In T20 cricket, Mohammad Nawaz's case is a curious one

Numbers don't quite tell the complete story of what Nawaz brings to his side

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Mohammad Nawaz gets a hug from Hasan Ali after Pakistan crossed the line, South Africa vs Pakistan, 4th T20I, Centurion, April 16, 2021

Nawaz helped Pakistan seal the final T20I with the bat  •  AFP/Getty Images

It wasn't until Mohammad Nawaz picked up Sisanda Magala for six over midwicket did the finale of the T20I series decisively turn Pakistan's way. Until then, Pakistan had begun to stutter midway through a straightforward chase. No one exemplified that struggle more so than Nawaz himself, whose role, Pakistan might have imagined, was to get them through sticky situations like that one in the manner he often has done for Quetta Gladiators. However, in Pakistan colours at SuperSport Park, it wasn't quite happening, and after 11 balls at the crease, he had managed just four; Pakistan's asking rate had risen above eight.
Nawaz's case is a curious one in Pakistan cricket. The fact this was just his 23rd T20I is somewhat odd, given his rise coincided with the advent of the Pakistan Super League, as well as the phenomenal run Pakistan went on to rise to number one in the T20I rankings. Nawaz was an integral part of that side until dropping out completely in 2018. It was never quite clear why, and in a country where squad selections are almost as forensically scrutinised as match performances, this was one omission that appeared to slip under the radar more than most.
Nawaz is perhaps less accustomed to non-selection than just about any other player in the Pakistan side. In the Pakistan Super League, the tournament that propelled him to international prominence, he is the first name on the team sheet, having played 57 of 58 games. He's the only spinner to have taken 50 PSL wickets, and amongst the top twelve wicket-takers in the league, no one can boast a lower economy rate than his 7.14.
There has been a lingering frustration that Nawaz's game, both with bat and ball, doesn't appear to have evolved in quite the way Pakistan might have hoped the day the first-ever PSL fixture was playing in 2016. He would light up that game, razing through the Islamabad top order with figures of 4-0-13-4, with Shane Watson, Babar Azam and Sam Billings amongst his scalps. With the bat, he would knock off the winning runs alongside Luke Wright, and there was Nawaz the cricketer fully formed - a microcosm of a player who looked set to have a macro impact on Pakistan's T20 cricket.
It hasn't quite happened in that exponential way after all. Nawaz has never bettered those figures, either at the PSL or with Pakistan. His involvement in the 2017 spot-fixing scandal which earned him a two-month ban might have derailed him slightly, though by now, it remains little more than a footnote in his career. His ability with the bat is fabled - that word is used advisedly - forever lurking beneath the surface, without quite making enough appearances to convince you it's really there. A career PSL strike rate under 110 is underwhelming, especially when you consider he spends a large amount of his time batting in what might be considered death overs.
But those numbers don't quite tell the complete story of what Nawaz brings to his side, domestic or international, particularly with the ball. In T20 cricket, he's almost guaranteed to get a bowl in the first Powerplay, often opening the bowling for Quetta. In this time, he is significantly more penetrative without being more expensive; his economy rate is about the same after the Powerplay as within while averaging 22.42 runs per wicket in the first six as opposed to just under 30 after that time. Having bowled nearly a third of his career PSL overs while those fielding restrictions are in play, his pedigree and experience of bowling when the fielding side is at its most vulnerable is without question. Those skills present themselves in even more striking numbers at the international level. Among those 23 T20Is, he has been tasked with Powerplay overs in 18 of them, with an economy rate of 6.5 and an average of 21.66. In the middle overs, that drops to 7.42 and 30.36 respectively.
It is perhaps those attributes that finally persuaded Pakistan to bring the 27-year old out of the cold for the first time in nearly three years in January against South Africa. He immediately made his quality felt with exquisite control in a tense run chase in his first game back, allowing just 21 runs in four overs in a three-run win. He has played all seven T20Is against South Africa this year, and only once since gone wicketless.
While Pakistan captain Babar Azam lamented his side's struggles with picking up early wickets, Nawaz has been the likeliest to provide them. In the first T20I in Johannesburg, he got rid of both openers, once more in a contest that went down to the penultimate delivery. While he was expensive on Friday, it was the only game in these seven where Nawaz's economy rate was more expensive than the team average, and even then, he saw off Aiden Markram - who had scored three successive half-centuries - in his first over.
If these numbers give off the uneasy sense of mediocrity being lauded, that perhaps has more to do with Nawaz's perception than anything else. His left-arm spin is reliable, predictable, stable, without ever quite being mesmeric. He has never found a way of kicking on with the bat, and while he's just 27, there is already the sense that ship might have sailed for him. But with the existence of what Azam called, with uncharacteristic bluntness, a "gap in our middle order", Nawaz comes closer to plugging it than anyone else who has featured in recent times. Nawaz's counterparts in other teams at the World T20 might be significantly flashier, but with Imad Wasim appearing to have fallen out of favour, there are few in Pakistan capable of doing the job as adequately as him.
That might be more damning with faint praise, but with the World T20 now approaching, recent performances matter. And most recently, Nawaz followed up that six over midwicket with another over square leg, set to be frozen in time as the moment Pakistan sealed a commanding series win in South Africa. It might yet become the moment that secures his place on that plane to India later this year after all.

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