That bit of anxiety, burrowed so deep inside so as to be genetic, is going to be resurfacing right about now; that rising, inescapable feeling that something is going so well at the moment that is not meant to be going so well – one hiccup apart – and that it can’t possibly be this good. You’ve stolen the cookies from the cookie jar and boy, are they great, but you know it’s only a matter of time before you’ll be found out.
This is the space Pakistan’s batting is in right now. This year has been some year for that suit of Pakistani cricket that can consider itself possessor of a lifetime pass of good fortune by virtue of its trophy spouse, Pakistan’s bowling. And so, as Australia loom, in overcast conditions in a small windswept town in the southwest of England, on a pitch that looks win-toss bowl-first-and-thank-your-lucky-stars-you’re-not-batting-first, that moment is upon us. This bubble is about to burst, right?
First, though, let’s at least acknowledge this half-year for Pakistan’s batsmen. It’s only half a year but, given the World Cup, it’s the half-year that counts.
Collectively, they are averaging 36.46, the fourth-highest they have ever averaged across a year (min ten ODIs played). Third if you take out 2008, where they had ten ODIs against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh at home to fill their boots.
Only once have they, as a team, scored quicker through a year (5.85 in 2016, compared to 5.81 so far this year). Excluding 2008, they’ve only scored more hundreds as a team once, in 2002, when had had 13 – they have nine tons already this year.
Sixteen of their 17 games this year have come against three of the top-five ODI sides, two of those series in the homes of their opponents. Since landing in England, they’ve hit 361, 358, 340 and 348. In less than a month. There’s probably times recently where they haven’t made as many runs combined in an entire calendar year as they’ve made in those four innings alone.
The ‘t’s and ‘i’s of this massive jinx having been crossed and dotted respectively, Taunton potentially provides about as big a test as this order has had. The 105 against West Indies in Nottingham can still be excused as an aberration, especially in how they responded against England.
Much of the success has been built on their top three; Imam-ul-Haq, Babar Azam and Fakhar Zaman are their leading scorers this year (in that order) and have most often provided the base for their bigger totals. In its functioning, it operates as a kind of India Lite. One opener (Fakhar) goes harder than the other (Imam), and the No.3 (Babar) is the anchor around whom everyone else bats.
“As far as I’ve seen, all the teams take their time at the start,” Imam told ESPNcricinfo on Monday. “New Zealand’s [Kane] Williamson and [Martin] Guptill take their time. Even [David] Warner for Australia is taking his time. If you don’t lose a wicket in the first 10-15 overs, you get a cushion and then other players can play around one opener. Having wickets in hand for the last 15 overs makes a huge difference.”
In fact, that top three is about as stable an ODI top three as Pakistan has had in a long while. They’re familiar with each other’s ways and responsibilities, the little pressures each takes off the other.
“See, Fakhar has a different role,” Imam said. “No one can change his style, nor does anyone want to. If he gets out, then the responsibility is on me and Babar. Whichever one of us gets set, he has to play a long innings. On these wickets, once you get set, you can relax and build your innings and lift your strike rate.
“If I’m batting with Fakhar, there’s not much pressure on me because I know it’s his role to attack. And me, Fakhar and Babar, the top three, are very comfortable batting with each other. I have been playing with each of them for a long time.”
The problems have usually begun after these three. Imam and Babar’s strike rates need someone beyond them to show a little more urgency. By numbers, Haris Sohail has had a good year, but in between two hundreds, those numbers are thinner. He’s highly regarded by Mickey Arthur but perhaps is too similar in pace and structure as Imam and Babar.
So it’s actually been left to Mohammad Hafeez, ol’ man Hafeez, to bring the boom to this little run. It’s often been speculated – with good reason – that Hafeez even now, at 38, refuses to see himself as anything other than a top-order player. The top three spots are now out of the question so he has had to come in at the bottom of this top – at No 4 .
It is virtually a new avatar for him, given that before this year, he’d batted No. 4 in less than 10% of all his innings. At No. 4 this year, forget the average and even the fifties – take in that strike rate of 109. This, so late in a career that now seems like an inadvertent, one-man philosophical tribute to the Dutch’s Total Football: no assigned roles, play anywhere and everywhere.
If the pitch plays as everyone seems to think it will, and Pakistan bat first, then expect to find out a little more about that top three (maybe even Hafeez, 200-plus ODIs in). And don’t imagine you’re the only one feeling that anxiety. Yesterday, reports emerged that Pakistan weren’t happy with the amount of green on the surface. And they’re striving to find a way to not weaken their batting from the England game and yet tailor their pace attack to this surface.