Pakistan takeaways from England T20Is: Batting headaches and World Cup quandaries

Babar and Rizwan upped their game while Haris Rauf shone but several questions remain unanswered

Umar Farooq
Umar Farooq
Middle-order muddle: Haider Ali's comeback series did not go well  •  AFP/Getty Images

Middle-order muddle: Haider Ali's comeback series did not go well  •  AFP/Getty Images

Pakistan's seven-match T20I series against England came down to the final game with the scoreline at 3-3, with the visitors winning by 67 runs in Lahore to end the series on a high note. Pakistan picked their strongest available squad for two series - against England at home and New Zealand away - ahead of the World Cup. The home series served as an experimental one in their attempts to get the middle-order batting firing, but while there were several ups and downs, Pakistan finished the series still some way from ironing out their concerns. Here are some of our takeaways for the team ahead of the World Cup.
Undisputed top-order kings
After talk about improving their strike rates in the powerplay, opening pair Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan made significant strides forward. In the Asia Cup, Babar scored at 117.02 per 100 balls, and Rizwan 97.19 - enough to spark a debate about breaking up the pair to introduce a faster-scoring opener. But in the England series, Rizwan had a strike rate of 138.59 (129.89 in the powerplay) and Babar 143.21 (124.13 in the powerplay).
Much of the criticism around the pair had been about their conservative approach early on. Both are anchors and remarkably consistent, meaning either one or both tries to bat deep into the innings. But their low strike rates in the crucial first six overs contributed to putting the middle order under pressure, and raised concerns that Pakistan were failing to maximise their run-scoring potential.
Both, however, continued to make significant contributions - they were the two leading run-scorers on either side - and asserted their predominance as an opening pair. In the second Karachi match, they set a new world record for partnerships runs in a T20 chase, scoring 203 together in a ten-wicket win. Clearly, with both at the crease, Pakistan have a high chance of winning the game.
When both got out early - as happened in the decider - the performances of those batting further down strengthened the Babar-Rizwan case. A prerequisite for Pakistan's success, it seems, is the openers scoring runs.
Middle order, what middle order?
The series concluded with more questions than answers around the middle order slots, with little certainly around who should bat from No. 3 to No. 7. Pakistan brought in a natural opener, in Shan Masood, and asked him to fill a hole at No. 4, but results were mixed. Having debuted in T20Is, he showed some of the improvements he has made as a T20 player - but although he finished the series with 156 runs at a strike rate of 131.09, the majority of them came in a losing cause.
Haider Ali, having barely played in the last year, was given a chance to make an impression after the dropping of Fakhar Zaman (due to form and, later, a knee injury) from the 15-man squad. Pakistan backed him but he seems to have regressed as a player. He had an underwhelming five games, scoring just 36 runs at a strike rate of 94.73, and sat out the final match with a viral infection.
Iftikhar Ahmed, meanwhile, provided several cameos - 28 off 17, 15 off 14, 31 off 21 and 19 off 16 - but couldn't capitalise on his starts. Regarded as an all-round option, he impressed with the ball when called upon - three times bowling his full allocation - but at other times was curiously underused. If he can gain the faith of his captain, he could help balance the side as a sixth bowler.
Khushdil Shah was a shadow of his former self as a finisher, scoring 63 runs at a strike rate of 112.50, while Asif Ali started the series out of the side and ended it with a top score of 13 not out. Pakistan are still not comfortable trying Shadab Khan at four, a position where he has often excelled for Islamabad United in the PSL.
World Cup planning undermined
The scoreline of 4-3 might suggest a close series but leaves Pakistan with plenty of self-doubt going into the World Cup. There is still a tri-series to be played in New Zealand, an opportunity for Pakistan to regather ahead of the tournament in Australia. Defeat to England won't have shattered confidence but it has created enough uncertainty to hit their preparations.
Pakistan played around with their combination, and experimented with their fast bowlers, but found few answers. Three members of the World Cup squad - Khushdil, Usman Qadir and Mohammad Wasim - appear to be low on confidence. Pakistan still have another 12 days to make changes to their squad without going through the Event Technical Committee and they could well look to bring in alternatives from the traveling reserves.
Qadir played in the first four games before hurting his thumb in the field but was expensive, his economy 10.41; Wasim's figures were worse, taking two wickets while conceding runs at 10.98 an over. Shahnawaz Dahani, meanwhile, one of Pakistan's reserves, finished the series with three wickets from four matches at a cost of 170 runs, and an economy of 12.75.
New-ball and death bowling in safe hands
One of the major positives for Pakistan was the form of Haris Rauf. His sheer pace, canny variations, and domination of the death overs mean he is among the best T20 exponents of his generation. Previously he had been criticised for leaking runs and a lack of game awareness, but from the Asia Cup to the England series he made big leaps forward to become Babar's go-to bowler. He played in six games, finishing as Pakistan's leading wicket-taker with eight, alongside an impressive 7.87 economy - and starred in their startling defence of 166 in game four.
Pakistan are clearly missing Shaheen Afridi, who is nursing a knee injury in England and will join the Pakistan squad in Brisbane on October 15. The series gave Pakistan the chance to explore options with the new ball, with Mohammad Hasnain making an impression with his pace; his overall numbers were unremarkable, with four wickets and an economy of 9.93, but his bowing inv the powerplay - where he had an economy of 6.37 - gives him an edge. With Naseem Shah likely to return after illness and and Afridi on the comeback trail, Pakistan certainly have fast-bowling options.
A sting in the tail
There was one final twist in the Lahore leg of the series. Shadab Khan, Pakistan's vice-captain and chief spinner, a vital cog with ball and bat, had sat out the first four matches after suffering concussion during the Asia Cup. But after replacing Qadir, he aggravated a hamstring injury in the final T20I, leaving Pakistan with another headache to manage.

Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent