the powerplay while striking at 72.72 - in a chase of 170. Iftikhar Ahmed's 31-ball 32 sucked the air out of that chase as well and by the time Rizwan was dismissed for a 49-ball 55, the pair had left Pakistan with a few too many to get - 61 off 23.
Babar, meanwhile, has just one half-century in seven T20I innings this year. That half-century was in a losing cause against Australia, where Pakistan collapsed around his 46-ball 66 and finished with a below-par total that was chased down comfortably. Questions about his striking in the powerplay have lingered for far longer than has been the case with Rizwan.
For a pair, their run rate is the second-lowest among all Full Members, behind Danushka Gunathilaka and Pathum Nissanka. In 13 games, they have scored 401 runs at a strike rate of 122.27. On the face of it, it's not too bad, but it has invariably put a lot of pressure on the middle order.
Given Pakistan play seven T20Is at home against England and a tri-series with New Zealand and Bangladesh, in New Zealand, in the lead-up to the T20 World Cup, they could yet change the opening pair: one of the moves could be to have Fakhar Zaman open the batting, and one of Rizwan or Babar drop down the order.
"I think they should [separate Babar and Rizwan]," Mickey Arthur, their former coach, said on ESPNcricinfo's T20 Time Out programme during the Asia Cup. "Fakhar hits the ball in different areas, it frustrates the bowlers a little bit. It is the different angles, you've got a left-hand and a right-hand. So, spread Babar and Rizwan and you put Fakhar Zaman back at the top."
More power for the middle
As things stand, because teams know the openers occupy the crease for a good length of time and score the bulk of the runs, there isn't a lot below the top three, even though the middle order has typically scored their runs quickly enough.
But there is a larger problem there - against spin.
Versus Afghanistan, Pakistan's move to promote Shadab Khan to No. 5 [with good effect] was largely to shield Asif Ali and Khushdil Shah from Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi. In the Super 4s game against India, Ravi Bishnoi kept them quiet in the death overs. And if it wasn't for Asif's reprieve - after top-edging a slog off Yuzvendra Chahal - who knows how that game could have turned out? Such luck may not come their way all the time.
Khushdil's record at No. 4 across T20s is impressive, striking at 146 at an average of 27. But the disparity between his domestic T20 record [strike rate 138, average nearly 29] and his international one [strike rate 110, average 20] is vast and over an increasing sample size. He also has struggled against spin.
In fact, Shadab's record at No. 4 is stellar enough to wonder why he has never played there for Pakistan. In 19 innings, he's averaging over 28 at a strike rate of nearly 160 . He was especially impressive for Islamabad United in the last PSL, until an injury disrupted his season.
Other options include Haider Ali, who could be elevated from the bench, where he spent the whole of the Asia Cup. However, he hasn't featured in any T20I since December last year. Having travelled with the national team, he has also missed out on any form of game time in the shortest format since March.
Another option gaining traction among observers of Pakistan cricket is Shan Masood, who has been in the form of his life. Though uncapped in T20Is, Masood, the tall left-handed opener, has amassed 1257 runs in the format in 2022, striking at 136.68. He set tongues wagging at the Vitality Blast, where he was the fifth-highest run-scorer with 547 runs in 14 innings at a strike rate of 139.89 for Derbyshire.
However, in the ongoing National T20 Cup, he is batting in the middle order, seemingly in a bid to make the T20 World Cup squad. But, like Rizwan and Babar, Masood is primarily an anchor. This may not work in the middle order, but the plethora of games in the lead-up could give him an opportunity to present a case for making the first XI in Australia.
The real outside shots are Sharjeel Khan and Azam Khan, the latter currently playing in the CPL for Barbados Royals in the middle order.
Sharjeel hasn't featured in T20Is for over a year now, while Azam's selection eligibility - given he has obtained a no-objection certificate from the PCB to play in the CPL rather than in the National T20 Cup - is unclear. On Monday, opening for Sindh, Sharjeel struck an unbeaten 62-ball 107 to help raze down Balochistan's 158, with three overs to go. But, again, much of his success for Pakistan has been at the top.
What happens if Afridi misses out?
Pakistan don't have problems with their allrounders, with Shadab and Mohammad Nawaz certainties. But in the pace department, they are anxiously waiting on Shaheen Shah Afridi's recovery from a knee injury.
The nature and extent of that injury has only become clearer over time and Shaheen has now missed the Asia Cup and will likely sit out the seven T20Is against England as he undergoes treatment. If he returns, Pakistan have a gun pace attack with Shaheen, Naseem Shah and Haris Rauf, with all his BBL experience, being the top three pacers.
If Shaheen misses out, Pakistan will be banking on one of Mohammad Hasnain, like they did at the Asia Cup, or Shahnawaz Dahani, who featured in just one game, against Hong Kong. If Mohammad Wasim doesn't recover in time, it could mean Hasan Ali remains in the mix, even though he may have not played much cricket recently, leaving the back-up options a tad undercooked.
Which is why drawing a balance between results and providing players opportunities against England will become all the more crucial.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo