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Is Pakistan's middle-order weakness dictating how their top three bat?

Since the 2019 World Cup, Pakistan have scored at less than five an over in the first powerplay - and another such showing very nearly cost them against Netherlands

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Fakhar Zaman was on 9 off 21 balls at one stage  •  PCB

Fakhar Zaman was on 9 off 21 balls at one stage  •  PCB

In this age of suffocating scrutiny for elite athletes, it is unsurprising most of them perpetually have their guard up, allowing no emotion and barely any candour to slip through. Any signs of weakness may be exploited by opponents, so most opt for mundane, media-trained answers in a predictably formulaic way, such that almost all public interactions meld into one.
Pakistan captain Babar Azam, as his responsibilities and public profile have exploded, has picked up this art particularly skilfully, his defensive guard off the pitch almost as impregnable as it is on it. But even then, his first comment after Pakistan sealed a somewhat nervy 16-run win in the first ODI against Netherlands in Rotterdam saw a rare slip of that shield.
"Definitely," he replied when asked at the post-match conference if the emotion was more of relief than delight. That might not be too surprising - the answer to almost every question put to Babar starts with that word, almost a verbal lubricant to get his thoughts in order. But the tone revealed the sincerity behind it this time, and he went on to double down, saying, "It's a huge relief."
In fact, few in the team or the support staff would regard the game as anything other than an imperfect performance, with the flaws lying in all the wrong places. It might be okay, for example, to lose wickets going out all guns blazing on a pacy flat track, because the philosophy behind it could be in tune with the direction in which white-ball cricket has been heading, but here they would err in the other extreme.
Under a hot, sunny sky, Pakistan won a toss both captains wanted desperately to win in their eagerness to bat first. Pakistan's top three at the moment is perhaps the most consistent in the world, scoring almost two-thirds of the team's runs and all their 12 ODI centuries since the 2019 World Cup. Their confidence could not be higher, and yet what transpired in the first half hour suggested anything but.
Pakistan managed just three runs in the first four overs, choosing to be circumspect in the extreme against what was little more than tidy, consistent line-and-length bowling. That is the lowest four-over total for Pakistan since a 2018 Asia Cup game against India, and - to put it mildly - Aryan Dutt and Vivian Kingma are no Bhuvuneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah. Imam-ul-Haq and Fakhar Zaman poked and prodded with little intent of scoring during those early stages, and by the time Imam was put out of his misery, Pakistan had scored just ten runs in six overs.
It's tempting to look at the scorecard and Fakhar's final score, a run-a-ball 109, or Pakistan's final tally of 314, and dismiss such concerns as exaggerated because they caught up and won the game. And while there is empirical evidence to suggest some players benefit from early caution that allows them to bed in before unleashing their more destructive side, no one could really argue that nine runs off his first 21 balls was as brisk as Fakhar could have gone in the powerplay against a Dutch attack.
While these early passages of play often tend to be forgotten towards the back end of a game because they happened about eight hours prior, it was that first half-hour that brought Netherlands tantalisingly close to a remarkable upset. In the end, Pakistan didn't really "catch up" because plenty of runs were left out in the middle, and it was only sensational death bowling from their quicks that bailed them out.
Pakistan's much more pressing concern in ODI cricket is their middle order, but that should not excuse the top three from all scrutiny. The field restrictions in the first ten overs are an opportunity to get off to a flying start, but for all of Pakistan's top-order brilliance, it's a trend they have never quite latched themselves onto. Since the 2019 World Cup, Pakistan have scored at less than five an over in the first powerplay. Taking the aerial route has proved even more elusive; among the 20 ODI sides, their five sixes in 18 innings in this period are the joint-fewest with Zimbabwe.
There are obviously reasons for the high levels of early conservatism. A lack of confidence in the batters coming lower down invariably places more pressure on the top three, who are likely to prize their wickets much more highly than sides with more balanced batting line-ups. This is where the potential weakness of the middle order begins to bleed into other areas of the team, and potentially hinders their ability to play the brand of modern ODI cricket that is likely to see them at the business end of an ODI World Cup.
However, the fact that such extreme circumspection forced its way so significantly into a contest against a side like Netherlands in a series with relatively little pressure should set alarm bells ringing. It showed their middle-order problem is becoming increasingly challenging as more teams look to exploit this weakness. It is why Shadab Khan's recent form in the middle order is likely to be far more valuable to Pakistan than another Fakhar hundred or Babar half-century.
Few Full Member sides would have allowed Pakistan to sneak away with a win in that first ODI. Having let the middle order issues persist for so long, it was perhaps inevitable they would begin to metastasise. There's still time for remission, but with the 2023 50-over World Cup bearing down, it's running out fast.

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