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Match Analysis

Death, taxes and Rizbar - Pakistan reopen opening debate

Middle-order implosion after dismissals of Babar and Rizwan sets off familiar cycle of recrimination

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan come out to bat at The Oval, England vs Pakistan, 4th T20I, The Oval, May 30, 2024

Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan come out to bat at The Oval  •  Getty Images

You knew it was coming, didn't you?
Pakistan have spent 2024 kidding themselves - but just about nobody else - that they would break up the most prolific opening partnership in T20 international history. For their first 13 matches of the year, Mohammad Rizwan and Babar Azam took it in turns to slide down to No. 3, giving Saim Ayub - and, briefly, Haseebullah Khan - opportunities to open the batting.
But at The Oval, they made the change that was nothing short of inevitable. Ayub was one of the players of the tournament at last year's Caribbean Premier League but, one game before the T20 World Cup, he was dropped. His 12 T20I innings this year have brought him 163 runs at just 13.58 and his last four opening stands with Rizwan were worth 7, 6, 16 and 0.
It meant a return for the pair who have scored more heavily than any other in this format: Rizwan and Babar, reunited at the top of the order. It is impossible to question the volume of runs they have scored together: they are the only opening partnership with more than 2000 T20I runs, with an average stand of 49.18. They have put on 100 or more eight times; nobody else has managed more than four.
Yet they have always managed to split opinion in Pakistan, and you can be certain that they will do so once again when they arrive in the United States this weekend. For the most part, they are immensely popular: there is even a Wikipedia sub-entry for "RizBar fandom". It is their scoring rate as a partnership - 7.98 runs per over - which invites regular criticism.
They have become even more restrained at T20 World Cups: Babar's strike rate in his two World Cups is 114.47, while Rizwan's is exactly 120. For every partnership like the unbroken 152 to beat India by 10 wickets, there has been a stand of 71 in 10 overs in an under-par total in the 2021 semi-final defeat to Australia.
This was the sort of innings that both players might see as justification for their tendency to lean towards cautiousness. Pakistan resolved to play with a more attacking template after their defeat to Ireland earlier this month, and scored at more than 10 runs per over in consecutive run chases to win that series 2-1.
But they have long preferred chasing to batting first, and this was a performance which highlighted why. Rizwan and Babar made an uncharacteristically fast start against some hostile new-ball bowling: Mark Wood hit 96mph/154kph and Jofra Archer passed 90mph/145kph, but both conceded early boundaries. When Babar failed to capitalise on Archer's width, he threw his head back in frustration.
And when Jos Buttler threw the ball to Moeen Ali for the fifth over, as though dangling a carrot, Babar bit it clean off the string: he charged down to the first ball of offspin he faced, lofting Moeen into the lower tier of the pavilion. Rizwan shimmied around in his crease, looking to unsettle the bowler, and dabbed delicately past short third.
After Babar slapped Archer through the off side for back-to-back boundaries, Pakistan were 59 for 0 with a ball left in the Powerplay - their highest opening stand of the year, and the highest since this pair were first broken up. So when Babar steered the final ball of the sixth over - Archer's legcutter - straight to short third, it did not take much foresight to work out what would happen next.
Rizwan fell four balls later, clean bowled by a ball that didn't spin from Adil Rashid, and Pakistan's middle order subsided. Usman Khan, restored at No. 3, was the only man to make an impact, hitting three fours and two sixes in his 21-ball 38. The rest fell away against Rashid and Wood, with Azam Khan's five-ball duck - which culminated in gloving behind a bouncer, via his shoulder - the lowlight.
When Haris Rauf was run out off the penultimate ball of the innings, Pakistan had been bowled out for the second match in a row and had turned 59 for 0 into 157 all out. No wonder Rizwan and Babar prefer to do the hard work themselves, if that is all the middle order behind them can muster. It is a classic case of self-perpetuation.
Rizwan and Babar bat deep, which means the middle order rarely get the chance to face many balls; when they do, their dearth of recent opportunities means they underperform. That, in turn, means that Rizwan and Babar feel the need to get things done themselves; and the middle order's opportunities are limited once again. What came first, the chicken or the egg?
And so, Pakistan head to the World Cup with the same old opening pair and the same old problems. Over the next four weeks, they will probably beat a team they shouldn't. They will probably lose to a team they should beat. They will probably end up making it to the Super Eights, and probably even to the semi-finals. This is another season of the same show.
It is still possible that Rizwan will take the gloves back too, reprising his role from the last two T20 World Cups. Azam had a shocker in the field, dropping a pair of straightforward chances: the first a top edge off Phil Salt, the second a regulation outside edge from Will Jacks. Plus ça change.
Next time somebody describes Pakistan as "unpredictable", don't listen: in T20 cricket, there is an inevitability about this team. Dread it, run from it, Rizbar arrives all the same.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98