At first glance, Pakistan's over-reliance on their top three in ODIs appears to bleed over into T20I cricket, too. Not unlike in the 50-over format, top three are responsible for roughly two-thirds - 67.5% - of Pakistan's runs in T20Is since the start of the 2021 World Cup. As in ODIs, this figure is by some distance the highest among all sides, India's top three a distant second, responsible for 58.4% of their team's runs.
And there isn't much evidence of runs coming from further down for Pakistan either. Since the last T20 World Cup, only two players outside the top three have scored 100 runs in the format, and there's little clarity on the personnel that make up Pakistan's best middle order. Take that to the start of 2021: no one from the middle order has managed 200 T20I runs. What Fakhar Zaman
, Imam-ul-Haq and Babar Azam
do for the ODI side, Babar, Mohammad Rizwan
and Fakhar do in T20Is.
Anyone with even a passing interest in Pakistan cricket doesn't need numbers to know this. Babar's T20 consistency and Rizwan's sensational rebirth in the format at the top of the order, combined with Fakhar's brute force at one-drop are what form the base of a Pakistan T20I innings now. The middle order is unreliable, players picked and dropped after a few games, most likely failing to have any discernible impact. Azam Khan came and went, Khushdil Shah hasn't really taken to the format, and, perhaps too often, Shadab Khan, Faheem Ashraf, Iftikhar Ahmed and Asif Ali have flattered to deceive internationally. So, naturally, the top three make most of the runs, are top scorers in most games Pakistan win, and have to face most of the overs.
That last bit is crucial, and often overlooked. While Babar, Rizwan and Fakhar have scored 67.5% of Pakistan's T20I runs since the last World Cup, they have faced an incredible 72% of the deliveries
. Of course, no other top three has faced even 60% of deliveries internationally, and this is also the largest negative variance - 4.5% - for any top three between runs scored and balls faced in that period. South Africa's top three at the second least productive, facing 3.5% more balls than the runs they score, but unlike Pakistan, they do leave 51.3% of balls for the middle order to make up the shortfall.
Pakistan's top-order batters rarely allow the middle order in early, and almost never in the powerplay, where the intent has been most notably lacking. Since the start of January 2020, Babar, who has faced more balls as opener than anyone else for Pakistan in this period, has scored at just 6.72 runs per over in powerplays, averaging around 20 off 18 balls. Rizwan scores at 7.20, and while Fakhar is well ahead at 7.80, his powerplay exposure is lower, because he comes in at three. Whether he should open, particular when Pakistan bat first, has been looked at
, but those numbers inevitably result in Pakistan leaving most of their aggression for the latter stages of an innings.
One might think the top three are forced into this approach because of the instability lower down, but that might not be quite on point. It's true there's a game of musical chairs on there, but whoever gets in there tends to produce the firepower Pakistan invariably need. Surprisingly for a middle order as wobbly as Pakistan's, in 13 matches since the last World Cup, batters from No. 4 to No. 8 have scored at 152.18
, the highest among all T20I sides since then.
While Pakistan generally do not begrudge Babar and Rizwan opening in a chase, it can be especially jarring to see Babar using up vast numbers of deliveries in the first innings. For all of Babar's qualities, he's not quite proven himself to be the best judge of what a good first-innings score is, and if he has, his ability to bat accordingly is questionable. In all T20s for Pakistan or Karachi Kings since January 2020, Babar's first-innings strike rate is 123.02. This jumps to 133.42 batting second, with the average ballooning from 36.56 to 61.70.
Moving Fakhar up to the top when Pakistan bat first is a statistically sound option: since January 2017, Fakhar's T20 strike rate as opener is 139.65, the highest among Pakistani openers besides Kamran Akmal, but the solution can extend beyond just the one switch.
Curiously, Pakistan's middle and lower-middle order are more effective when they bat first. Since the last World Cup, Pakistan batters outside the top three manage a strike rate of 161.11 in such situations, the highest once more. South Africa are next at 159.07, but after that, England's 141.37 is as good as any side has mustered. That number drops to 142.19 when Pakistan chase, higher than all sides bar India, whose middle and lower-middle order are prolific in a chase, striking at 157.79.
So what does that tell us, apart from telling us that Pakistan should try and avoid batting first against India in their Asia Cup games?
The way a Pakistan batting unit behaves depending on when they bat means a one-size-fits-all approach cannot be the most efficient way to wring the last run out of their T20I innings. The status quo might well be fine when they chase; it is probably the best way to get the most out of this outfit. But when Pakistan bat first, Babar, and to a lesser extent the other two at the top, simply cannot consume the number of deliveries they do, when statistically the world's most explosive middle order sits in the dugout, powerless to have the impact on the game the numbers show they can.
Perhaps Pakistan's two most consequential T20I games in the last decade crystallise this side's batting ability perfectly. Against India in their World Cup's opening game
, they played to their strengths, and there's arguably no better pair than Babar and Rizwan when chasing a total - especially a below-par one. Against Australia in the semi-final
16 days later, that same reliability became a crutch that hobbled the innings right to the end. Pakistan left runs out there, runs that mattered when Matthew Wade scooped Shaheen Afridi over fine leg 90 minutes later.
Babar and Rizwan may have felt justified in their conservatism during that semi-final. If you don't quite trust your middle order, the value you place on your wicket rises exponentially, especially in key games. It was perhaps reasonable for the openers to be sceptical on that occasion. But, in a format where all sorts of risks need to be taken, lending the middle order that trust is just another one that might be necessary. Because Rizwan and Babar batting together might be a beautiful sight to behold, but when they are setting a target, it can also be a worrying one.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000