Soft hands, wrists and a lot of grace
In an interview to commentator Ramiz Raja last year, Babar Azam acknowledged his inability to hit sixes. “I’m not powerful enough and I rely more on timing,” said Pakistan’s batting mainstay, who hits a six off every 128th ball in ODIs.
At six feet, Azam is tall enough for a sub-continent batsman. He’s taut but not exactly muscled or broad-shouldered. To peddle the archetype, a typical Pakistani batsman in build and demeanour, a touch casual and nonchalant.
Not only Azam, most of his batting colleagues would acknowledge a similar worry, a stark contrast to the West Indies, whom they face on Friday. Besides opener Fakhar Zaman, who has added a few layers of aggressive stroke-play into his limited-overs skin in the last couple of years, the fabric of this Pakistan side is well, typically Pakistani in essence, a less-gifted sample of various batsmen who have emerged from the country. Artistes, grafters, accumulators, fighters, but not someone who can just rattle out sixes from the start. Such an assemblage would have been perfect a decade ago, but outdated in this day and age when countries stack their eleven with six-spewing batsmen.
Alarmingly, none of Pakistan’s first-choice top-seven, barring Zaman (98), boasts a strike-rate in excess of 90. Some of them like the experienced Mohammad Hafeez, cajoled out of retirement, has a strike-rate of 76, bringing their mean hitting-rate to 85. In comparison, England top-seven’s is 101. The six-hitting average is one in 89 deliveries. West Indies’s, comparatively, is 36.
Babar, of course, has other fancied faculties — soft hands and wristy flourishes, a penchant for drives and flicks, grace and patience. All of these stood with him during a breakout 2018 in Tests. His 72 in Cape Town against a flaming, vintage Dale Steyn in Cape Town was a master-class, afterwards, he was projected as the future bulwark of Pakistani batting, if he already wasn’t one.
It’s with this reputation that he arrives in this World Cup, only that his limited-over methodology is a work in progress. A case in point was his 112 off 108 deliveries against Afghanistan in the warm-up, a match that Pakistan went on to lose. Raja, again, summed it up perfectly: “A century of a bygone era.” He further elaborated: “His innings got choked when he was nearing his hundred. He started trying [to take] singles and playing dot balls when he reached into the nineties and with that destroyed the rhythm of the game.” In fact, he consumed 14 balls between the 37th and 43rd over to move from 90 to 100, when the hours need was the set batsman to find boundaries more frequently.
So, it wasn’t a kneejerk, reactionary criticism, rather he was critiquing his methods in ODI cricket. Fastest he might have been to 1,000 runs in this format (and 1,000 runs in T20I too), but those milestones have comes at a strike rate of 85 and 128, which could have been considered phenomenal in the aughts, but not in the all-about-strike-rate milieu. Further dissection of his knocks reveals two burning deficiencies—his ability to rotate the strike and slow starts. In the powerplays, he strikes at a 90s-rate of 63, in the middle overs it’s a marginally better 83, but both unremarkable by modern-day yardsticks. A lot of batsmen around the world are notoriously slow-starters— Chris Gayle and Rohit Sharma for instance—but they compensate later in the innings.
It’s not that success in ODI cricket is directly proportional to the number of sixes a team can hit — Pakistan themselves would point out to their Champions Trophy triumph in 2017, a campaign wherein they crossed 300 only once—but a lack of batting ammo could hurt them in the made-to-order batting beauties of this World Cup.
The West Indian over-the-rope trick
The fuss over his six-hitting prowess is so magnified that even Andre Russell can’t comprehend how he could smear the ball so often. On the sidelines of a Carribean Premier League match last year, he had almost apologetically admitted: “I’m not trying to be humble, but sixes just happen. I don’t always plan my sixes.” In the last edition of the IPL alone, he struck a whopping 52 sixes off 13 innings, a six off every fifth ball he faced, before smacking another three against New Zealand in a warm-up game. In ODIs, he’s a relatively restrained force, but one six off every 14 deliveries is still a brisk clip in this format.
What makes West Indies the most-feared team in the World Cup is the fact that the six-stroking threat neither starts nor ends with Russell. They also have Chris Gayle, Shimron Hetmyer, Nicholas Pooran, Carlos Brathwaite and way down to the understated Jason Holder. Even the more classical batsmen like John Campbell, Darren Bravo and Shai Hope aren’t uncomfortable in trading in the currency of sixes. And they’re all different in one way or the other. Gayle, who tops the six-hitting chart of all time, likes to hit those high and grand, embellishing the frame; Russell and Brathwaite hit flatter; Hetmyer likes to deal straight. Pooran has sliced aerial cuts.
Some say six-hitting has a lot to do with instincts, others say it’s a science. It could be either or both, but the fact is that it is cricket’s most infrequent shots, and hence the most difficult. For a while now, the modern batsmen from the T20 generation have in pursuit of regularizing it, and none more diligent that the Caribbean batsmen.
When all of them are in the mood, they become an unstoppable six-hitting force of nature. Kiwi bowlers would volunteer testimonials—they shipped in 19 of them, some of them so monstrous that the umpire had to fetch new balls four times. So would the English bowlers, who bore the brunt of 22 sixes in St George’s last February, or the Indian bowlers who were brutishly punished by Hetmyer last year. The young Guyanese alone belted 16 sixes in five games.
So much so that six-hitting is the leitmotif of this West Indian side, which makes them an explosive group, glossing over their other weaknesses like a paltry pool of spinners, sloppiness on the field, dot-ball malaise and sometimes short-sighted strategising. It’s not a fail-safe ploy, nor are they wholly reliant on muscle and brawn. There are those like Hope and Bravo who plies their business in a more conventional premise, and too many dot can derail them. But if West Indies are to gallop forth into the knockout stages of the tournament, as some have predicted, it could be riding on their six-striking gift. Like Russell, they might not be able to explain how it happens, but they can well show them how to smoke a few into the upper tiers. Theirs is a six-fuelled ambition.