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Babar Azam struggling inelegantly? Is this for real?

The efficiency, the elegance, the control... none of it is there anymore. Is he actually out of touch?

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Well, this is… new?
Babar Azam has been through runs of low scores before. Most of the last 18 months or so, people have been questioning his strike rate, his intent, his utility in a T20 top order so loaded with anchors it's a wonder it moves anywhere. It's all valid.
But he's mostly been what we've come to know Babar Azam to be: a high-functioning anchor. Prolific too, as the fourth-highest run-scorer in T20Is since the last World Cup.
On Sunday though, as he cross-batted thin air twice in a row against Ebadot Hossain before nearly popping one to cover in Pakistan's nervy chase against Bangladesh; as he struggled against Nasum Ahmed; as he mistimed shots; as he pulled out a rare sweep only to edge it into his neck; and as tried to slog-sweep Nasum to cow corner but top-edged it in the diametrically opposite direction to short third man a thought struck: Babar Azam is actually out of touch. This is new.
The efficiency, the elegance, the control, that altogether quiet purr of his batting like he was some Tesla, none of it there anymore. Touch - form, whichever - is an even more nebulous concept in T20s than longer formats and almost always is used interchangeably with a poor run of scores. They're not the same thing. The 25 Babar made was his highest score in his last six innings but at no stage did it look like an innings in form.
Whatever form may be, this was disorienting, this fever dream of an innings. Did it even happen? He was rushed by pace, ponderous and indecisive to spin, all at a tempo slightly off the beat of the game. One shot, a leaned-on push past mid-on off Taskin Ahmed, timed as sweet as sin, could've been the one to fall him back into form. It wasn't.
His control percentage in that innings was 76% which, in T20s, is middling. It also feels a more generous calculation than the memory remembers it. It was an improvement on his tournament control percentage of 66%, though that's probably because he stayed longer at the crease than in any other innings. Across 15 balls the game before against South Africa his control percentage was 53%.
Such remains the undue burden of aesthetics on this sport that most of us could just about live with a lack of runs. This is T20 after all, where the runs are fast and the wickets cheap. But Babar struggling inelegantly? There's a shiver.
He's not alone in these struggles. This hasn't been a tournament for openers and Babar's overall control percentage does not compare that poorly with that for all openers (69%). Still, Babar is not a batter for low bars. You don't expect him to hang with the average, not least when the control of his T20 batting might be expected to suit conditions more difficult than usual.
He's a somewhat inscrutable figure publicly so it's difficult to know how, if at all, it is weighing him down. Such is the nature of this side and the respect he commands within it he doesn't have to worry about the dressing room. With the strength and range of Pakistan's attack, on-field captaincy must also be a lighter load. So ahead of the semi-final with New Zealand, the only thing he really needs to worry about is his own batting. And we're at a moment now where the question is not how Babar makes his runs, as it was until recently, but whether he will.
In 36 T20I innings as opener from his debut to the start of last year's T20 World Cup, Babar was dismissed for single figures once every five innings or so (7 in 36). Post that tournament Babar has been dismissed for single figures every other innings (14 in 30 and four out of his last five). He's still the fourth-highest run-scorer in the world in that time, with a hundred and five fifties and yet, he's getting out early far more frequently than before. Eight of those 14 single-figure scores have come in 16 chases (compared to two out of 16 before), eating away at his reputation as an expert chaser.
A couple of explanations are worth pursuing, one of which is the consequence of the old question of how Babar was scoring his runs. Scrutiny of his strike rates, especially in the powerplay has ballooned since, from a niche, data-nerd discussion to a full-blown mainstream debate. Uncles on WhatsApp groups are forwarding data packs about Babar's balls per boundary figure in the powerplay (6.2 thanks, since the last World Cup). The team itself has received plenty of input from outside analysts urging the top order to show more intent. It's not out of the question then that all this has filtered through to Babar who is attempting to go harder earlier but, in the process, getting out cheaply more often.
More specifically but also more complicatedly, is the impact of Mohammad Rizwan, a slow-starting anchor who likes going deep before exploding. It is a high-risk approach, illustrated best by his innings against Namibia at last year's tournament. He was a desultory 55 off 44 until he took 24 off the innings' final over. Pakistan finished on 189 for 2 and won the game comfortably, but imagine the waste of resources if Rizwan had fallen at the start of that over?
At the other end, Babar is taking more risks, perhaps to make up for Rizwan's powerplay strike rate of 111.4 (in the last year). ESPNcricinfo's data team dug deep into Babar's run and couldn't identify a pattern to dismissals other than the notion that he's playing more aggressive shots earlier, often to the wrong type of delivery. Remember Arshdeep Singh's first ball at the MCG that Babar tried to flick across to get some runs? He may have played it straighter had Rizwan not batted out six dot balls the previous over, the game's first.
Data from the PSL and all T20Is since the last World Cup shows that Babar's been dismissed in the Powerplay playing an attacking shot (as recorded by ESPNcricinfo) six times in 28 innings batting with Rizwan. In 11 innings with other openers, he's not fallen once in that phase playing an attacking shot.
Since Rizwan has started opening for Pakistan in December 2020, almost 30% of Babar's shots playing with him have been recorded as attacking, as compared to slightly under 23% when playing with other openers. He's fallen 18 times in 46 innings to such shots with Rizwan and three times in 21 innings without Rizwan as his opening partner.
There's a significant difference in sample sizes but in the two years before Rizwan was opener, Babar was striking at 140 in T20Is and averaging 46; in nearly two years since, the strike rate is down to 127 strike rate and the average 33. For all their successes then, it's worth asking if the partnership is hurting Babar.
The irony in all this, one Pakistan might take succour from ahead of Wednesday, is that because of Babar's failures (and Rizwan's) their much-maligned middle order has had opportunity to shine. Naturally, Pakistan could do with Babar's runs, but for the first time in a long while, not as much as Babar could do with them himself.
With stats inputs from Shiva Jayaraman

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo