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Fakhar, Babar, and Rizwan: How can Pakistan fit three into two?

All three have proven to be more than competent openers, but with only two slots available, who will make way for the T20 World Cup?

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan have strung several critical stands in the recent past  •  PCB

Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan have strung several critical stands in the recent past  •  PCB

October 24, 2021. (For many, that date already needs no further context to be instantly recognisable.) India had set Pakistan 152 for victory in the sides' first game of the T20 World Cup. It was a strong recovery from the middle order after Shaheen Shah Afridi had blown the openers away, but nonetheless, a below-par target. Out strode Mohammad Rizwan and Babar Azam, two immoveable forces of nature who have cemented themselves as the first truly undisputed Pakistani opening partnership since Saeed Anwar and Aamer Sohail broke up.
In 17.5 unforgettable overs, they picked apart the Indian bowlers, keeping up the scoring rate without appearing to take any risks. In a performance for the ages, Pakistan cantered to the target, without losing a single wicket. Who in their right mind would ever question these openers? Where were all those baying for Fakhar Zaman to open now?
Two weeks and four days later, Pakistan are in the semi-finals, unbeaten and vying against Australia for a spot in the final. Pakistan are batting first this time, and Babar and Rizwan strike up another significant partnership. They produce 71, but this time, the fluency of the India game appears to be missing. The 71 comes in 9.5 overs, and Babar himself holes out to long-on after a scratchy 39 off 34 balls at a strike rate of 114.70. Rizwan, as everyone knows, had found himself in hospital the night before, but soldiers through on a muggy evening to 67 off 52 at a strike rate of 128.84. Fakhar ends up facing just 32 deliveries, finishing unbeaten on 55 to power Pakistan to 176. Strike rate? 171.87.
It seems par, perhaps even slightly above, but there's only so much damage that can be undone in just half a T20 innings. Pakistan appear to be sealing Australia's fate with regular wickets, but unlike Pakistan, they keep attacking. By the halfway mark, they've managed 89 and the platform is set for one famous lower-order partnership to knock Pakistan out. What were Pakistan thinking, coasting along at just over seven in the first ten?
The question of how to fit three into two at the top of the T20I order is a thorny one for Pakistan. But as Fakhar's form with the Lahore Qalandars this season - and Babar's own struggles with Karachi Kings - attest, it's one that may acquire greater urgency as they head into this year's T20 World Cup. For all the records that Babar and Rizwan have broken over the last year, the concerns about the way those partnerships are paced have never really gone away. And while worrying about ironing over what appears a mild crease seems like a luxurious problem, the profligacy of not utilising a bludgeoner like Fakhar doesn't always appear sustainable.
Irresistible as Babar looks creaming drives through tightly packed fields in the powerplay, he lags behind Fakhar in that phase. In all T20s since January 2020, Fakhar scored 7.64 runs per six powerplay balls, nearly a full run per over ahead of Babar's 6.68. (Rizwan, incidentally, is well ahead of both at 8.44). Limit that to T20Is, and the difference between Fakhar and Babar is starker: Fakhar hits 7.80 runs per powerplay over, with Babar straggling well behind at 6.55. Rizwan is bang in the middle of both at 7.15.
The case for Fakhar opening isn't just made through the comparison with Babar, but also around the most efficient way to use the left-hander. Fakhar's strike rate drops to just 123.02 when he bats at number three in T20Is, well below the 136.24 as opener. And while it's fair to say Fakhar the Lahore Qalandars opener is much more consistent than Fakhar the Pakistan opener (his average with Lahore is nearly 12 runs higher than his T20I average), the strike rates are fairly similar - 139.04 and 136.24 respectively. In all T20s since Jan 2017, for all openers who've scored at least 1000 runs, Fakhar has the second highest SR [139.55] for a Pakistani opener - behind only Kamran Akmal.
In that case, you'd expect the solution to be fairly straightforward: ditch Babar as opener, and link Rizwan with Fakhar for Pakistan. But you'd be forgiven if bits of your brain feel these numbers don't quite tell the full story. For one, it's because some numbers suggest there isn't a huge difference between Babar and Fakhar as opener at all. Babar's career strike rate as T20I opener, after all, is 132.61, which is not a world off Fakhar's 136.24, and he averages almost twice as much.
The reliability that Babar's partnership with Rizwan has provided Pakistan means they can guarantee a solid platform pretty much every game. The costs of breaking that up, and effectively overhauling the innings construction method, should not be taken lightly because, plainly put, Fakhar cannot hope to match the pair's consistency.
Run that India game in your head again. As a Pakistan supporter, would you really want anyone besides Babar and Rizwan opening in that particular chase? Had Pakistan rolled the dice with Fakhar and he'd fallen for under 25 - as he has in 28 of his last 36 T20I knocks - the swing of momentum, coupled with the weight of history, could well have made that a much cagier chase.
And it isn't just below-par totals they're prolific at chasing. Hark back to the 3rd T20I in Centurion, where South Africa amassed 203. The scoring rate required of Babar and Rizwan was well above their average T20I strike rates, but set a target, both rose to the challenge. Babar smashed 122 off 59, and Rizwan an unbeaten 73 off 47 as Pakistan ran the runs down with two overs to spare. It didn't seem to matter then that Fakhar needed to face only two balls that innings.
But again, that's not an excuse to stick with the status quo. Think of the T20I just two days before that Centurion epic, when in Johannesburg, an off-colour Babar limped his way to a run-a-ball 50 as Pakistan crawled to 140, which South Africa chased in 14 overs. Indeed, across the three T20Is that series either side of that hundred, Babar managed just 88 in 87 balls. Cast your mind back to that semi-final against Australia again, where Babar's strike rate was the lowest for any batter who faced more than ten balls. Reflect on his three innings for Karachi Kings this season, when, batting first, he's managed a collective 96 runs at a strike rate of just 105.49 with his side failing to put enough runs on the board each time.
The common theme across most of those Babar innings is that Pakistan batted first. And while Babar has proved the master of the chase, it's not at all clear he's the best judge of a good first-innings total. Since January 2020 in all games for Pakistan or Karachi Kings, Babar's strike rate batting first is 122.32. In a chase, that jumps to 134.49. The average, too, swells from 36.65 to 63.75.
For all the extremities to which sides have gone to wring out every little advantage in a T20 game, none has yet adopted specialist openers depending on whether a total is being set or chased. But the key dynamics of the way Babar and Fakhar's games work would appear to suggest one obvious solution: move Fakhar up to open when Pakistan bat first while sticking with the present combination in pursuit of a score.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000