x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Doors must not close soon on Pakistan openers

A nice tidy act and a good opening partnership results in Pakistan having a good Day 2 at the Zayed Cricket Stadium against South Africa.

Khurram Manzoor, right, batted with authority and there was not much South African wicketkeeper AB de Villiers could do. Karim Sahib / AFP
Khurram Manzoor, right, batted with authority and there was not much South African wicketkeeper AB de Villiers could do. Karim Sahib / AFP

aBU DHABI // Here is something that should boggle the mind, except that it probably will not.

That is because the general outline of this situation is known: Pakistan have used many openers in the last decade, tried them in many more permutations and have not been able to find either a single decent opener, or a pair that works.

But it is worth logging the details.

Since the beginning of 2003, for instance, Pakistan have tried 26 different opening combinations in Test cricket.

Fourteen different men have been entrusted to go out and face the new ball. They have tried specialist openers, they have tried to push middle-order men up there, they have used a wicketkeeper. And there is Imran Farhat.

It has not been barren experimentation. They have 14 century and 29 fifty stands to show for their troubles, which is not great, or even good, but it is something. Some of the pairs, such as Taufeeq Umar and Imran Farhat back in late 2003, looked like the future.

Others, mostly those involving Shahid Afridi, have looked like timeless bad ideas.

Some pairs were torn apart and reunited several times over several years, like passing lovers in a particularly tragic novel, only to always end apart.

Even as recently as the beginning of this latest age under Misbah-ul-Haq, a solution appeared at hand. It was only 21 months ago, in Dubai against England, that Taufeeq Umar and Mohammad Hafeez put on Pakistan’s last opening century stand before yesterday, and neither are here now.

Those two first shared the trauma of facing a new ball in August 2003 and have five hundred and seven fifty stands.

But since breaking them up again, they have tried six in seven Tests. The problem is obvious. It is not that Pakistan does not and cannot produce openers, or that one opener is better than another.

On the evidence of this decade, in which the most any pair has opened together is just 39 innings, these assumptions are essentially untested. No pair, no single opener has been given one, uninterrupted run long enough to prove or disprove anything.

It is the kind of obvious point almost not worth stating. So, as refreshing as Tuesday’s 135-run opening stand between Khurram Manzoor and Shan Masood was, pardon the inherent cynicism in wondering whether they will be around next October when Pakistan are likely to take on Australia.

Either of them could get injured and be forgotten. One of them could be dropped for a poor run in another format. New selectors might come in, or a new captain, with his own preferences.

Who knows?

Manzoor, whose first hundred on Tuesday put Pakistan in such a good position, is a fine example of the kind of openers Pakistan have produced, but not positioned with any permanence. Seen as he is, he does not always have the kind of rigorous technique some might want in an opener.

It is not unkind to ask whether he might struggle outside the region, though Pakistan do not actually have any Tests outside the region anytime soon.

But with this apparent breakthrough emerged a better sense of the capabilities of a young opener, of facets that go beyond good footwork or how straight or crooked the bat comes down, or how much his domestic average is. This, as it was for Masood, was about much else.

Clearly, if the world’s best pace attack can be taken on in the kind of intelligent, nerveless fashion Manzoor and Masood employed today, there is very likely something there worth investing in.

As there has been in the past, because as much as coaching or anything else, that investment needs first to be one of faith.


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Audio: Shan Masood says Pakistan is now full of belief that his side can turn things around