Gaurav Sundararaman is a senior stats analyst at ESPNcricinfo
Babar Azam the T20 batter often faces criticism for the role he plays and his strike rate, but let's lay down some basic facts: Since the start of 2019, he has scored the most runs in T20Is (1004) as well as in T20s (3461) in the world. He averages 41.33 and 49.44 in the two formats respectively. With a minimum cut-off of 2000 runs, only Virat Kohli and Dawid Malan average more than Azam in T20Is and only David Warner is ahead in T20s.
Averages and runs scored are perhaps not the best metrics to measure a player's worth in this format. Is strike rate better? Out of the 18 players who have scored 2000 runs, Azam has scored slower than just seven. Three of those - Glenn Maxwell, Kieron Pollard and AB de Villiers - are finishers and T20 greats.
The two openers with better strike rates than Azam's 137.23 are Alex Hales and Chris Lynn, but both average slightly above 30. Azam has scored faster than the likes of Kohli, KL Rahul, Warner, Aaron Finch, Malan and Shikhar Dhawan. Azam also tops the charts in 50-plus scores, with 34 such scores in just 83 innings. This means that if you have Azam in your team, he will most likely score 50 runs off around 37 balls every second match he bats.
The role of top-three batters in a T20 side like Pakistan is often questioned without acknowledging how much it is a function of the team's power-hitting capabilities in the middle and lower-middle order. Malan - the top ranked T20I batter - does not find himself in the crosshairs of critics as often as Azam because England can afford his scoring rate. At the Royal Challengers Bangalore, Kohli's scoring rate in the first leg of IPL 2021 didn't attract much attention because he had de Villiers and Maxwell to follow. Azam, unfortunately, doesn't always enjoy that luxury.
But three games in the first half of this year's disrupted PSL illustrated the impact he can have, depending on the batting quality around him. Against the Islamabad United, Azam made 62 off 54 balls in a team score of 196. The match run rate was close to 9.8 runs per over, Azam scored at just over 6.5 and his side lost.
In the very next game, the Multan Sultans set the Karachi Kings a target of 196 and Azam scored an unbeaten 60-ball 90 to take his team through with seven balls to spare. The last game was another high-scoring chase against the Peshawar Zalmi, in which Azam scored an unbeaten 77 runs from 47 deliveries and helped chase down 188.
Each time, while Azam was protecting his wicket and batting through, batters around him, such as Mohammad Nabi, Joe Clarke and Sharjeel Khan, were outscoring him and making up for his lack of power-hitting. Even though he lost the first of those games, Azam seldom enjoys the luxury of that kind of batting around him when playing for Pakistan. Since January 2019, from positions four onwards, Pakistan average 18.27 runs per dismissal at a strike rate of 122.8. This is the worst among the top-ten T20I teams. Increasingly, however, there is a realisation that the role of anchors like Azam, Rahul and Kohli - who look to bat through their team's innings - should be fluid.
Anchors are currently seen as the "hedges" in line-ups. If they bat through, the team is likely to post a par total. If they are dismissed early, teams have been known to fold quickly, so the anchors are a hedge against those collapses. In that perspective, as power-hitting scales new heights every year, anchors are even seen as deadweights. But not only does this overlook the difference in pitches around the world, it also overlooks the different nuances of an anchor in setting up totals or chasing them down.
In 2021, of the 83 matches played in the PSL, the BBL and the IPL, teams batting first have scored over 170 43 times. At a little more than half, that is the highest percentage in any calendar year in these leagues. More importantly, chasing teams have won 27 of those, a 12.7% jump from the next-best calendar year for chasing teams (2018).
When batting first in T20s - as wickets are a surplus resource in the format - teams are increasingly ending up in situations with unutilised power-hitting resources in the dugout. As a team approaches the end of an innings, it is better off bringing out big shots and this is where an anchor can become a liability.
Often anchors are criticised if they are not able to make up the strike rate once they've been in for between 20 to 30 balls. The criticism is also dependent on whether the team wins or loses; in Azam's or Rahul's case, we have seen scores of 180 or 200 being made to look sub-par because of a lack of good bowling. But batters get called out for playing slowly. The anchor's role is thus more suited to chasing, because the ability to determine a par score batting varies from person to person.
But anchors do need to have a couple of higher gears. With five or six wickets left during the death on a flat track, each ball has to count. A collapse is less likely from that situation, and therefore, a hedge against it becomes more expensive, more so in a team that lacks middle-order heft. The anchor is now expected to provide the heft in such XIs, because, ultimately, what's the use in posting a 'decent' total that is likely to be chased down?
Is Azam fluid? Perhaps not as much as he should be. The basic stats for most of the best anchors are very similar. Where Azam lags is in his ability to hit sixes through an innings. He does hit boundaries, but he could do with taking more risks. Since 2019 and from the first ten balls he faces in an innings, Azam hits a six once every 136 deliveries, which is the worst among his peers. Between balls 11-30, Azam hits a six once every 63 balls, again the lowest among this group. It is only once he is settled, when he gets past the 30-ball mark, that he begins to hit sixes more consistently. Ultimately, because Azam hits boundaries regularly, his strike rate across these phases doesn't fare as poorly in comparison with the others, but in terms of an improvement he can bring, six-hitting is one.
What Azam does bring is Bradmanesque consistency in the ficklest of formats where batters are likely to fail every other game. Since 2019, he scores a fifty once every 2.4 innings, a remarkable frequency. He has also been the top scorer for his side 36.1% of the time, more than any of the 66 batters with a minimum of 50 innings since 2019. The top five in this list, unsurprisingly, are all openers, Azam leading Warner, Mohammad Rizwan, Rahul and D'Arcy Short.
But top-scoring doesn't say much if it doesn't account for the impact it has on a game. And impact, of course, depends on players around him as well. For Azam's team to succeed he needs support from his partners - which is why those three PSL games mentioned earlier are illustrative.
Two different metrics are useful here. The first is how often a batter outscores, and at a better rate, the batter at the other end. Taking a minimum of 20 innings of 20+ balls faced since 2019, the likes of Pollard, Andre Russell, Nicolas Pooran and de Villiers - T20 specialists so to speak - head a list of 58 players. Anchors rank in the bottom third. Azam is 50th, outscoring and outpacing his partner 38% of the time, with Malan, Kohli and Warner also in this bracket.
One learning from this is that it is important to try and partner the bottom-ranked players in this list with the top-ranked ones as often as possible in an innings. That is, if Azam is in the team, the ideal situation is to have a player like one of the top-ranked players here batting around him. That is a way to maximise the impact of an anchor and is an approach likely to work irrespective of pitches, batting first or chasing.
The other metric comes from ESPNcricinfo's Smart Stats, measuring how often a top-order batter (1 to 3) has top-scored and had the highest impact in a game (This measure takes into account the match run-rate, the required run rate, quality of the bowler, batting depth as well as the pressure a partner creates.)
Placing this impact against instances of top-scoring gives an indicator of how often batters around the top-scorers have had a greater impact on the game. The likes of Azam, Kohli, Rahul and Malan all top-score for their teams consistently but don't create enough impact. These players stack up together on the top left of the graphic above.
The likes of Warner, Jos Buttler, Hales and Lynn stack up to the top right, meaning that if they top score, they are more likely to win the game. Ideally, you want your team to have more players in that top right corner.
All of which, ultimately, means that Azam can continue playing the way he does as long as his teams have the batters to play around him. Azam 2.0 will need an improvement of his power game. He is only 26 at the moment so there is no reason why he cannot build his game to be fluid enough to adapt to different situations. At 26, he is not even close to his peak and once he gets there, there's no telling what he can achieve.
With inputs from Shiva Jayaraman