Posted in Cricket, Pakistan, sport

How Pakistan defied their T20 stereotypes in 2021

Too slow, too careful, too monotonous. It was not long ago when Pakistan’s approach to T20 cricket was lamented as old-fashioned and was slowly drifting away from the world’s elite sides. A divide was being created between the new brand of T20 cricket that England and India showcased and the primitive system Pakistan were still confined to. The turn of the year 2021 changed this all and Pakistan certainly haven’t looked back since.

Ideas of a rebuild were put to the question when Pakistan suffered their 5th series loss in 8 series last December after a 2-1 defeat in New Zealand. Their landslide down the rankings had been complete when they crashed down from No.1 to No.4 in the space of a year. Progress was concerning and there now seemed to be a lack of firepower to compete with the big teams. This was a team that looked light years away from even crossing the 190 run mark in an innings let alone the 210 run mark that the likes of England, India and Australia always look accomplished to aim for. The 2018 UAE days of restricting your opposition to 150-160 were gone, now it was about Pakistan managing to adapt against higher scores and expressing higher levels of risk and aggression to go for big totals. The resurgence of Mohammad Rizwan in T20 cricket was a welcome one.

(Photo by Michael Steele-ICC/ICC via Getty Images)

2021 has had its name stamped on as Mohammad Rizwan’s year. For an opener who was rarely considered as T20 material prior to this year, it is one of the most remarkable stories of the cricketing year to witness the countless records he has broken this year and what will live on as arguably the greatest year of a T20 batsman in history. Rizwan’s rise has seen him break the all-time record for the most T20I runs (1326) in a year, most half centuries (12) and most importantly, a staggering average of 73.7 across 29 matches. Not only is his splendid cricketing ability to be praised, but also the stability and calmness he brings to the Pakistan side has been pivotal to the side’s success this year. He is described as a natural leader whose presence composes others around him and is able to inspire others. You can call him the Mohammed Salah of cricket in 2021, and the big task now is to maintain these high standards he has set.

Never in history had Pakistan chased down a target in excess of 200 in T20 cricket, little did they know that in 2021 it would occur not only once but twice. On both occasions, it was the dynamic opening duo Babar and Rizwan that played the key role in the chase. The first instance will live long in the memories of every Pakistan fan for what was a scintillating chase on South African soil at the Centurion. Set a mammoth target of 204, it was down to the openers to respond in fashion and take the game to the South Africans. Emphatic was the manner in which they responded in. After 17.3 overs, Pakistan had added 197 runs for the first wicket partnership between Babar and Rizwan where the former scored his maiden T20I century, scoring 122. A statement win with 12 balls to spare was confirmed when Fakhar slapped a four down the ground. A sensational win which indicated Pakistan’s T20 cricket was heading in the right direction. 8 months later, and fittingly in Pakistan’s final game of 2021, they broke their own record chase and managed to chase down 208 against West Indies in Karachi with both Babar and Rizwan sharing yet another sensational opening stand, this time of 158 runs.

(Photo by Gareth Copley-ICC/ICC via Getty Images)

It was a common mistake for many Pakistan teams of the past to solely rely on talent and fail to focus on the mental aspect to the game. The lack of maturity and responsibility arguably restricted the progress of Pakistan cricket in the last decade. However, the presence of Babar and Rizwan defies this stereotype. The pair possess the ability to control games and adapt accordingly to the task. They carry the weight of the task on their shoulders and are able to easily switch gears depending on the match’s situation. The stability they both bring means that the team has a platform to accelerate from, in the death overs with many wickets in hand, and allows the likes of Fakhar, Shoaib Malik and Asif Ali to run rampant with freedom towards the end.

In T20 cricket, every team needs a wicket taker who can turn games around. And Pakistan have one of their very own in Shaheen Shah Afridi. The left-armer has showed how crucial he is to Pakistan’s bowling set up across all formats in the last 2 years, but it is the powerplay in which he poses the greatest threat in. Early wickets are what defines his quality. No opener in the world stands safe when facing Shaheen in the powerplay and when he is on form, as Nasser Hussain says, ‘They cannot play him’.

‘They cannot play him’

– Nasser Hussain (on Shaheen Afridi’s ball to KL Rahul)

The importance of Shadab Khan to Pakistan’s T20 set up can never go understated. Injuries have prevented him from featuring regularly in the team in the last year until the England series, but there is no doubt that he is one of the best assets in this format to have. His all-round game is well suited to the modern era of T20 cricket and he would slot into most of the top teams’ lineups. The miserly economy he provides in his overs is comparable with the likes of Rashid Khan and Mujeeb ur Rahman, and he provides useful batting down the order if needed at No.7. A big hitter who can certainly finish off a game and most importantly a leg spinner who can tear through the middle overs and take wickets. One only needs to be reminded of his magnificent spell against Australia in the semi-final to know what a talent he is. The ability to remove all of Warner, Smith, Marsh, Maxwell to single-handedly turn the game on its head was remarkable, albeit in a losing cause.

(Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

Heading into the T20 World Cup, whilst Pakistan had displayed vast improvements in their new approach to T20 cricket, their main problem lied within their inconsistency in team selection. Amongst their XI, only Babar, Rizwan, Shaheen and Hasan had seemed permanent fixtures of their side so far throughout the year. The rest of the 7 places were up for grabs and were hanging in the air. Many late changes were made. Shoaib Malik was only called up after Sohaib Maqsood pulled out through injury, Asif Ali only sealed his place after an impressive pair of warm up games and Fakhar Zaman was added to the squad for the 2nd deadline after initially missing out of the initial squad.

Pakistan would go toe-to-toe with their rivals India in the opening game, and with their lack of experience, it was no surprise that India were the bookmakers’ favourites to triumph in the opening game. India perhaps could afford to brim a smile to see they didn’t have to deal with the menace of Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz, two players that have haunted them before in the past. But this time it was Shaheen Afridi’s turn, and two early wickets to remove the openers KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma had set the tone nicely for the rest of the tournament for the Men in Green. They went on to comfortably topping their group with 5/5 wins in a group containing India and New Zealand. Unfortunately, their run came to an end in the semi-final against Australia but the unity and courage they showed as a team throughout the tournament shows us that this small run is not any anomaly, but it is a sign for even better things to come.

(Photo by Gareth Copley-ICC/ICC via Getty Images)

The revamping of Pakistan’s T20 mindset this year has rightly transformed them into world-beaters and they have successfully re-established themselves as an elite side in the format. They are no longer an expired outfit in the T20 game, and they have showcased their ability to combine both talent and maturity into their cricket, unlike many Pakistan teams of the past to sleep on solely on talent. This young team is on the trajectory and there is no doubt that Pakistan will push on even more from here. There would be little surprises next year if we did see Babar Azam and his side lifting the T20 World Cup under the lights of the MCG, and what a dream scenario that would hold for every Pakistani cricket fan.

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