The captain must ‘step back’ to move forward
BABAR Azam, the hero of Pakistan’s batting line up, faces the biggest day of his career. Babar’s cricket has been blessed by sublime touch on the field and the hand of fortune off it. All that Babar has touched has turned to gold.
His batsmanship has been peerless, to rank with the greats of Pakistan cricket, with Javed Miandad, Inzamam-ul Haq, and Younus Khan — and perhaps one day Babar will surpass them all. He has taken the captaincy in his stride in all three formats. Babar may not be the best captain that Pakistan has had but he is good enough, and often in life good enough is all that we need to be.
Babar has the respect of his team-mates, and if anybody ever dared to question the wisdom of his tactical moves, Babar’s rebuttal was always with the bat. With runs, and more runs; with elegance, and more elegance still.
You can see it in the awestruck way his fellows hang on each post-match word. The concept of the PCB’s fan videos is ill advised, if in doubt they should look up the Hawthorne Effect, but Babar does the needful. His analysis is ordinary enough. The style is more monotone than inspirational. However, the players receive their captain’s analysis like a saintly sermon.
Pakistan don’t need Babar to open; this solution works for everyone… for him and for the team
Yet, today, Babar stands at a crossroads, the golden child is trapped in a gilded cage of his own construction. It is Babar who chooses to open the batting, match after match, as his form deteriorates before us. It is Babar who, unless he plays a long innings when he accelerates late, tends to put the whole innings behind the rate, piling pressure on his partners. It is Babar who is risking the success of the collective to prove a personal point.
It is a point that Babar does not need to prove. Babar is the undisputed king of Pakistan’s batting, a world top five batsman. He does not need to show us he can open in a T20. None of his peers, Virat Kohli, Joe Root, and Kane Williamson, do so. Babar is Babar, the aesthetic ruler of the prime batting positions of three and four. In any case, in showing us he is finding batting conditions difficult up front in Australia he is showing us his humanity. Many great batsmen have endured the same ordeal.
Pakistan doesn’t need Babar to open. Pakistan needs someone to play without fear and with abundant aggression, to partner the innovative striking of Mohammad Rizwan. And Pakistan has found a player that can prosper there. Everything, every instinct and every method, of Muhammad Haris’s play screams that he is made to open in a T20, in the power play with fielding restrictions. And if there was a doubt about the young man’s temperament at international level then that too has gone.
The solution works for everyone, for Babar, for Haris, and for the team. Pakistan should just do it. And at the same time they should consider replacing Mohammad Nawaz with Haider Ali. Pakistan must pick their four fast bowlers, it’s what sets them apart. They must pick Shadab Khan and Ifthikar Ahmed who are both in match-winning form. But that leaves the batting a little light.
Pakistan doesn’t need Nawaz to bowl as a 7th bowler. It doesn’t need him to bat and slow down the innings. Nawaz is better than he has shown in this World T20, but when the pressure gets to you it’s better to take a step back. And just as it makes sense for Babar to step back down the order, it also makes sense for Nawaz to step back on to the bench. His time will come again. Those two changes allow more aggression at the top of Pakistan’s batting order and more gusto in the middle.
Pakistan’s bowling has been peerless in this tournament, and New Zealand will be fearing it. But New Zealand won’t be afraid of Pakistan’s batting line up and batting strategy. That is the weakness that New Zealand will seek to exploit, and Pakistan must not let them.
Remarkable luck and remarkable bowling have secured Pakistan’s path to another World T20 semi-final, now it is in Pakistan’s hands to shut the door on New Zealand as firmly as they can. A world cup semi final is not a place for sentiment, it is a moment for ruthlessness.
Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2022