Senior CricViz Analyst Freddie Wilde’s tactical preview for England v Pakistan at the MCG.
Clash of styles
This World Cup Final matches the world’s deepest and most powerful batting line-up in England (only New Zealand have averaged more runs per wicket in this tournament) against the world’s best, fastest & most varied bowling attack in Pakistan (no team comes close to Pakistan’s economy rate in this tournament). It’s ice against fire, attack against defence; it’s England’s batting against Pakistan’s bowling.
The MCG Colosseum
The dimensions at the MCG – shorter straight & vast square – should encourage bowlers to bowl into the pitch rather than full to make batters hit square. These lengths may trouble Pakistan’s batters who have had issues against the short ball of late and who lost 5 for 37 to 38 short balls in the match against India at the MCG. The pace and bounce of the pitch will be a critical factor: England’s batters will want it fast and coming onto the bat while Pakistan will prefer more subcontinental conditions. The graphic below shows how Pakistan have struggled against balls bouncing above stump height during the tournament. However, they did improve their record against these deliveries in the Semi Final on an SCG pitch that offered less pace and bounce than most surfaces seen in the tournament.
Notably the pitches used so far at the MCG sees the venue ranks as the slowest venue used in the tournament but it has had decent bounce. The pitch used for India-Pakistan also offered considerable movement but Ireland-England and India-Zimbabwe did not.
Batters will target boundaries straight and run hard when hitting square. At the death yorkers won’t be as popular as in Adelaide where dimensions encouraged fuller lengths which might see England consider David Willey for Chris Jordan, if Mark Wood remains unfit.
Until the Semi Finals this was a World Cup largely dominated by teams who batted first, who won 61% of matches. However, both semis were won by the chasing team, with England actually opting to send India in and in the final both teams may well opt to do so. Pacing the first innings appropriately when batting first can be difficult, particularly for teams like India and Pakistan who are typically more cautious in the Powerplay. The poor Melbourne forecast also brings in the prospect of a shortened or DLS game which generally favours chasing teams.
Route’s to victory
During the second Semi Final Michael Atherton astutely observed that the question shouldn’t be what is a par score? but what is a winning score? Typically when playing against batting-heavy England you need to aim above par. However, the nuance to this match is that Pakistan’s strong bowling attack means Pakistan may fancy their chances defending par or potentially below. In the three games played at the MCG the PitchViz par score has been 159 – the joint lowest of all venues in the tournament.
Early wickets can expose England’s undercooked middle order
A combination of the rain and the form of England’s openers means that England’s middle order has hardly had any time at the crease in this tournament. England’s batters who have batted at number four or below have only faced 142 balls in total across the tournament – an average of just 35 per match; comfortably the lowest of all teams in the competition. If Pakistan can take one or two early wickets – something they’ve managed to do in all but one of their matches they can expose England’s middle order which has barely had any time at the crease. England’s batting Powerplay is the most important phase of the game.
Alex Hales and Jos Buttler have been explosive while the ball is hard and new; England’s run rate in overs 1-6 of 8.35 is the fastest of all teams in the tournament. Hales has generally taken the initiative first, allowing time for Buttler to bed in. Both openers have been creative with their footwork, moving around the crease to create angles and access short sides: England have scored 54 for 0 off 22 balls when they’ve moved around the crease in the Powerplay.
They will be met by the dangerous combination of Shaheen Shah Afridi’s full, aggressive lengths and the pace, bounce of the rest of the attack. If England lose an early wicket expect Phil Salt to be sent to exploit the Powerplay but if the wicket falls towards the end of the phase Ben Stokes may bat at three.
Keeping Buttler quiet
Buttler is the most dangerous player in this match, capable of winning the match single-handedly. He is exceptionally difficult to tie down and the margin for error is tiny. The graphic below shows how in the Powerplay Pakistan need to bowl a very tight line and just back of a length. Rauf is one bowler whose natural line and length matches up nicely with this zone and he’ll play a key role if Buttler survives the early examination of Shaheen’s full lengths and swing. From an attacking perspective, right-armers going wide on the crease and shaping the ball back into Buttler can be an effective angle of attack – particularly early on.
Hales’ left-arm swing issues
Hales can be vulnerable against left-arm pace in the Powerplay – particularly against the ball swinging back into him. Hales averages 71 against out-swing from left-arm pace but 29 against in-swing.
Could Pakistan bowl spin in the Powerplay?
Pakistan are the only team in the World Cup who have not bowled a single over of spin in the Powerplay in this tournament. However, this match might present an opportunity for that to change, if conditions are favourable. Across the tournament England have scored at 9.14 runs per over against pace in the first six overs but just 7.47 runs per over against spin. The fact that England have a right-handed opening partnership suits Mohammad Nawaz and Shadab Khan, the former of whom has a healthy head-to-head record with Hales (24 for 1 off 25) and the latter who has a good record v Buttler (21 for 2 off 21).
Spin match-ups in the middle
Even if Dawid Malan doesn’t play, England’s middle order is packed with left-handers with Stokes, Moeen Ali and Sam Curran. Unless England pair right-handers this makes it unlikely that Nawaz will play a big role with the ball through the middle overs and the left-hander trio could make life harder for Shadab, who prefers right-handers. Off spinner Iftikhar Ahmed could be used if two left-handers bat together. The addition of Mohammad Wasim Jr to Pakistan’s team after their defeat to India means they don’t need to rely on any finger spin overs.
Shadab should be used to target Salt
Salt’s record against leg spin is really poor, returning an average of 18 against it since the start of 2016. Salt particularly struggles against faster spin as well, averaging 16 and striking at 121 against balls above 90 kph. Pakistan should look to Shadab to exploit this match-up.
Shadab is a key player
Shadab has had an outstanding competition with both bat and ball and is likely to play a significant role in this match. Pakistan’s pace attack is much-vaunted and England may well look to attack Shadab and exploit the shorter straight boundaries. This battle between England’s middle order and Pakistan’s primary leg spinner is arguably as important as the Powerplay match-up between Shaheen and England’s openers.
Wide spin lines can slow Livingstone
Liam Livingstone is exceptionally powerful on the leg side. However, this can be countered by spinners either turning the ball away from the bat (against left-arm spin he only strikes at 121) or by bowling wider lines. Livingstone’s issues against left-arm spin could bring Nawaz into the game. As discussed above, England should be wary of pairing right-handers together to try and deter this match-up. Shadab and Nawaz should look to wider, and sometimes slower, lines to shackle Livingstone who tries to drag balls towards mid-wicket. Shadab has dismissed Livingstone three times in T20 cricket before.
Pakistan’s pace off options at the death
Pakistan’s attack is the fastest in the tournament which can make their slower balls particularly effective. In their semi final at the SCG they adapted to a used surface by regularly taking pace off at the back-end. Against the likes of Livingstone and Harry Brook who enjoy pace on the ball to hit 360 degrees, this could be a good option again. Against Livingstone if those pace off options are also combined with a wider line – taking the ball out his arc it can be doubly effective.
Pakistan’s tight death lines
Pakistan’s death bowling is also notable for the tight lines they bowl – no team in the World Cup goes wide less often at the death than Pakistan. If England premeditate they can use this to their advantage by getting inside the line of the ball and targeting the third man and fine leg boundaries. Livingstone’s scoops and ramps could well be brought into play by these lines and Livingstone’s superb record against Pakistan suggests he’s taken a liking to this attack.
Bowl good balls early to Babar & Rizwan
It might sound obvious but England don’t need to get too funky against Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan with the new ball. Both batters are notoriously cautious against classical good lines and lengths. The graphic below shows how hammering the channel on a good length and fractionally shorter is a good defensive option. Babar is vulnerable against inswing and Rizwan against outswing. Pakistan’s opening pair could do worse than learn from the way England have used the crease in the Powerplay, shuffling around to create angles and manipulate the field. However, they’ve only done so five times across the entire tournament – the second least of all teams.
England should consider frontloading Adil Rashid whose googly is a good option against Babar (who only averages 11 against them with eight dismissals), and then using slightly more pace through the middle. Rashid is also a solid match-up against Rizwan and a good option to Mohammad Haris. The importance of frontloading Rashid is further accentuated by the strength of Shadab and Nawaz against spin. Rashid’s returns have improved as the tournament has gone on with slower speeds in Sydney v Sri Lanka and Adelaide v India bringing him rewards.
Coping without Wood’s high pace
If Wood is not fit the absence of his high pace and vicious bouncer will be a big loss for England, particularly against a Pakistan team with clear issues against it. That said, Jordan is bowling quickly of late and Sam Curran’s bouncer has been a good weapon. Neither can make up for Wood’s high end speed and aggression but they are viable alternatives.
Countering Pakistan’s new-look batting order
The addition of Haris and the usage of Nawaz and Shadab as spin-hitters through the middle overs has provided fresh energy to Pakistan’s middle order. They are a complementary trio as well because while Haris is destructive against pace he can be slowed by spin but Nawaz and Shadab are the inverse. It will be interesting to see how Pakistan deploy their middle order with the left-hander Shan Masood also providing a firewall option who is generally better on the backfoot and against pace.
Moeen’s bowling unlikely to be needed
Against a predominantly right-hander heavy Pakistan batting order Moeen Ali’s off spin is unlikely to be required. He will only come into the game if Pakistan pair left-handers Nawaz and Shan through the middle.
Curran’s death method
Curran has been a revelation for England at the death in this tournament, conceding runs at 7.26 runs per over in the last five overs. Curran’s success in the period has been predicated on a change in his method from previous years: he’s bowling more bouncers, more slower balls and until this tournament far tighter lines, however, during the World Cup he’s started nailing his wide yorkers as well. The trouble with attempting to premeditate against him is that his left-arm angle enables him to change lines to an extreme degree. Batters have to move late to avoid being spotted.
Pakistan’s lower order improvement
A small but useful evolution to Pakistan’s batting this year has been the improvement of their tail-end’s boundary-hitting, providing additional depth to the batting which should enable those above them to bat more aggressively. Against an England team who have focussed on wicket-taking to protect against leaking runs at the death, this extra batting depth could create problems.
Freddie Wilde is a senior CricViz analyst and has worked with international and domestic teams around the world.