T20 World Cup: What odds do Pakistan have to win 120-ball battle royal?

After 11th-hour "drama" over team announcement, it is hoped Pakistan's performance on T20 WC stage will be free of twists

Ahsan Iftikhar Nagi

Pakistan's cricket has a penchant for drama, evident from the fact that it was just hours before the ICC’s deadline that sports' authorities pulled the curtain on the squad for the T20I World Cup on Friday night. 

This out-of-the-blue administrative hobble kept the team, the fans and the media on the edge. 

The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) had to hurry the members of the selection committee, spread across different continents, on a Zoom call in the evening after PCB chair, Mohsin Naqvi, expressed his displeasure at the bypassing of the selection protocol.

The protocol demands all members of the selection committee to develop a consensus on a squad. It is, however, learnt that certain members of the committee, not travelling with the team, were left out of the final discussions, which irked the PCB chairperson.

The lead-up to the announcement had been spectacular, but there were not many surprises when the 15 names were unveiled through a media release as the selection committee — comprising four former players, a captain, a head coach, and a data analyst — only trimmed the 17-player squad currently in England.

T20 World Cup: What odds do Pakistan have to win 120-ball battle royal?
A graphic displaying Pakistan men's cricket team squad for the T20I World Cup 2024. — PCB

The squad: Babar Azam (capt), Saim Ayub, Mohammad Rizwan (wk), Fakhar Zaman, Azam Khan (wk), Usman Khan, Iftikhar Ahmed, Imad Wasim, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Shadab Khan, Mohammad Amir, Abbas Afridi, Naseem Shah, Haris Rauf, Abrar Ahmed

Pakistan have loaded their squad with five pacers, three specialist spinners, and three wicketkeepers for next month’s tournament to be played in the US and the Caribbean. No reserve players have been named.

Here is a detailed look at the squad.

The top four dilemma

This has been a hotly-debated aspect of the Pakistan team over the years and will remain under scrutiny over the next month. Pakistan have struggled to post big or above-par totals batting first as the top order often looks for cautious starts in their attempt to bat deep, leaving fewer balls for their explosive finishers in the middle order to utilise.

This realisation further picked up after the semi-final of the 2021 T20 World Cup when Pakistan could muster only 71 by the halfway stage of the innings. It was Fakhar Zaman’s breezy 55 not out off 32 that took Pakistan to 176, but that total proved to be below par as Australia chased it down with an entire over to go.

T20 World Cup: What odds do Pakistan have to win 120-ball battle royal?
Pakistan batter Fakhar Zaman. — AFP/File

Since the 2022 T20 World Cup, Pakistan’s scoring rate when batting first is 8.08 and batting second is 9.28.

Until recently, the team backed this strategy, but the loss against Ireland in the first T20I brought a paradigm shift with the Pakistan captain first admitting that he botched up the par score calculation at the post-first T20I ceremony and then revealing the team’s mid-innings plans of chasing down Ireland’s 183 in 18 overs at the end of the second match.

The Pakistan captain and Imad Wasim spoke about consistently pursuing the ‘change of gears’ in batting in the press conferences leading up to the first T20I against England, which was eventually washed out, and Fakhar Zaman, in the lead-up to the second T20I, spoke of the team’s intentions of targeting 200-plus score whenever they get to bat first in the future.

The first step in solving a problem is recognising there is one. Pakistan have taken that first step. But, do they have the resources?

Despite all his potential and an eye-catching record in domestic and league cricket, Saim Ayub has failed to live up to his promise as an opener. Pakistan unpaired the most successful T20I opening pair of Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan and positioned the young left-hander at the top of the order in search of explosive starts. But in the 11 innings with Babar and Mohammad Rizwan rotating as his partners, Saim, since the start of this year, could manage only 164 runs at a strike rate of 137.60.

The promotion of Saim at the top pushed Babar and Fakhar a slot down the order and both have flourished on their new numbers.

T20 World Cup: What odds do Pakistan have to win 120-ball battle royal?
Pakistan's Babar Azam during the practice session with his teammates in Headingley Cricket Ground, Leeds, Britain on May 21, 2024. — Reuters

In eight of the 12 innings as one-drop, Babar has struck five fifties and scored 345 runs at a strike rate of 144.35, which is around 25 runs more than his career’s. Fakhar, on the other hand, has scored a fifty every third innings, scoring his 328 runs at almost 154.71 – 22.31 points better than his career strike rate. His average has also soared by 13 runs.

Rizwan has batted as an opener in eight of 10 matches this year and his numbers have also shot up. He has scored 383 runs at an average of 63.83 and a strike rate of 135.33 this year. As compared with Rizwan’s overall career figures, his average has increased by almost 13 runs and his strike rate by 7 in 2024. He has scored three half-centuries as an opener, making 90 not out at a strike rate of 142.85 against New Zealand in Christchurch, 75 not out at 163.04 and 56 at 147.36 against Ireland at Dublin in the last two T20Is.

Usman Khan, who has played only four matches and scored 7, 5, 16, and 31, as a top-four backup and can also give Shadab Khan (more on this below) a shot here.

With Saim misfiring and the other three players finding form, Pakistan find themselves in a dilemma – whether to persist with the status quo or once again change the roles of Babar and Fakhar.

Run rates of Test teams batting first since Nov 15, 2021 till Pakistan’s last game

The firepower in the middle

That Azam Khan has been put on the flight to the US speaks about the eagerness of the team’s plans to inject explosiveness in the middle order. Azam has been one of the most destructive middle-order batters around the T20 circuit, but has struggled to get longer runs in the Pakistan side. He has been effective against pace and spin — averaging 25.32 and scoring 148.59 runs per hundred balls against pace and his corresponding numbers against spin standing at 26.07 and 143.62. That he got runs against Ireland with 30 not out off 12 and 18 not out off 14 must have given Pakistan selectors the confidence to persist with him.

Iftikhar Ahmed has shown glimpses of promise and played some crucial innings in his T20I career. Those scores of 51 against India and South Africa in the 2022 T20 World Cup and 60 against New Zealand in Lahore last year are his best contributions to the side. However, there is a notion that he has not been able to translate his domestic form at the international stage and there has been a lot of discussion about his entry point.

T20 World Cup: What odds do Pakistan have to win 120-ball battle royal?
Pakistan´s Iftikhar Ahmed plays a shot during the first Twenty20 international cricket match between New Zealand and Pakistan at Eden Park in Auckland on January 12, 2024. — AFP

He thrives in the last five overs, where his domestic T20 strike rate is a staggering 190.7 and he hits a boundary every 3.7 balls. Of late, that has further improved as he scored 208 in 11 innings in 2024 and 201.6 in 2023, hitting a boundary every 3.05 balls this year and 3.75 in the last. The smartly Pakistan mould match-ups in his favour, the better it promises to be for them.

Shadab Khan worked extensively on range hitting in the training sessions and pre-match warm-ups during the New Zealand series. Over the last three seasons, he has turned into a successful floater for Islamabad United but has shone the most at number four scoring at 150 and averaging 26.7 in 28 innings.

He had a brilliant PSL with the bat this year scoring 305 runs at 142.5 and averaging 30.5 – the bulk of his runs coming at four. He recently gave a glimpse of his explosive batting abilities in the third T20I against Rawalpindi with a blazing 41 off 20 when promoted up the order. Shadab played a blinder in Sydney against South Africa in the 2022 T20 World Cup after coming in after the 13th over and scoring 22-ball 52. This underscores his ability to produce solid knocks when provided enough deliveries, and Pakistan can benefit by floating him up the order during the World Cup.

The best possible pace attack for Pakistan?

A string of injuries to their premier fast bowlers and the questionable workload management have hampered Pakistan from fielding their best possible fast bowling combinations or a combination at its full potential over the last two World Cups. This time, however, Pakistan, as it looks, will land in the US with all their top pacers match fit.

In Shaheen Afridi, Naseem Shah, and Mohammad Amir, Pakistan have versatile pacers who can bowl across phases and the presence of Haris Rauf provides effectiveness in death. The presence of Abbas Afridi instead of Zaman Khan may divide the opinion, but the former comes in the side after yet another impressive PSL and some brilliant spells of middle overs and death bowling at the international level since his Pakistan debut earlier in the year.

In the last iteration of the T20 World Cup, Shaheen Afridi entered the tournament undercooked due to a right knee injury. In last year’s 50-over World Cup, their plans hit a roadblock last year when Naseem Shah injured himself right at the cusp of the event during an Asia Cup match against Bangladesh.

T20 World Cup: What odds do Pakistan have to win 120-ball battle royal?
Pakistan pacer Shaheen Shah Afridi prepares to bowl during the third Twenty20 international cricket match between New Zealand and Pakistan University Oval in Dunedin on January 17, 2024. — AFP

There have been questions about the effectiveness of Shaheen over the last few years. But, the left-arm pacer seems to have found his rhythm. In the recent T20Is against New Zealand and Ireland, Shaheen bowled at a good pace, often targeting the stumps with the new ball. At death, he got the ball to reverse and bowled cutters with confidence.

Naseem, however, has looked off-colour since his return to international cricket. After a decent Pakistan Super League for champions Islamabad United, the pacer has leaked 144 runs at an economy of 9.6 across four games against New Zealand and Ireland, often spraying the balls either too wide or too straight.

Naseem, however, has made his name because of his incredible ability to bowl tight overs across phases by hitting the hard lengths near the line of stumps, underscored by his T20I economy of 7.70, and Pakistan will look to get him into rhythm by playing him in the next three games.

There were injury scares around this time too with Haris Rauf sustaining a shoulder injury in the Pakistan Super League. But the pacer recovered in time for the much-anticipated first England T20I and was in line to mark his return on Wednesday.

Though he has not bowled in a T20 in the West Indies, Haris will be Pakistan’s go-to bowler in the death overs (overs 17-20). The fast bowler has picked up 119 wickets in the last four overs across all T20s since his debut in 2018. But what stands out is his ability to stymie the flow of runs, as those wickets have cost his teams only 16.53 runs and his overs have leaked 8.95 runs. Considering that these are the overs when the batters are looking to hit every ball to the boundary, these are some incredible numbers.

T20 World Cup: What odds do Pakistan have to win 120-ball battle royal?
Haris Rauf (right) and Babar Azam celebrate the dismissal of New Zealand´s Devon Conway (L) during the third Twenty20 international cricket match between New Zealand and Pakistan University Oval in Dunedin on January 17, 2024. — AFP

Haris follows Sohail Tanvir (165 wickets in 236 innings), Wahab Riaz (153 in 217), and Amir (134 in 205) in the list of Pakistani pacers with most wickets in the last four overs of an innings. But, has a better average than these bowlers, which underscores his effectiveness.

Pakistan have boasted their fast bowling stocks by adding the experience of Mohammad Amir to the mix. Since he retired from international cricket in December 2020 after a falling out with then-team management, the fast bowler has been a regular in T20 leagues around the world and has had noteworthy returns in the Caribbean Premier League. Since the 2021 season, Amir has taken 43 wickets at 14.39 runs per dismissal. He has bowled at an economy of just 6.50 and taken a wicket every 13.27 balls on average.

In Abbas, Pakistan have a perfect backup for Haris as he can bowl cutters, back-of-the-hand slower ball, wide yorkers, and hit the hard lengths. Around 70% of his 78 T20 wickets have come either in the middle or death overs .

T20 World Cup: What odds do Pakistan have to win 120-ball battle royal?
Pakistan's Abbas Afridi celebrates the wicket of New Zealand's Mark Chapman during the second Twenty20 international cricket match between New Zealand and Pakistan at Seddon Park in Hamilton on January 14, 2024. — AFP

From overs 7-16, Abbas has picked up 24 wickets at 24.16 and has an economy of 8.11. In the last four overs of an innings, his 29 wickets had cost only 15.44 runs to the teams he has turned out for and he has leaked a shade above 11 runs an over.

Lack of game time for spin trio

Pakistan have played five of their last seven matches at high-scoring venues of Rawalpindi and Dublin with smaller dimensions, and it makes perfect sense to protect the spinners in such conditions. But, with the spin expected to play a major role in the US and the Caribbean, the fact that the Pakistan spin trio has not gotten much game time worries the team management.

Pakistan looked for rotation at home against New Zealand and were welcomed with flat surfaces and shorter boundaries in Dublin. That meant that Pakistan often relied on pacers to do the job. As Shadab Khan and Abrar Ahmed remained on the periphery of late, Imad Wasim got an extended run of five games, starting from Lahore, and bowled 15 overs at an economy rate of 7.26. It was, after all, his ability to choke runs in the middle overs that made him an exciting prospect for Pakistan, and the left-arm orthodox has delivered on the front.

Shadab missed out on the start of the year series in New Zealand due to an ankle injury and bowled only eight overs in three matches in the recent home series, never completing his quota of overs. When he did so in his most recent match, the first T20I in Dublin, the leg-spinner conceded 54. Over the years, Shadab’s form has dwindled. How soon will he get in the rhythm is a question Pakistan would be eager to get an answer to.

T20 World Cup: What odds do Pakistan have to win 120-ball battle royal?
Pakistan spinner Abrar Ahmed walks in the ground after rain stops the play during the second day of the second and final cricket Test match between Pakistan and Sri Lanka at the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) Ground in Colombo on July 25, 2023. — AFP

Abrar has been in Pakistan’s plans but they were never able to try his mystery spin in the shorter format. He finally got an opportunity against New Zealand last month and bowled eight overs across two matches, bowling at an economy of 5.75 and taking two wickets. He, nonetheless, had a decent PSL finishing as the third-best bowler with 16 wickets for Quetta Gladiators in 10 matches. His average stood at 19.56, but it was his economy of 7.82 that impressed everyone, considering he chipped in overs in the powerplay.

Seven of these players were part of the Pakistan side that finished the last T20 World Cup as finalists. They, and the team overall, will be eager to cross the line this time.

Despite the eleventh-hour "drama" over the announcement of team members' names for this much-anticipated event, it is hoped that Pakistan's performance on the World Cup stage will be free of twists and turns and full of play.

Ahsan Iftikhar Nagi is a cricket journalist and media and communications professional. His work has appeared in leading national and international publications including Dawn and Cricbuzz. Nagi worked as a media manager with the Pakistan Cricket Board from 2019 to 2023. He has also worked as a team manager with the Multan Sultans in PSL 9. Nagi posts on X @ahsannagi and can be reached via email: [email protected]

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