Pakistan spinners, where you at?

The Pakistan pace trio was at it once again, as they dismantled Bangladesh in the first Asia Cup Super-4 fixture

Yet another Pakistan game, and yet another chance to just sit and admire the beast that is the Pakistan pace attack. 

Not that we had people doubting this trio’s efficacy, the fact that they have now begun to come up with such performances at an alarming consistency only bodes well for their team in a World Cup year. 

Since 2020 – in over 30 ODIs, there have been only three instances where Pakistan have failed to a wicket in the first powerplay. In fact, in their last 10 ODIs, they have taken three or more wickets on four occasions. Even in the game against Bangladesh, their pacers reduced the opposition to just 49/4 at the end of the first powerplay, practically breaking the back of their batting order. 

So how good have they been? Let’s dig a little deeper. 

ODIs have usually seen the top three of any batting unit score the bulk of their runs. In the last three calendar years, top-3 batters have averaged just 35 runs per innings and have lost a wicket every 38 balls to Pakistan. Second to Bangladesh – 30 and 36, respectively – on both counts. 

In the first powerplay, Pakistan’s pacers have been as good as it gets. In terms of taking wickets, they are right up there with Australia and England. This, despite playing on relatively flatter and more unfriendly surfaces than the other two. 

They have been able to be this good thanks to the lengths they’ve managed to hit. Since 2020, only 8% of all deliveries bowled in the first powerplay by Pakistan have been fuller than 4m. Even while searching for swing, they have ensured that they have erred only on the shorter side. Of course, it also helps that they have a troika of pacers all of whom clock in excess of 140 regularly. 

A ploy they’ve regularly gone for is to set batters up for a fuller swinging delivery, and then surprise them with a quick short ball. Today’s dismissal of Mohammad Naim was another glimpse of just that. 

While the pace trio of Haris RaufNaseem Shah, and Shaheen Afridi have been extremely potent, it’s also laid bare the cracks in the rest of their attack. A common feature in their last two encounters has been the inability to force the pace in the middle overs. If it was Hardik Pandya and Ishan Kishan in the game against India, it was Mushfiqur Rahim and Shakib Al Hasan today.

This is where the lack of support from their spinners has hurt them the most. In their last two games, Iftikhar Ahmed is the only spinner to have taken a wicket, with all of Mohammad Nawaz, Salman Agha, and Shadab Khan going wicketless. 

It doesn’t get any better when you extend it to the last few years. In the 32 ODIs they have played since 2020, spinners have not been just as penetrative for Pakistan. Both, pacers and spinners have conceded at 5.4 RPO. However, this is where the difference lies – their spinners have taken over 50% more deliveries to take a wicket. 

Along with England and New Zealand, they are the only teams to average less than 1.4 wickets per match in the middle overs (11 – 40) in the last three years. And if you take into account that they have played over 70% of their games in spin-friendly conditions of the Asian continent, you begin to realize why this problem could prove to be cause for concern during the World Cup.

Their lead spinner Shadab Khan might be a world-beating allrounder in T20s, but his recent bowling form in ODIs will be something the Pakistan management would want to look into. In the last 12 months, he’s taken seven top-order (#1 to #7) wickets in the 10 ODIs he’s played – four of which came in two games against Afghanistan and Nepal. 

Out of these 10 ODIs, he ended the game without any top-order wicket in six of them. Not the kind of stat you’d want to hear if you support Pakistan cricket. Also, the reason we’re stressing on top-order wickets is that in the middle overs, which is when he plies his trade, majority of the batting will be done by top-order batters. 

Like most spinners in ODI cricket, his role in the setup is two-pronged. Stem the flow runs and take wickets. Being a solid option in either of those two prongs would keep him in good stead. Unfortunately, that’s not been the case. 

Then how do they plug this gap?

Well, Faheem Ashraf’s inclusion today gave us a blueprint of how they can continue to sustain the pressure in the middle overs. He ended Bangladesh’s highest partnership by taking the all-important wicket of Shakib Al Hasan. He bowled seven overs today and conceded at under 4 RPO. 

That’s absolute gold dust given the fact that he bowled six of those overs between the first and the final powerplay. Before we forget, he’s also shown us that he can be just as effective with the new ball as well. He picked up both Rahmanullah Gurbaz and Ibrahim Zadran for next to nothing, in his last ODI just a couple of weeks ago.

This will also help Pakistan deploy a few more overs of Naseem and Shaheen after the field restrictions are lifted, helping them maintain constant pressure on the opposition throughout the innings. But this would potentially leave them light on spin. Will they be willing to take that risk, only time will tell. 

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