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PSL 8: A Batting Renaissance

After years of overreliance on Babar and Rizwan, multiple young top order batters are shining in this PSL

In the tales of Pakistan cricket, fast bowlers have often been the heroes, so much so that fast bowling seems more a national pastime than the thankless task it is supposed to be. These tales have their genesis in the heroics of Fazal Mahmood in the 1950s, with each subsequent generation producing world-class quicks. Sarfraz Nawaz was followed by Imran Khan, who mentored the legendary duo of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. As their peak was coming to a close, Shoaib Akhtar emerged, seemingly willing to go through any pain barrier just to bowl fast. Umar Gul carried the baton with the white ball, as Asif and Aamir flew too close to the sun, and from their ashes rose Junaid Khan.

In 2016, an overdue milestone was reached with the launch of the Pakistan Super League, providing young cricketers with a platform far above the near anonymity of domestic cricket. In keeping with tradition, almost every single edition produced a promising quick bowler. Hasan Ali in 2016, Rumman Raees the following year, and Shaheen Shah Afridi in 2018 set this trend. Mohammad Hasnain, Haris Rauf, Shahnawaz Dahani and Zaman Khan followed suit in the following years. Even in the current season, the wicket-takers chart is topped by Ihsanullah, a vicious pacer, virtually unknown before rattling batters and viewers with his speed and consistency right from the outset of PSL 8.

What of the batters, you may ask? In contrast to pacers and even spinners like Shadab Khan, talented young batters were almost nowhere to be seen. Fakhar Zaman had a poor season in 2017, but still went to debut and perform for Pakistan in the same year. Mohammad Haris arrived in style in 2022, and later that year gate-crashed the T20 World Cup, but apart from these two, the few that did emerge, like Hussain Talat and Haider Ali, soon fizzled out.

This year, though, is a completely different story. While Ihsanullah has grabbed everyone’s attention, multiple young batters have produced innings that have made their stay at the crease a must-see spectacle. Saim Ayub, first picked up by Quetta Gladiators in 2021, and then released after a miserable season, finally blossomed into the batter he always showed the potential to be. He hit 5 fifties in 10 innings, showcasing outrageous shots along the way. A never-seen-before one-legged scoop over fine leg played with such nonchalance that it smacked of pure arrogance, a shot that could turn a good, hard-length delivery on off-stump into a boundary out of nowhere, truly signalled a renaissance for Pakistani batting. Right when it seemed inconceivable that he could outdo himself, a Haris Rauf full delivery outside off at 143 KPH was swept for six. After being promoted to opener from number 3, Saim hit 3 consecutive half-centuries, complementing Babar Azam perfectly. He enters the
playoffs with an average of 30 and strike rate of 167, statistics that any T20 team would pay gold for if sustained for longer.

Right as the debate began about whether this pair should also open the innings for Pakistan in T20Is, Babar Azam was rested due to illness, with Mohammad Haris resuming opening duties against Islamabad United, the team he made his first PSL half-century again. In a match his opponents needed to win to seal a top-two spot, Haris, who had till then been contained to a record relatively inferior to his 2022 exploits, partly due to his demotion from the opening spot, more than made up for it with a belligerent innings that showed why he is the best Powerplay batter in the country, as his ludicrous strike rate of 197 in PSL 8 demonstrates.

It would be pertinent to mention Multan Sultans’ opener Usman Khan in the same breath as Haris, both possessing a willingness to go after the bowlers from the word go, a characteristic that has not been seen in a high-class Pakistani opener since Imran Nazir. Sharjeel Khan and Fakhar Zaman might have big-hitting reputations, but in reality, they usually take a couple of overs to get going. Usman was benched throughout the season, as Shan Masood opened with Mohammad Rizwan. When the former was rested, Usman made the most of his opportunity by making the fastest century in PSL history, his innings a display of just brute force and ruthless intent.

A completely different approach to Haris and Usman is the one embraced by Lahore Qalandars’ Abdullah Shafique. A technically perfect batter, and thus a mainstay in the Pakistan Test side, he prefers lofted drives culminating in a high elbow to the brutal slogs more common to T20 cricket, but he is not any less effective as a T20 batter, thanks to his positivity at the crease. While his boundary-seeking shots may not ooze aggressive intent like the two aforementioned batters’ do, his willingness to keep looking for quick runs means he is no anchor either, as shown by his strike rate of 144 this year, along with an average of 27. His numbers do also take a slight hit due to being relegated to number 3 in the order in most matches by Lahore, a questionable move for a batter with a very high ceiling.

Seeing this deluge of young top-order batters shining, Azam Khan may be easy to overlook, but keeping in mind Pakistan’s thirst for a consistent middle-order batter in T20s in the past few years, his exploits this year should feel like reaching an oasis. Always adept at hitting spin, Azam has clearly worked very hard to improve his batting and fitness. This is confirmed by looking at his trajectory over the last three PSL seasons. His average rose from 17 in 2021, to 30 in 2022, peaking at 40 this year, while his strike rate rose by 21 in 2023 to reach a phenomenal 163, after increasing by 8 from his 2021 mark of 134. A move away from Quetta Gladiators in 2021, where he could not keep wicket due to Sarfraz Ahmed’s presence, has allowed Azam to flourish into a natural starter for Pakistan in T20Is, and credit must be given to his current side Islamabad United for providing him with the right environment to do so.

After years of overreliance on Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan, which caused them to adopt a restrained batting style, excessively so in the eyes of many, we could finally be looking at a renaissance of Pakistani T20 batting, with young players possessing flair, confidence, and swagger coming into the fray. Add that to a world-class bowling attack and with a T20 World Cup 15 months away, there is plenty of good reason to hope for a change in fortunes, after the knockout heartbreaks caused mainly by the batting in the past couple of years.

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