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Should Pakistan break up the Babar-Rizwan opening pair?

They score a lot of runs together, but not necessarily quickly, and may be too similar to make sense as a combination in top-level T20

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
A question first. There is an opening pair that has scored 2019 runs together at an average of 50.47 since the start of 2021. Is it good for the team?
Of course anybody who knows T20 cricket will tell you this is insufficient data to form any kind of sound judgement about a partnership. However, even if you don't have the strike-rate handy, if a wicket falls every 50 runs over a period of two years, which at this average is about 40 matches, it might not be unfair to assume that the pair doesn't take many risks.
Now if a batter alone averages 50, and if we assume the same conservatism about him, others can still complement such a batter by taking more risks around him in the knowledge that if they happen to get out, there will be a set batter in the middle. If a partnership averages 50 over such a long period, it needs at least one of the batters to be in the form of his life or be a T20 freak. Neither of Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan, the pair in question, is.
One of the underappreciated parts of T20 cricket is partnerships. If your spinner has bowled a tight over, you don't give the batters a release bowler. Similarly you need to know when to sneak in a quiet over from a part-timer. With the bat, you want complementary batters batting together. A right-hand batter and a left-hand batter, for example. A spin-hitter and a pace-hitter.
The idea is to make sure the opposition doesn't stack similar kind of bowlers in one spell of play because both batters struggle against that variety. It happened with India in the last T20 World Cup when Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli, both of whom tend to go slow against spinners, got stuck against Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi in the game that sealed their fate.
Babar and Rizwan are too much like each other. They have similar scoring trends against same styles of bowling and in same innings phases. Both are at their slowest in the powerplay, both are slow against spinners and not dashing against pace early on, both are right-hand batters. Both of their sets of numbers suggest they like to get themselves in before playing the big shots, which is why opening the innings gets the best out of them, but is it really the best for the team when both open?
This is not hindsight, nor does this blame the opening pair for Pakistan's last two results, but this is one structural issue Pakistan needed to address even if both last-ball finishes had gone their way. This has nothing to do with the quality of the batters that follow in the middle order either. If they get a chance to bat, they mostly do so when the openers have failed to kick on after a slow start. They come in with a much smaller margin for error. And there are also times when a partnership averaging 50 will be broken early, which leaves the middle order with a role they are not used to playing. If that happens all of a sudden in a World Cup, especially in a group that is not likely to have upsets, you find yourselves in the situation Pakistan are in.
There must have been some internal reason for Pakistan opening with Babar and Rizwan, because international teams can't be unmindful of the risks that such a decision presents, but it was strange that Fakhar Zaman used to bat at No. 3 when he was fit. It is not possible Pakistan haven't thought about it. It is too simplistic to call Babar and Rizwan selfish, which some are suggesting now. There have been all kinds of insinuations from pundits in the year gone, by with one of the coaches in the PSL even saying his team tries to not get Babar out when they play Karachi Kings, but Pakistan's team management deserves a chance to explain their thinking.
The most plausible explanation is, as chief selector Mohammad Wasim told Geo Super this year, that they don't trust the middle order enough. Or that Fakhar, recovering from his knee injury, has not been in the best of form. However, a better way to deal with the situation might actually be for Pakistan to spread their two "reliable" batters and let others hit around them. Even Shan Masood at least brings the right-left dynamic.
Now that Pakistan are in the strange position of hoping for an India win against South Africa, they perhaps need to look no farther than India. Even they had a great win-loss record - in both the limited-overs formats - but they have consciously become more flexible and dynamic with their batting. They are aware of the need for complementary batters at the wicket. When Rohit bats with KL Rahul and Kohli, he makes sure he is the aggressor. It is a small modification in approach, but a big leap of faith in the price you put on your wicket.
Hopefully Pakistan will take that leap soon because that bowling attack deserves trophies.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo