World Cup 2007 February 23, 2007

Road to Jamaica 1: The openers

It must be quite frustrating for Imran Khan, for a decade almost everything he said was implemented. He was the first and last word in Pakistan cricket, with a few thousand thrown in between by Javed Miandad. The rule of Khan culminated in Pakistan winning the World Cup, enough said. Now Imran struggles to get his way--and let's be clear that the PCB's strategy of pep talks by great players is more of an intrusion than a benefit at this late stage.

But one area that Imran has complained so much about that perhaps everyone has stopped hearing him is the dilemma of openers. Inzamam believes he has the best pair available. Bob Woolmer, I suspect, is less sure but will do his best with the materials given him. Imran is more definite: the choice should have been Salman Butt and Yasir Hameed.

Imran may well have a point but it was hard to prove since the PCB and Inzamam have failed to try that combination in the run up to the World Cup. Particularly baffling was the decision not to give Yasir Hameed a run in South Africa.

Nonetheless, it's true enough that none of the openers have succeeded. This opening problem is not new for Pakistan and Imran knows it well. Middle-order batsmen have been made into openers going right back to the 1975 and 1979 World Cups when Majid Khan opened the innings but did well against the mighty West Indian bowling attack. By 1983, Mohsin and Mudassar had formed a stable opening partnership but one that failed to deliver its promise. In all three World Cups, Pakistan had been knocked out by West Indies.

The mainstay in the next two tournaments was Ramiz Raja, who despite a decent World Cup record had the habit of firing only sporadically. Indeed his pairing with Aamer Sohail in 1992 was often a hair-raising enterprise. Sohail had matured to some degree by the time he partnered Saeed Anwar in 1996--although that isn't saying much. But on Asian wickets, the combination of Aamer and Saeed was dynamite and perhaps the best that Pakistan has ever enjoyed at a World Cup.

When the 1999 tournament came around, Saeed had established himself as a World class opener, the best Pakistan has had since Hanif Mohammad. This meant that his unknown partner Wajahatullah Wasti had an easier ride than most Pakistani openers have ever had. I'll never forget the sight of Imran Khan teaching Wasti how to play a forward defensive on the team balcony after he'd got out in one of Pakistan's group matches. It was as if he was teaching a six-year old.

Come 2003, Pakistan were a confused outfit. Saeed was bowing out but underutilised prior to the tournament, and Shahid Afrid was in one minute and out the next. Pakistan's chop-and-change strategy was in full swing. Saeed Anwar, Shahid Afridi, Taufeeq Umar, and Saleem Elahi were all given a go.

Four years later, who could have predicted that Pakistan would still be confused about their first choice openers but they clearly are. Yet, Imran Nazir has a rare talent if he can be persuaded to harness it sensibly. Mohammad Hafeez is a hitter who can graft--or is he a grafter who can hit? In Kamran Akmal and Shahid Afridi Pakistan have further explosive capabilities. Desperation, though, can provide a creative solution, and the suggestion that Younis Khan might open is in the grand tradition of Pakistani middle-order batsmen turned openers and it is one that might succeed.

Most importantly, Pakistan need to decide their strategy and stick to it. The openers will have five games, including warm ups, to find a certain chemistry. I reckon Hafeez and Nazir is the pairing to go with in this squad. A World Cup is a stage to make a name for yourself and grow as a cricketer, and both of them should be hungry. They will be helped by West Indian wickets being unlike South African, Australian, or English. Might Pakistan turn a weakness into a strength? If they can, Pakistan's challenge will become a genuine one.

Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here