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Match Analysis

Babar Azam's low-risk approach leaves Pakistan without reward

Innings of 39 from 34 from captain and anchor proves overcautious in the final analysis

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Pakistan have only failed to defend a score of 176 or higher in T20 internationals three times. The first was a World Cup semi-final against Australia. The second was a game in which Babar Azam faced more than 30 balls and finished with a strike rate below 130. The third was a World Cup semi-final against Australia, in which Babar Azam faced more than 30 balls and finished with a strike rate below 130.
Perhaps the crucial moment of Babar's Thursday night came at half past five, when Aaron Finch correctly called "heads" as he flicked the coin at the toss. Chasing teams had won 10 games out of 11 in Dubai in this tournament - and eight out of eight under lights - and batting first in the knowledge that dew would affect the run chase meant that Pakistan needed to score comfortably above par in order to defend their score.
They started like a team that knew a middling total would not be enough, taking 47 runs from the powerplay - their highest six-over score in the tournament. Mohammad Rizwan, who had spent the previous two nights in an intensive care unit following a chest infection, was attacking as much as he could, but struggling for timing and running with reluctance, rather than his usual enthusiasm. He was dropped twice inside the powerplay, and his uncharacteristic lack of control reflected his physical condition.
Babar, by contrast, looked in command as ever. He attacked Glenn Maxwell and Mitchell Marsh's first overs, targeting the weak links, flicked Pat Cummins off his pads and drove Josh Hazlewood crisply through the covers. Fans chanted his name, purring at his class and poise - then watched him hole out to long-on for 39 off 34 balls. His strike rate, 114.70, was comfortably the lowest among the seven batters to reach double figures.
No role in T20 batting line-ups splits opinion like the anchor, especially when their side bats first. Analysis of their performances is almost invariably post hoc: if the anchor's team won, they were the glue giving more expansive players licence to tee off; if they lost, their slow-scoring forced others to take the wrong option and left them short of a defendable score. The truth generally lies somewhere in between.
Even by his own standards, Babar's innings was cautious. According to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, he played six attacking shots in 34 balls, the joint-fewest he had ever played in a T20I innings of more than 20 balls when batting first. On a true pitch, needing to score comfortably above par given the likely change in conditions later in the evening, it was felt like Babar was driving a Ferrari with the hand brake on.
Australia stifled him well in the middle overs. After pulling Marsh for four through midwicket, Babar had 32 off 23 balls. He managed only 7 off his next 10: Marsh bowled full and straight to his field, Maxwell speared in fast offbreaks from round the wicket and Zampa cleverly varied his trajectory. That was enough to induce an attacking shot, a miscued slog-sweep straight down David Warner's throat.
"We always want to start well to set the tone for the guys coming after us," Babar told ESPNcricinfo about his and Rizwan's approach before the World Cup. "We communicate well, and if he's struggling to tee off, I go after the bowlers, and if I'm struggling, he does."
This had been Pakistan's blueprint throughout the tournament, and had worked to perfection: Babar and Rizwan laying a platform and keeping wickets in hand to allow the middle order freedom to tee off. On Thursday night, Pakistan added 105 runs in the second half of the innings after Babar's dismissal the ball before drinks, with Fakhar Zaman teeing off as Australia went full at the death.
Their total of 176 was the highest score in Dubai of the World Cup, and should have been enough. But, just as with England's competitive first-innings total in Abu Dhabi 24 hours before, it was not. Pakistan had one foot in the final when the reverse-sweeping Maxwell was caught on the cover boundary but their seamers had a collective off-night, leaking 62 runs in four overs at the death.
Five-and-a-half years ago in Mumbai, the spotlight fell on Ajinkya Rahane. His innings of 40 off 35 fulfilled the role his side had asked of him as India racked up 192 for 2 batting first in their semi-final, but when West Indies hauled it in with two balls to spare, it looked indefensible. In both instances, they were let down by poor bowling performances and dropped catches, but their innings were needlessly conservative.
Babar's innings did not cost Pakistan this game, but it reinforced a fundamental truth of this format: in T20, a refusal to take risks is the riskiest approach of all.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98