Ending the year trying to figure out how Mohammad Hafeez is the answer to Pakistan’s T20 batting problems seems appropriate for 2020 – a damn year, yes, but also a bewildering and unexpected one. Hafeez, 40, in his 18th year as a Pakistani player, the epitome of the anchoring but elegant hitter, an opening test with ten hundred, now a top-notch T20 ember, torch holder for seniors in the? Stop it 2020, stop it now.
At the start of the year, Hafeez wasn’t even on the side of Pakistan, as in a story like this. He had retired from testing and, after a mediocre World Cup, was pushed out in the name of post-tournament transitions. Without a central and neglected contract for the series against Sri Lanka and the tour of Australia, it looked like he was finally gone. Pakistan was moving forward, and of all the strange selection decisions of the Misbah-ul-Haq regime, this was probably the least strange.
Transitions are fickle moments, so obviously two series defeats later and earlier this year, Hafeez was back, exactly for the reason he was initially sidelined – too old then, withered and experienced now. Since then, bingo, with the added benefit of proving that virtually everyone was wrong.
He is the seventh-best run scorer this year in the format, with the fourth highest average. But it’s his number of hits that draws attention. At 138.84, he’s better than a decent group of top-tier elite hitters: Jonny Bairstow, David Warner, Virat Kohli, KL Rahul, Dawid Malan, Babar Azam, Aaron Finch, and Fakhar Zaman. Hafeez’s strike rate is better this year than at least seven hitters in the current ICC top ten, including Glenn Maxwell and Colin Munro.
Filter it down to one-down performance, where Hafeez hit 17 innings out of 27, and his year becomes even more golden: an average close to 50 and a strike rate above 142 are the kind of metrics that are hard to cut. any other than very good.
So there is a file small evil at stake so far, wielding these big names that Hafeez compares favorably against based on a lonely – and very unusual – year and again on such a spectrum of T20 standards. The truest, most revealing comparison for Hafeez is with Hafeez himself and with most of his T20 career up to this season.
When the format was in its infancy, in the mid-2000s, it seemed like the perfect player for it: more than bits and pieces, not quite a true all-rounder. And for its first two years – 2005 and 2006 – it was so much more. All but one of his 23 innings over those two years – mainly in the much-loved ABN-AMRO Twenty20 cup for Faisalabad Wolves – were first, averaging 34.35 at a strike rate of 163.18. Add 20 wickets and an economy of under 6.5 and you have a player ahead of his time.
Over the past decade, however, with the evolution of the format, Hafeez hasn’t. If ever a strike rate captured a hitter’s limits, it was his from 2010 to 2019: 116.34 he was a good enough hitter to find occasional limits during the opening, but not enough to make up for missed scoring opportunities. who wore them. And since the strike rate remained fairly stable during this time, it reflected a hitter unwilling or unable to expand his game.
This year’s data could also speak of a different hitter. Now beating mainly at threes and fours, his middle-over game, where he was once slower, is unrecognizable. In 2018 and 2019, Hafeez’s strike rate at that stage was 114 (and about 115 if you go back to 2015). This year it’s gone to 147 (all for games where ESPNcricinfo has data ball by ball). The driver for this would appear to be its hitting the borders; has gone from hitting a ball every nine (in 2018 and 2019) to more than one every year in those middle overs (for games where ESPNcricinfo has data ball for ball).
He’s always been a better value for death than was often thought – a legacy, no doubt, from his early years as a ball to ribbon – but even there his strike rate has jumped to nearly 174 this year, compared to the 149 of the previous two years.
How did it happen to a player as deep in his career – and often thought he was so determined in his ways – like Hafeez? Firstly, it is that he changed his ways, and perhaps because he was snubbed after the World Cup, he understood the need for evolution. Leaving the cricket test not only allowed him to devote time to that need, but it also broadened his vision of batting itself.
Because it was such a sweet time trial of the ball, and because it had taken him so far, it’s not entirely surprising that it has taken him so far to realize that the force shot is important in modern play. It was almost an unlearning, recognizing that not all shots need to be flawlessly timed to send the ball through or over the ropes.
Freed from the other formats, he spent more time, more dedicated, hitting the range during practice. Observers of his timelines on social media will also have noticed more time spent on golf courses recently (or at least more posts about it). This helped him refine and better arm his swing from a firmer foundation.
Together, the results are clear: not only has he scored more six (37) this year than any other, but also more frequently (in terms of balls per six) than any other year other than his first. Since 2010, in just one year it has hit the borders more frequently than this. Against the pace in the middle over in particular he thrived. In 2018 and 2019, he scored 120 against fast bowlers and scored more six than four (19 sixes and 11 fours in 271 balls). But this year he hit 31 borders (24 fours and 7 sixes) in just 126 balls, with a strike rate of 168.
And at the risk of obsessing over his age too much in an era and format where more players play longer, it’s worth repeating that he turned 40 this year. you he could cut the metrics – being at least 35, averaging at least 45 with a strike rate of 135 – to show what Hafeez’s year was like in all time.
Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers were younger when they created this list but, more importantly, at the time they were specialists with a long pedigree in the format. Nothing in Hafeez’s last decade suggested he was capable of this. Yet here it is, somewhere between a reinvention and a glorious little tail lash of a confusing and unexpected career.
Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo