How Mohammad Hafeez has been a T20 giant in 2020
In a confounding, chaotic year, one man hit an unexpected purple patch in the shortest format
Ending the year trying to understand how Mohammad Hafeez is the answer to Pakistan's T20 batting issues feels appropriate for 2020 - a damned year, yes, but also a confounding and unexpected one. Hafeez, 40, in his 18th year as a Pakistan player, the epitome of the anchoring but elegant batsman, a Test opener with ten hundreds, now a top-order T20 firebrand, torch-bearing for senior citizens in the format? Stop it 2020, stop it now.
When the year began, Hafeez wasn't even in the Pakistan side, par for the course for a story such as this. He had retired from Tests, and after a middling World Cup, been nudged out in the name of post-tournament transitions. Without a central contract and overlooked for the series against Sri Lanka and the tour to Australia, it felt like he was finally gone. Pakistan were moving on, and of all the weird selection decisions of Misbah-ul-Haq's regime, this was probably the least strange.
Transitions are fickle moments, though, so, of course, two series losses later and by the start of this year, Hafeez was back, for exactly the reason that he was initially turfed aside - too old then, wizened and experienced now. Since then, bingo, with the added bonus of proving pretty much everyone wrong.
He's the seventh-highest run scorer this year in the format, with the fourth-highest average. But it's his strike rate that catches the eye. At 138.84, it's better than those of a fair gaggle of elite top-order batsmen: Jonny Bairstow, David Warner, Virat Kohli, KL Rahul, Dawid Malan, Babar Azam, Aaron Finch and Fakhar Zaman. Hafeez's strike rate is better this year than those of at least seven batsmen in the ICC's current top ten, including Glenn Maxwell and Colin Munro.
Filter it down to performances at one down only, where Hafeez has batted 17 out of 27 innings, and his year becomes even more golden: a near-50 average and a strike rate above 142 are the kind of metrics it's difficult to slice any which way other than very good.
So there is a little mischief at play so far, brandishing these big names against whom Hafeez compares favourably on the basis of a solitary - and very unusual year - and that too across such a spectrum of T20 standards. The truer, more revealing, comparison for Hafeez is with Hafeez himself, and with pretty much his entire T20 career to this season.
When the format was in its infancy, in the mid-2000s, he appeared the perfect player for it: more than bits-n'-pieces, not quite a genuine allrounder. And for his first two years - 2005 and 2006 - he was much more. All but one of his 23 innings in those two years - mostly in the much-loved ABN-AMRO Twenty20 cup for Faisalabad Wolves - were as opener, averaging 34.35 at a strike rate of 163.18. Throw in 20 wickets and an economy of under 6.5 and you have a player ahead of his time.
This last decade, though, as the format evolved, Hafeez kind of didn't. If ever a strike rate captured the limitations of a batsman it was his from 2010 to 2019: 116.34 was a batsman good enough to find occasional boundaries when opening, but not nearly enough to make up for the missed scoring opportunities leading to them. And given that strike rate remained fairly stable over this period, it was reflective of a batsman either not willing - or able - to expand his game.
This year's data may as well be speaking of a different batsman. Now batting at mostly three and four, his middle-overs play, where he was once slowest, is unrecognisable. Across 2018 and 2019, Hafeez's strike rate across that phase was 114 (and about 115 if you stretch back to 2015). This year it has jumped to 147 (all for matches where ESPNcricinfo has ball-by-ball data). The driver for that would appear to be his boundary-hitting; he has gone from hitting one every nine balls (across 2018 and 2019) to more than one every over this year in those middle overs (for matches where ESPNcricinfo has ball-by-ball data).
He has always been better value at the death than often thought - a legacy, no doubt, of his early tape-ball years - but even there his strike rate has jumped to nearly 174 this year, up from 149 the previous two years.
How has this happened, to a player as deep into his career - and often thought to be as set in his ways - as Hafeez? Primarily, it is that he has changed his ways, and perhaps because he was snubbed after the World Cup, understood the need for evolution. Leaving Test cricket has not only allowed him to give time to that need, it has also broadened his view of batting itself.
Because he has been such a sweet timer of the ball, and because it had gotten him so far, it's not entirely surprising it's taken him till now to understand that power-hitting is as important in the modern game. It's almost been an unlearning, to recognise that not every shot has to be timed impeccably to send the ball across or over the ropes.
Freed from the other formats, he has devoted greater, more dedicated, time to range-hitting during practice. Watchers of his social media timelines will also have noted more time spent on golf courses recently (or at least more posts about it). That has helped him refine and better weaponise his bat swing, from a firmer base.
Together, the results are clear: not only has he hit more sixes (37) this year than in any before, but also more frequently (in terms of balls per six) than any year other than his first. Since 2010, in only one year has he hit boundaries more frequently than this one. Against pace in the middle overs in particular he has prospered. Across 2018 and 2019, he scored at 120 against fast bowlers and hit more sixes than fours (19 sixes and 11 fours in 271 balls). But this year he has hit 31 boundaries (24 fours and 7 sixes) in just 126 balls, at a strike rate of 168.
And at the risk of obsessing too much over his age in an era, and format, where more players are playing for longer, it's worth repeating that he turned 40 this year. You could cut up metrics - be at least 35 years old, average at least 45 with a strike rate of 135 - to show how all-time Hafeez's year has been.
Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers were younger when they made this list but more relevantly, by that time, they were specialists with a long pedigree in the format. Nothing about Hafeez's last decade suggested he was capable of this. Yet here he is, somewhere between a reinvention and a glorious little lash of the tail of a confounding and unexpected career.
Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo