Ben Gardner runs over how the Pakistan Super League has affected the debate around the national team’s opening spots.

The T20 World Cup is two and a half months away, and pretty much the only thing we know about who Pakistan’s coach might be for the tournament is that it won’t be Shane Watson. The former Australia all-rounder, according to ESPNcricinfo, has ruled himself out after being identified as the PCB’s favoured candidate.

It’s perhaps coincidence that, of all the many roles Watson took on during his playing career, one of his most distinguished was as a T20 opener, but still, for whoever does eventually take on the role, figuring out Pakistan’s opening puzzle will be one of their key early decisions. The Pakistan Super League has added plenty of information to the process, but in some ways hasn’t made the dilemma any easier.

For a while, Mohammad Rizwan and Babar Azam seemed to have settled the debate. Since the wicketkeeper’s promotion to the top of the order in late 2020, the pair have smashed basically every partnership record going: most runs (almost 1,000 more than the next best); most century stands (nine, only KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma have even half that); and best average (with a cut-off of 1,000 runs).

Pakistan enjoyed success as well. A Babar-Rizwan special gave them a proud, ten-wicket victory over India at the 2021 T20 World Cup, and a semi-final finish was bettered by one round in 2022, with, perhaps, only a Shaheen Shah Afridi knee injury between them and the title.

Through this time, the pair dominated Pakistan’s scoring to an unmatched degree. Each has scored more than 2,000 runs since that Rizwan promotion. No other Pakistan batter has reached 1,000. Babar has averaged 36, and Rizwan 56. Apart from them, only Shan Masood and Shoaib Malik has averaged even 24 in that time, and neither of them has played a game since the start of last year.

To what extent were Rizwan and Babar masking the flaws of their teammates, and to what extent was their get set and accelerate approach affording too little opportunity to those following them? And, given they were Pakistan’s only two dependable batters, could splitting them up afford more stability throughout the order? These were the questions that prompted, at the start of this year, the brains trust to split up the Babar-Rizwan axis. With Rizwan the more consistent, it was Babar pushed down to No.3, and Saim Ayub tasked with partnering the keeper at the top of the order.

The first attempt didn’t go well. Ayub sparkled then struggled, and while Babar and Rizwan were able to maintain their own levels, Pakistan lost 4-1 to New Zealand. Now, with the same opposition visiting next month for a return tour, it’s time for another go round.

The briefest glance at the PSL run charts might suggest a return to the norm is in order. Going into the final, Babar and Rizwan occupy the top two spots. Perhaps these two are simply so far ahead of their peers that Pakistan should just bet it all on them. If they fail, would anyone else have done any better?

But there is more to be gleaned from the season gone by. First, look at basically every other list, and another name stands out: Usman Khan has two centuries (and another score of 96) and has averaged 124 with a strike rate of 168. Despite only playing six games, he’s third on the runs list.

Usman, 28, is the outlier in several senses, and he would be the biggest punt the selectors could take. He has had a circuitous route to the top level, working as a security guard and a storekeeper alongside playing cricket. Thinking the Pakistan door was shut, he has started on the road to qualify for the UAE, but has said he could be tempted by a call from the country of his birth. It’s an intriguing option, and perhaps Pakistan will take a look before the T20 World Cup.

Further down that list is Ayub, who is clearly a true talent, and must be persisted with. He is fifth in the run charts and is striking at 158, but really, all you need to do is watch him. Start with his picture-perfect swing for six off Naseem Shah in the first over of the Eliminator, treating the best powerplay bowler in the competition as if he were a bowling machine, lined up and deposited.

His bowling may also come into the mix. He came in with the reputation of a part-timer, but has excelled, taking eight wickets and conceding under 7.45 runs per over. Babar has even handed him the new ball at times, and his carrom ball allows him to threaten batters of both hands. Watson won’t be in charge, but he is an example of how valuable an opener-all-rounder can be, allowing any sort of balancing lower down the XI.

Also relevant is who Ayub has made his runs with. While Peshawar Zalmi fell at the penultimate hurdle, he and Babar have resumed their fearsome partnership from 2023. In that time, the pair have shot into second in the all-time PSL partnership runs list. Babar has been sublime, with a renewed aggression in the powerplay and that relentlessness still in place. He has a century, five fifties, almost 200 runs more than the next best, and a strike rate of 142 this season.

He has also made clear his desire to open for Pakistan. “Whatever I did, I did it for Pakistan,” he said. “If you ask me individually, I wasn’t satisfied playing one-down for Pakistan. But I did it for Pakistan.”

Based on the PSL, if there’s one batter Pakistan must put in the plum spot, it’s him. And Ayub might be the perfect foil.