Flake it from the top - Pakistan's batting problems

Social media comments hurt us - Sarfaraz (0:50)

Pakistan captain says the abuse his side are receiving on social media is affecting the players psychologically (0:50)

At a fairly civilised media scrum at Lord's Friday evening, as Mohmmed Amir was whizzing past his batsmen in the nets, Wahab Riaz was asked about Pakistan's bowling being responsible for the state the team was in at the World Cup. Wahab was reasoned in his response and talked about the lack of wickets upfront, manfully bearing the burden alongside his comrades. Well, ahem.

Pakistan's pride in its bowlers may have led to the interrogation and while Wahab did admit to their errors, the blame for his side teetering at the edge in the World Cup needs to be spread around a little more fairly. A sizeable amount should land at the door of the batsmen, particularly the trio at the top who came into the tournament as well prepared as a set of pre-World Cup batsmen could possibly be.

Imam ul Haq, Fakhar Zaman and Babar Azam were given challenging contests - ODI series in South Africa and England - the security of their place in the team - a break against Australia in the five-match ODI home series in UAE - and were to max their chances, getting into a good run of form. Plus Pakistan ensured there were three other batsmen - Abid Ali, Shan Masood and Haris Sohail - all bedded in as back-ups in case needed. The top-quality top-order batting preparation for a World Cup had been so smartly calibrated that management schools could reach out for tips from the PCB as to how to plan random campaigns.

And it looked like it was paying off.

Before the World Cup, Pakistan's totals in England in four completed matches were: 361, 358, 340 and 297. Before the World Cup, between them the Uber Order of Imam, Fakhar and Babar (who can be condensed into the single acronym IFB) had scored four centuries and seven fifties in series in South Africa and England. Yet as the tournament began and the early summer rain fell, the best laid plans appeared to have unravelled.

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Pakistan's World Cup totals so far are 105, 348, 266 and 212, the 348 bringing about their only victory against England. No plan, the generals say, survives contact with the enemy, but in the case of Pakistan's top order, they appear responsible for their fates, operating on a self-destruct mode set on a timer. Like the Mission Impossible message, around the time an IFB innings crosses 33, it goes kaboom.

The numbers prove it. At the World Cup, IFB have played a total of 12 innings and they have been dismissed without getting 'set' - that is in single-figures - only three times. In the other nine, there are no centuries, only three scores between 50 and 65 and six scores between 20 and 48.

The combined IFB scores and averages in the four series played this year is a startling contrast. From the high of averaging 55.07 between themselves in the five-match series against England, they now average 32.41 in the World Cup. Their combined form is a reflection of Pakistan's tottering campaign.

When the ESPNcricinfo stats team dug deeper, they were to find a greater relation between the Pakistani top order and the state of their game. In the past, whenever any one of IFB have scored a century - that's nine in all, Pakistan have crossed 300 on seven occasions and the average innings score is 329. While crossing 300 is no guarantee of an ODI victory - and Pakistan's performance during the ODI series against England was proof - setting up the total at least puts out the stall. In the 300-plus scores at this World Cup, 16 in all, only one team has lost after setting a target and that was West Indies to Bangladesh.

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Just like Wahab admitted to the bowlers' inability to take top-order wickets, the flip side of the coin was the impact that those wickets had on teams going ahead. It is Pakistan's top-order hiccups that have led the opposition to get stuck into the line-up and seize control of the game.

Examine this: against Australia, Fakhar (0) and Babar (30 off 28), were gone by the 11th over (56 for 2). Imam soldiered on for 15 more, before being caught down the legside for 53.

Against India, after Imam was out for 7, Fakhar and Babar had settled in at a good clip taking Pakistan to 117 before Babar fell at the end of the 24th over, though it took a magic ball from Kuldeep to get him at 48. Eight balls later, it was Fakhar, top-edging a sweep to Kuldeep, out for 62. Rather than take on the role of helmsmen during game-changing moments, each of the top three turned into rusty anchors and broke loose.

When asked about the lack of heft of his top three, Pakistan captain Sarfaraz Ahmed said he believed the pitches that his team ran into during the bilateral series were considerably different from the ones in use at the World Cup. The weather in England may have also played its part, and Sarfaraz said, "But it is right to say that our top order is scoring runs but not converting them into big runs. We have talked about this with our batsmen, and I am sure that the players will convert them into big scores in the matches ahead."

Sarfaraz also pointed out that in this World Cup it was the top orders of the teams who were making an impact on controlling the tempo of matches and results. "We are trying hard to ensure that the top order performs, whether we bat first or chase, that will make a big difference."

For Pakistan however nothing depends on what the captain says. It hinges on what his top three do, that could decide the fate of this World Cup campaign.