While the result of this series, a Pakistan win, might not have been a total shock given that it was being played in the UAE, the margin of it, three-nil, and of each victory, 111, 59 and 136 runs, was. There was little between the teams in the rankings before the series with West Indies eighth and Pakistan ninth and both teams chasing valuable points for automatic World Cup qualification; on the pitch however, there was an enormous gulf in class.
This was an encouraging result for a Pakistan team in their third series under new coach Mickey Arthur. Particularly impressive was their batting – perennially their weaker suit in limited overs cricket – which registered scores of 284 for 9, 337 for 5 and 308 for 6. Their series run rate of 6.23 is their second best ever against major opposition.
The standout player was of course Babar Azam who scored a century in each match on his way to surpassing Sir Vivian Richards as the leading ODI run-scorer after 18 matches with 886 runs. The top five generally were very impressive with Azhar Ali, Sharjeel Khan, Shoaib Malik, Sarfaraz Ahmed and Azam scoring 806 runs between them at an average of 62 and a strike rate of 99.87.
This series offers an interesting case-study of Pakistan’s approach in ODIs because in none of the three matches did they suffer a significant collapse meaning they were able to apply their strategy largely unaffected. Analying their innings in ten over phases reveals their strategy to be one of attack in the Powerplay, led by Sharjeel, followed by a consolidation and a gradual increase through the middle overs towards the last ten. Their ten over phase run rates were 6.23, 4.73, 6.43, 6.00 and 8.03.
Although Azam was the leading run-scorer for Pakistan it is hard to look beyond Sharjeel as Pakistan’s most important player not only in this series but to Pakistan’s batting strategy more generally.
Sharjeel is Pakistan’s only player with a career strike rate of more than 100 and his aggression in the Powerplay is integral to affording Ali and Azam the time to play themselves in. Across his first ten balls in this series Sharjeel’s strike rate was 130.00, while Ali and Azam’s was 56.86; across his next ten balls Sharjeel’s strike rate was 145.45, while Ali and Azam’s was was 70.00, only after facing 30 balls did Ali and Azam’s strike rate begin to rise towards a run-a-ball and once they had faced around 70 they begun scoring at consistently more than a run-a-ball.
Interestingly there was only a very subtle difference in intent from Pakistan’s batsmen in this series compared to the series against England that they lost 4-1, playing at 3.05% more deliveries and attacking 2.17% more. It seems that the critical difference, beyond the opposition and conditions, was that Sharjeel played three quick fire cameos at the start of the innings, with strike rates of 125.58, 200.00 and 92.68. Sharjeel’s aggression alleviated the pressure on Ali and Azam, who were able to play themselves in without feeling forced to play more positively, and as a result Pakistan did not lose as many early wickets as they did against England and were able to stay in control of their run rate, attacking balls they wanted to attack rather than those they felt compelled to after rebuilding.
There is a fragility to Pakistan’s batting success in this series. Ali and Azam are capable of scoring at strike rates of around 90 and may well get better at doing so earlier in their innings but currently they take their time to do so. While Shoaib and Sarfraz are in a bracket above in terms of scoring rate Shoaib has only played eight innings of more than 20 balls at a strike rate of above 110 since 2010 and Sarfraz has only played three ever. With little lower-order firepower below Shoaib and Sarfraz to speak of this batting order places enormous importance on the contribution of Sharjeel to get Pakistan off to a quick start to allow Ali and Azam to play themselves in which subsequently doesn’t leave Shoaib and Sarfraz too much to do when they come to the crease.
Pakistan would go a long way to solving this problem by unearthing more lower-order firepower, thereby lifting pressure on the squeezed middle order from below as well as above. Pakistan’s run rate of 8.03 in the final ten overs in the series may not seem too bad but in this era most teams are scoring at nearer 10 in that phase. Pakistan have failed to score more than 75 in their final ten overs seven times in their last ten ODIs batting first (HT: Hassan Cheema).
Although Ali scored a hundred in the third match of the series, doubts about his ability to score fast enough in limited overs cricket remain, and it is an inconvenient possibility that Pakistan’s ODI team would be better off without their captain. While most teams now have two power players in their top three, Pakistan have just the one and the effects of that are felt throughout the batting order.
The lingering uncertainty surrounding Pakistan’s ODI batting should not tarnish the acceleration of the emergence of Azam in this series who appears a to be a fantastic player. He scored runs off all types of bowling, on both sides of the ground, off front and back foot and coming down the pitch and did so at a healthy strike rate. It is possible to see him filling a Joe Root-style role at number three for Pakistan for a long time to come.
For the West Indies this was a bitterly disappointing series. With the ball they were unable to expose the holes in Pakistan’s batting and when chasing they got off to slow starts, struggling to time the ball despite positive intent, missing or edging 18.81% of their shots and they found it hard to rotate the strike, recording a dot ball percentage of 54.12% compared to Pakistan’s 38.30%. Ultimately they fell too far behind the rate too early to make their way back against Pakistan’s spin bowlers on slow pitches.
Freddie Wilde is an analyst at CricViz.