Mazher Arshad is a Pakistani statistician and journalist based out of Lahore. He has covered various Test and ODI series as a TV statistician, and has earned a reputation as one of cricket’s leading stats gurus.
Sometimes, a fact seems too good to be true. If you were asked to name the best batter from last year's England- Pakistan ODI series in the United Kingdom last year, what would you say?
Alex Hales? Who scored a swashbuckling 171 in one game alone at Nottingham. Joe Root? At that time had a stretch of five consecutive fifties in ODIs?
Even if you knew it was a Pakistani, it is unlikely your first thought would be Sarfraz Ahmed.
He amassed 300 runs at an average of 60 and a strike-rate of 91.74, including a hundred at Lord's and 90 off 73 balls in Cardiff run chase.
Sarfraz trumped every other batsman in that series, and in the next – against the West Indies in the UAE – he was second only to Babar Azam who scored three consecutive centuries.
But Sarfraz has struggled since. After missing the ODI series in Australia due to illness of his mother, he was appointed captain in the next series against the West Indies in Guyana but demoted himself to No.6 to accommodate Mohammad Hafeez.
"At that time the combination (in England in 2016) was a little different," said Sarfraz ahead of their must-win game against South Africa in Birmingham.
"Hafeez was in the team at that time but he is playing in the middle-order so we are trying a different combination.
"Maybe in future I will bat at the top but right now we have Babar at three, Hafeez at four and Shoaib (Malik at five). We want to go with the same batting order at the moment."
Some Pakistan batters seem obsessed with playing at the top and seem to think playing down the order is an insult to their talent. At last year's World T20 Umar Akmal made the bold move to ask Imran Khan to speak to the team management on his behalf and send him in a first drop. The video of his conversation with Imran, who during his stay in Kolkata was invited to give the team a motivational talk, caused shock and outrage.
Hafeez has not said so publicly but is understood to not want to bat lower than three. Babar Azam's five centuries in 11 innings have made him a fixture at No.3. Despite that success, Hafeez twice – once each in Australia and West Indies – tried to usurp him for the position.
It is surprising that Sarfraz, despite his success in the top five, is now batting at six. His performance in the top five is not just good, it is incredible by Pakistan's standards: 962 runs at 48.10 with a strike-rate of 89.23, two centuries and five fifties.
Outside the top five, he has just one fifty in 31 innings and averages 24.84 – notwithstanding the fact batting at No.6 brings more chances to be not out after an innings.
The case for Sarfraz batting higher is backed by more amazing numbers. Among batters who have faced at least 1000 balls in ODIs in the past five years, Sarfraz's percentage of singles (40.57) is second only to AB de Villiers (42.41). In other words, when it comes to rotating the strike in ODIs the Pakistan captain is second only to his South African counterpart.
It is a well-documented fact that Pakistan's openers and Hafeez consume too many dot balls, which adds pressure on the lower order. It is also a well-documented fact that Pakistan do not currently have any power hitters. While Hafeez can struggle to rotate the strike, he does not mind hitting the long ball. In the current Pakistan team, he is perhaps the cleanest striker of the ball and that skillset may be best utilised batting at six.
Numbers again vindicate that notion. In overs 41 to 50, Hafeez has scored 323 runs with a strike rate of 138.03 and tonked 13 sixes. Sarfraz, in contrast has scored 420 runs at 105.26 and hit only a solitary six from 399 balls.
Aamir Sohail, the former Pakistan captain and chief selector who incidentally picked Hafeez for his debut in 2003, criticised the team balance after their 124-run defeat against India.
"A selector's job is not to just select players but also tell them that what the team wants from them," said Sohail.
"We don't know about players' potentials. We waste them by playing in the formats they are not suited for. We don't have people who can develop players."
Champions Trophy 2017 Guide
Squads: Every Champions Trophy nation
2 June – New Zealand v Australia, No Result
4 June – India beat Pakistan by 124 runs
5 June – Australia v Bangladesh, No Result
6 June – England beat New Zealand by 87 runs
7 June – Pakistan v South Africa, Edgbaston (D/N)
8 June – India v Sri Lanka, The Oval (D)
9 June – New Zealand v Bangladesh, Cardiff (D)
10 June – England v Australia, Edgbaston (D)
11 June – India v South Africa, The Oval (D)
12 June – Sri Lanka v Pakistan, Cardiff (D)
14 June – First semi-final (A1 v B2), Cardiff (D)
15 June – Second semi-final (A2 v B1), Edgbaston (D)
18 June – Final, The Oval (D)
19 June – Reserve day (D)