x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Taufeeq ton against Sri Lanka should open up debate for Pakistan

For the vital job of specialist openers, Pakistan selectors have failed to maintain trust. Osman Samiuddin looks at the comeback tale.

Taufeeq Umar scored his sixth Test hundred, more than any other in the post-Saeed Anwar era.
Taufeeq Umar scored his sixth Test hundred, more than any other in the post-Saeed Anwar era.

Of all the jobs that mess with your head in cricket, none do so more than opening the batting. It remains, despite the presence of such alpha males as Chris Gayle, Virender Sehwag, Matthew Hayden and Gordon Greenidge, an inherently fragile business.

The great equaliser of batsmanship is that it takes just one ball to dismiss any batsman, legend, loser or otherwise. But only the opener can suffer from the peculiarly crushing fate of being dismissed first ball of an innings, or worse, the very first ball of a match.

Only the opener faces a hard new cherry with the opposition's best bowlers at their freshest and most motivated. Only the opener arrives at the crease blind, not knowing what kind of surface he has been presented with and what the overhead conditions are doing to it.

It is the opener who must set the tone, who must first construct an hour, a session, a day. It is a bruising occupation.

"At times you feel it is a thankless job," said Rameez Raja, a former opener, during the second day of the first Pakistan-Sri Lanka Test.

"You're supposed to go out there, face the new ball and score runs. People don't realise how tough it is."

From their team and managers, they require the most delicate handling because confidence, as an opener, is often the greatest illusion. One of the best ways (and there are many) to gauge just how unfit Pakistan's selectors have been over the past decade would be to cast a glance at how they have messed around their openers.

Since their last great one, Saeed Anwar, retired in August 2001, Pakistan have gone through 14 openers and many more combinations of those same men as a pairing.

Not one has played in even half of Pakistan's 82 Tests in those 10 years. Imran Farhat has played the most (36), which says something not altogether comforting about the approach.

Only four of the list have even played over 11 Tests as opener. None have been given anything resembling a long, unbroken run. Some have been dropped two Tests after scoring hundreds, some have been middle-order batsmen pushed to open.

Fawad Alam had not opened ever at first-class level and yet made his Test debut as opener in Sri Lanka just two years ago.

And he got a hundred. And he is not around anymore.

Pakistani selectors have handled openers with the care butchers might exhibit if asked to grow delicate flowers.

The three most prominent from that list - Salman Butt, Farhat and Taufeeq Umar - have now made more comebacks than the average deluded boxer and they probably feel worse.

Taufeeq returned last season after a four-year absence and he did so only because Butt's seventh comeback to the Test side in seven years was cut short after the Lord's spot-fixing scandal.

And just in case one of the openers fail here, Farhat is back in this squad too.

It might not come to that, for in Taufeeq there has always been hope. There is much to like about him, even beyond some impressive numbers. For example, he now has more Test hundreds - yesterday was his sixth - than any opener in the post-Anwar era.

He has more than Aamer Sohail, the other half of Pakistan's last worthy opening pair, made in his entire career. Eleven of his 17 50-plus scores have come outside Pakistan (as have four of his hundreds) and the attacks have rarely been accommodating.

He is as softly spoken and unobtrusive as his batting was yesterday. For vast portions of it he was scratchy; his only boundary in the morning came from an inside edge. He became ponderous through the afternoon and though he perked up later, he was never imposing as many modern openers are.

But through the day he had that elusive quality that every side must want from a Test opener: "You can trust Taufeeq" as an opener, as Raja put it.

Trust, unfortunately, is something he has not had reciprocated. When he was first dropped in April 2004, he was averaging over 42 in his career. In the seven Tests in the run-up to the axing, he had made a hundred and three fifties against a strong South Africa side.

He came back a year later, played two Tests and was dropped. He then came back a year later, played one Test and was dropped again. This time he was to resurface four years later. In this path lies a route to nothing but madness.

No wonder he said that making a comeback into the side carries "more pressure on you than when you make your debut".

His opening partner, Mohammad Hafeez, will likely agree, familiar as he, too, is with multiple comebacks.

The pair have been together for a year now, this their second century stand together. Like a number of pairings in the last decade, there are signs it could work. There is contrast and understanding.

"I've opened with Hafeez domestically and I have a really good comfort level with him," Taufeeq said. "If you have just one partner, if you spend time with him at the wicket, the comfort level grows. Changing [so often] is not maybe such a good thing."

Given what he has gone through, the "maybe" is a remarkably restrained - and entirely needless - addition.




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