Saad Shafqat December 2, 2009

Why is Shoaib Malik not opening the batting?

If there is anything this team needs, it is an opener with a steady bat, and Malik has one

In the seven Tests in which he opened, Shoaib Malik averaged 42.60 © AFP
The usual answer is that he doesn’t want to, but that is hardly good enough. After all, he’s an experienced professional. He has ability, depth, and a clever cricketing head. He can look opponents in the eye. Most important, he is playing in a team that has not found a successful opening pair in over a decade. Pakistan’s opening troubles have become so entrenched that the team mentally reduces itself to 10 for 2 even before the start of an innings.

If there is anything this team needs, it is an opener with a steady bat, and Malik has one. Out of 27 Tests played so far, he has opened the batting in seven, for an average of 42.60 in the opening slot that is a cut above his overall Test average of 37.57. Nor are these inflated figures: Malik has opened only against authentic opposition, including West Indies, England, India and Sri Lanka. His highest Test score of 148 not out was made as an opener in a defiant fourth innings against Sri Lanka in Colombo. Of the seven Tests in which Malik has opened, Pakistan have won three, drawn four, and never lost. Admittedly, a span of seven Tests is not much of a trend, but at the very least it is a good omen.

In ODIs too, Malik has fared better as an opener than lower down. Of his 167 ODI innings, 15 have been as an opener, with an average of 37.35 that compares favourably with his overall ODI batting average of 34.76. On three occasions he has opened against an associate nation, but the other matches have been against the likes of India, England, Sri Lanka, South Africa and New Zealand. Of his seven ODI hundreds, two have come as an opener (against New Zealand and India).

Indeed, Malik’s batting average as a Test opener is superior to the several other openers Pakistan have tried in the last few years, including Imran Farhat (32.26 from 28 Tests), Salman Butt (29.23 from 22 Tests), Taufeeq Umar (39.29 from 25 Tests), Khurram Manzoor (27.66 from six Tests), and Kamran Akmal (35.77 from six Tests).

And why else is he in the team, anyway? With Saeed Ajmal in the side, Malik’s offspin is redundant. Even if Ajmal gets replaced with Danish Kaneria for the Wellington Test, Malik’s spin will only be a back-up option.

On the other hand, here we are waking up with great anticipation at unearthly hours, only to find Pakistan with tormenting scorelines like 6 for 2. There is a gaping vacuum here and Malik should be man enough to fill it. He has been included in the team primarily as a batsman. It is only logical that he be used in the spot where not only has he performed the best, but also where his team needs him the most.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi