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How long can you last in international cricket without being able to bat? This sounds like one of those impossibly existential how-many-angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin type of questions. In this case, however, we have an answer. Evidence suggests you can last a pretty long time in world cricket without being able to bat. Potentially many decades, as Pakistan's example shows.
Okay, I'm being harsh. It isn't that Pakistani men can't bat at all; every now and then you'll see a fifty or two, and once in a generation someone will come along who could be selected as a batsman in a more successful international side. But no one would call Pakistan a nation of batsmen. And based on current form, Pakistani batting is certainly at the bottom of the heap. Over the last two years, even Bangladesh have scored more Test runs per wicket than Pakistan.
Fans lament the decline of batting in a country that once produced the likes of Zaheer Abbas and Javed Miandad. But objective assessment suggests this complaint is based on a fallacious premise. Zaheer, for example, was a run-machine no doubt, but only when the stars were aligned, which wasn't all that often and certainly seldom when most needed. And while Miandad was unquestionably a batting genius, he remained overshadowed by greater Indian, West Indian, and Australian contemporaries – as it happened with Pakistan's other authentic batting hero, Inzamam-ul-Haq, a decade later.
Of course there is the legend of Hanif Mohammad, who once after following on made a triple-hundred that is still the highest Test score away from home. That's more than enough to earn the choicest of batting stripes. He also bettered Bradman, creating a new first-class record – with his innings of 499 – that stood for 35 years. Clearly, Hanif's impeccable technique and enormous concentration have cast a long shadow on cricket history. But Hanif's batting instincts weren't indigenously Pakistani, as he was already well into his teens by the time organised cricket first emerged in Pakistan. More likely, the secret of Hanif's batting prowess may lie in his Indian roots. He hails from a region (Junagadh) that happens to be in the same approximate part of India that gave rise to Sachin Tendulkar and Sunil Gavasker. Coincidence? Maybe, but maybe not.
Then there are a host of other batting names that various segments of Pakistan supporters keep trotting out to substantiate the nation's batting credentials. Prominently figuring among this lot are the likes of Majid Khan, Salim Malik, Saeed Anwar, Saeed Ahmad, Mudassar Nazar, and Mushtaq Mohammad. Each of these players has one or more definitive match-winning or match-saving performances to his credit. But a handful of special knocks are not enough for a hallowed reputation. In fact, none of these batsmen even has a Test average over 50, which ends this whole line of argument right there.
Some would cite Imran Khan as a world-class feather in Pakistan's batting cap, and in fact they would not be far off the mark. Although his bowling overshadows his batting gifts so much that Imran is rarely thought of as a frontline batsman, this is a gross misperception. Imran is very much a proven batting match-winner, and you need look no farther than the ’92 World Cup final if you doubt this. Even more convincing is that over the 48 Tests that he captained, Imran's batting average exceeded even that of Javed Miandad. That's a phenomenal statistic proving Imran's great fight and resolve at the crease. Yet it also begets the question: where was all that fight and resolve when he was batting under the captaincy of other men? So Imran, too, it will have to be said, falls short in this calculus.
The cherry on the cake is that even the two world-class batsmen who have graced the Pakistan side in recent times – Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan – have been harassed and victimised beyond belief. Their accomplishments have already placed them in the Pakistani batting pantheon, and you'd think that in a country where batting skill is at such a premium, they'd be treated like kings. Yet both have been kept out of the side on petty whims, dragged before dubious disciplinary committees and parliamentary commissions, caricatured in the media, and demonised in back-room cricket board politics. Instead of the PCB helping them achieve the height of their potential, it has throttled their talents to ensure that they are kept from giving their best.
One is amazed at how far Pakistan have actually come despite this handicap. Batting, along with bowling, fielding and captaincy, is one of the four key departments of the game. It is simply stunning that Pakistan won Tests against England and Australia last year, and managed to reach the World Cup semifinals this year, with two major departments – batting and fielding – virtually threadbare. Adding competent batting to this mix could make them almost unbeatable; that is surely worth aiming for.
Sickened to the core by collapse after batting collapse, the fan base keeps demanding a quick fix, but of course there isn't any. Everybody's favourite remedy is to appoint the most awesome batting coach possible, which is just magical thinking. If only the acquisition of great batting skills were that simple.
No doubt a batting coach is needed, but a lot more is needed besides. The hard truth is that improving Pakistan's batting resources requires a long-range strategy and a patient mindset that is prepared for delayed gratification. It has to be approached like the grafting of a lengthy innings, not a wham-bam slog. There must be tremendous rigour in domestic cricket and nothing but merit in all team selection. These measures must be unfailingly sustained for at least a generation before thinking about reaping the rewards. Needless to add, a stable administrative infrastructure is a prerequisite. Perhaps at some future point all this will come to pass, but from today's vantage it appears a very tall order for Pakistan.
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