Opening a can of worms for Pakistan
Opening the batting in English conditions is considered by many as one of the toughest challenges in Test cricket. Many a technically astute batsman has been exposed on the seaming wickets at the home of cricket.
Pakistan’s top-order batsmen have historically made heavy weather of some of the flattest tracks around the world, so it comes as no surprise that in England they have endured a tumultuous time against the moving red ball; especially since the famed duo of Saeed Anwar and Aamer Sohail exited the scene.
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But it was not always like this.
In a richly rewarding run from 1987 to 2001, Pakistan won six out of the 13 Tests played across four tours — with series wins in 1987, 1992 and 1996, and a draw in 2001. In most of the games won by the visitors, the openers provided a decent launching pad.
In 1992, Sohail was the second-highest run-getter of the series with a tally of 413 runs, including a marvellous 205.
Anwar, widely hailed as one of the greatest openers of his generation, top-scored for Pakistan in the 1996 series — scoring 362 runs at 60.33 in six innings, including a majestic 176 at Oval. The century was incidentally the last by a Pakistani opener in England.
And it has all been downhill since those heady days. The 2006 and 2010 Test series were tough on the openers, without a single century stand being registered in 12 Tests, including two against Australia.
Saleem Elahi, Abdul Razzaq, Salman Butt, Imran Farhat, Kamran Akmal, Taufeeq Umar and Yasir Hameed were all largely clueless against the hopping Duke ball. Mohammad Hafeez played a only innings of note when he scored 95 in the 2006 Oval Test — the highest score since the turn of the century by a Pakistani opener.
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England’s pacers showed what Pakistan are up against when they dismantled a clueless Sri Lanka batting attack; dismissing the visitors for 91 and 119 in the two innings to claim a resounding innings victory.
Here is a list of the prospects who will have to up the ante if they are to survive the onslaught from the likes of James Anderson and Stuart Broad.
Hafeez capped off 2015 with perhaps his greatest Test innings — a match-winning 151 against England at Sharjah. In seven matches last year, the right-hander averaged 59.16 with 710 runs.
He is undoubtedly Pakistan’s in-form opener but is dogged by a knee injury.
The right-handed opener’s track record in pitches conducive to fast-bowling also does not make for good reading. His average in South Africa and New Zealand stands at 11.83 and 14 respectively.
Hafeez needs to recover from his injury and step up to the plate if he is to be considered one of Pakistan’s best-ever openers.
After a fledgling start to his Test career, Masood finally announced himself with a serene second-innings century that led Pakistan to a series win against Sri Lanka at Pallekele last year.
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But he found it difficult to negotiate the swing, bounce and accuracy of Anderson in the UAE. The left-hander fell to Anderson in all four innings of the two Tests he played. His 54 in the first innings of the Dubai Test was interspersed with scores of 2, 1 and 1.
Anderson, who bagged a 10-for at Headingley last week, must be relishing another go at Masood. The left-hander will therefore be hoping to bank on his prior experience in England; having previously played for Durham University.
The aggressive left-hander is yet to play a Test but can earn a cap in the longest format if Pakistan are willing to take a gamble.
The orthodox approach of trying to play out the new ball against Anderson and co can back-fire quite easily.
And while taking the attack to the bowlers the calibre of Anderson and Broad’s calibre isn’t necessarily a guarantee of success, it at least offers the chance of scoring quick runs.
Sharjeel can throw caution to the wind with a steadying partner at the other end.
Khurram had an ignominious run in the Asia Cup T20 but his 50-over form has been scintillating, with back-to-back centuries in the Pakistan Cup.
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Khurram’s footwork and frail technique against the moving ball has often attracted criticism, and he has limited exposure in English conditions.
For now he isn’t a front-runner for the Test squad but might come into contention, especially if Hafeez is ruled out.
Sami made two Test appearances against Bangladesh last year — arguably the weakest bowling attack at the highest level. The former U19 captain though failed to cash in on the opportunity and was axed soon after.
Sami is considered a bright prospect for the future and boasts a compact batting technique but he might be deemed too raw for the demands of the English tour.
Need to learn on the job
Cricket teams generally build their successes on the foundations provided by openers and if Pakistan are to taste victory in England this year, their openers will need to up the ante. With Hafeez a doubt and Ahmad Shahzad left to cool his heels, their replacements — with little experience between them — have the proverbial mountains to climb.