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Babar Azam flourishing as opener in T20 cricket

Pakistan T20 captain’s rise as a batsman in the shortest format of the game has been rapid

PHOTO: Reuters

Babar Azam became Pakistan's eight Twenty20 International (T20I) captain after the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) sacked wicketkeeper-batsman Sarfaraz Ahmed.

The reason behind Sarfaraz's sacking was his poor form in the format but what was never in doubt was his captaincy record — a win percentage of 78.4, which was the highest among the four captains to have captained Pakistan in more than 20 matches. But his inability to perform with the bat was something which could not be ignored. So Babar was given the reigns to the side and given his performance with the bat — number one ranked T20I batsman in the world — it was no surprise that he was the one selected.

Babar’s rise as a T20 batsman has been rapid and he can be defined as a player who is the anchor of the Pakistan batting unit around whom the other batsmen can play their free game. But his T20 career can be divided into two halves. The first half is before he became a regular opener and the second half is the one where he would open more regularly. It was in this second half of his T20 career where he truly flourished as a T20 batsman.

Babar's first half - Before becoming opener

Babar's first half saw him score at 7.01 Runs Per Over (RPO), where he faced 26 balls per innings, which converts into 30 runs per innings. These are not flattering numbers but given that he was the one batsman who soaked the pressure, while other batsmen around him scored the runs, it was a decent job. But it was not really good enough. Babar lacked boundary scoring, he scored 3.4 boundary runs per over, that's less than a boundary an over with the bulk of his scoring being in non-boundaries (3.61 Non Bdr RPO).

Babar's median score — the halfway point of all his scores — was 29, half his innings ended with him scoring 29 runs or less. The thing about this is that you get a batsman who scores 29 or more half the time he walks out to bat, the runs scored are good but the issue is the rate at which he scores them. His scores of 29 or more were scored at 7.5 RPO, which is 4 overs of an innings that according to the current T20 scenario is at best just average.

Babar would bat in the middle-order in these phases and in such situations, he would usually walk in with not many overs left in the powerplay to exploit it or with the field spread, which made his task of scoring runs a tad bit more difficult than usual. Simply put his strength of finding gaps in the field was ineffective when the field was spread, which in turn meant his boundary scoring also took a hit.

Babar Azam – After regularly opening the innings

Babar Azam's real talent of finding the gaps to score the boundaries, would be best utilised with him facing more balls in the powerplay overs, when there are only two fielders out of the circle and there are more gaps in the field to pierce. So the best way to get him to face more balls in the powerplay overs and thus maximize his effectiveness is to open the innings.

During the third edition of the Pakistan Super League (PSL), where Babar played for Karachi Kings, in the 12 games he played for his side he batted at number three position in 11 of them, but in the league game against Peshawar Zalmi he opened the innings and he scored 33 runs in 21 balls in the powerplay overs, he would eventually get out for 66 runs having faced 50 balls. But it was clear what was the best situation for Babar to bat in, which is why he was shifted up the order to face more balls in the powerplay overs where he could maximize his strength — finding gaps — and minimizing his weakness — finding the boundaries with field spread — and the move did wonders for him.

Since becoming a regular opener for Pakistan, his median score is 40 which is 11 runs better than when he was batting at number three for Pakistan. He guarantees a score of 40 or more half the time and which is ideal for his side, especially in a game where openers are more likely to fail than score runs. It must be noted that, since 2016 World T20, openers in game played among the sides in the Super 10 have scored 16 or less runs 50 per cent of the time. So with Babar you get an opener scoring 40 runs half the time which is a safer option to have because he guarantees you those 40 runs even if it's half the time.

Along with scoring more runs for his side, he has improved on his scoring rate, as well, which has moved from 7.01 RPO to 8.19 RPO. What has also taken a jump is his boundary RPO which is now 4.38 boundary runs per over, while his non-boundary runs per over has seen just a tad increase from 3.61 Nbdr RPO to 3.81 NBdr RPO.

Babar as an opener scores runs, he scores them consistently and he does them much quicker than he has done before and when he does score 40 runs or more, he does ensure that he scores them big and quick, 14 of his 23 scores of 40 or more have ended with him scoring more than 60 runs and his average scoring rate in innings, where he has crossed 40, is 8.63 RPO which is really useful as he is scoring runs at quick rate and not really being a liability to the side when he does stay long there in the middle.

Since opening Babar has been an asset for Pakistan, his median score is 42.5 runs (which is the best among all openers to have played in 10 innings or more since the WT20 in games among the Super 10 sides) which as explained is way better than the median score of 16 the openers score, and he has also steadily increased his scoring rate from 7.35 RPO to 7.81 RPO as an opener, which is not as high as a jump compared to his overall T20 career but given that he played 6 of his 16 games as opener in UAE which is known for its slow pitches and had a poor series against Sri Lanka at home, those numbers still stand out.

Babar Azam started off his career as an average T20 batsman, but over time he has improved his game and with the experience around him he has also learned how to go for the big shots. His role is that of an anchor is a role no one else can do well in the side, but if Pakistan have to continue doing well in T20s then the rest of the batting unit will have to step up their game and support Babar as he keeps improving his game.