Shadab Khan batted at No.4 for the first time in T20Is against New Zealand, and it should be a move that Pakistan stick with, writes Sarah Waris.

Walking out to bat for the first time at No.4 in T20Is, Shadab Khan could easily have taken his time to get going. Pakistan were chasing only 148, and they had just lost two wickets in the space of four balls. With four balls of the powerplay left, he could easily have knocked it round, with the rate unlikely to spiral.

Instead, he cracked the first delivery he faced, short and wide enough to cut, to the point fence. Five balls later came his first six, slog-sweeping Ish Sodhi 95 metres onto the canopy at the Hagley Oval. Three more balls faced against Sodhi brought another 11 runs. The free-flying strokes from Shadab’s bat were a much-needed balm, providing not just immediate relief to the headache of a potentially tricky match situation, but suggesting that several of the struggles Pakistan have faced in T20Is: a cautious top order, a fallible middle order, and a set of batters seemingly unsure of what approach they should take, are all solvable.

Shadab was dismissed for 34 off 22 deliveries with a strike rate of 154.55, helping his side catch up with and then slide past the required rate. He might have fallen short of his maiden T20I fifty, but the way he went about rebuilding the innings indicates his batting potential is much greater than what has been assumed, at least by the Pakistan team managment.

To look at Shadab’s career record, he doesn’t immediately jump out as a player of promise, with an average of 18.08. But out of 31 innings, Shadab has played at No.8 or below 17 times, and he has batted in fewer than half of the games he has played. The all-rounder has rarely been given chances to show what he can do. Since the start of last year, even in his limited opportunities, Shadab has shone. In 12 innings – eight of which have come at No.7 and No.8 – he has averaged 26.71 with a strike-rate of 157.14.

Again, looking at it first up, Shadab’s Pakistan Super League efforts don’t impress too much, with an average of 18.80. And until the start of the 2020 season, his record was significantly worse, with an average in single figures and a sub-110 strike rate. It came as a surprise, therefore, when Shadab walked out to bat at No.4 in Islamabad United’s third game in the 2020 competition. Islamabad United, chasing 183, had lost two wickets in the first two overs, with Shadab promoting himself above Colin Ingram and Asif Ali. He smashed a 29-ball 52, winning the Player of the Match award after playing a pictoal hand on a one-wicket win. That year, he scored 180 runs in four innings at No.4, with three of those innings coming at a strike rate of more than 155.

2021 was a blip, with Shadab making 94 runs through the season at an average of 10.44 but he managed to wonderfully turn around his fortunes in 2022, ending with 268 runs. Out of the eight innings that he batted, six were at No.4, striking at 172.1 – more than his tournament strike rate of 162.42. He averaged 39 at the position and also picked up 19 wickets in the 2021/22 PSL, ending as the only player with more than 200 runs and 15 scalps. Islamabad United general manager Rehan Ulhaq explained how it was Shadab’s idea for him to bat at No.4 long-term. “He said, ‘give me 3-4 inns, we will change if it doesn’t work’,” he explained. “But it worked.”

A certainty in Pakistan’s T20I XI for his bowling, Shadab’s batting skills have often fallen under the radar, with Pakistan not making the most of their resources. The all-rounder has faced 266 deliveries in his T20I career, working out at 8.9 deliveries per innings, and hasn’t been trusted more despite Pakistan often struggling to find a consistent middle-order player who could also attack from ball one.

Pakistan’s reliance on their top order is a well-worn theme. Since the start of 2021, Pakistan’s top three have scored 4,245 runs – the most in the world – but at a strike rate of 128.75, which is much lower than India, England, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. Their steady run rate should make it necessary to have a middle order that can make up for the lack of explosiveness up top, but Pakistan have struggled to find players who can take on that responsibility.

Batters between at No.4 and No.5 have struck at 128.95 for Pakistan since last year, effectively meaning that the entire batting order, starting with the openers, has lacked firepower. On the other hand, batters from Nos.6-8 strike at a little under 134. It hints at how Pakistan have tried to accommodate anchors in the XI, with few opportunities for the aggressors to make an impact. Though the team has results to back them – they have won 28 of their 45 games in this period – it is a template that is not sustainable in a format where par scores are increasing every passing day.

The move to promote Shadab up the order against the Black Caps, thus, is a positive one, possibly indicating that they have identified the drawbacks of their approach and its unsustainability in the long term. Looking to go over the top from the onset, Shadab is not only a tested performer in the role, but is also strong against spin, which has often proven to be Babar Azam’s and Mohammad Rizwan’s nemesis of late: the pair like to rotate when the slow bowlers come on, whereas Shadab can attack.

The Pakistan skipper has a strike rate of 119.49 against all spinners in his career, with his opening partner Rizwan faring slightly better, striking at 120.52 against them. Shadab, on the other hand, strikes at a whopping 153.68 against all spinners in T20 Internationals, and his presence at No.4 could provide a breather, almost like Suryakumar Yadav does to India.

India’s top-order issues against the slower bowlers are well documented, with Aaron Finch recently not shying to bring on Adam Zampa when Virat Kohli came out to bat in the Australia-India T20I series in the third T20I. The spinner had gotten the better of Kohli in the second game, and troubled him in the first match, but could not pile on the pressure in the third T20I with Suryakumar, at the other end, constantly looking to attack him. Zampa conceded 44 runs in the clash, as his impact was neutralised.

Shadab could play a similar role for the team. His promotion could also encourage the openers to bat more aggressively, but even if they don’t, Pakistan will have a player who can build on the foundation that has been set. It will also lessen the pressure on finishers Asif Ali and Khushdil Shah, who now have the unrealistic responsibility of teeing off from ball one and leaving a mark in a short time after a majority of the deliveries have been consumed upfront without expected returns. Khushdil, in particular, could prove to be more suited to the finisher role than he did in the middle order.

Pakistan could well have fallen short of a relatively easy run chase of 148 against New Zealand if not for Shadab’s heroics, and that should be enough to serve as an eye-opener.