October 19, 2013

The sweet taste of M&M's success

Khurram Manzoor and Shan Masood, Pakistan's new opening combination, were the ones who put their team on the path to the big win in Abu Dhabi

Khurram Manzoor and Shan Masood's success at the top will ease one of Pakistan's batting headaches © AFP

Pakistan's opening batsmen do not score runs in Test cricket. Score runs at the same time? Forget it. For a nation fed on the indigestible drivel of Mohammad Hafeez and Imran Farhat, the century partnership between Khurram Manzoor and Shan Masood was a gourmet treat. Pakistan never looked back. A fright in the final session didn't deflect from their unexpected superiority in Abu Dhabi.

Pakistan's last outing was a defeat to Zimbabwe. Pakistan cricket's appeal is built on such mood swings. Misbah-ul-Haq prefers a steadier, incremental improvement in his country's results. He has little chance of that. The background tomfoolery of their board makes a captain's task all but impossible. Only this week, the prime minister of Pakistan, a former first-class cricketer of ill repute, anointed himself patron of the national cricket board. The governing body of the cricket board was hastily dissolved and replaced with an ad-hoc committee. This is an exercise in semantics since whether ad-hoc or constitutional, whichever body runs Pakistan cricket tends to build more ruins.

In defiance of these developments, Misbah's team produced their best first-innings batting display in recent memory. Pakistan's bowlers, we know, are ever competitive. It is the batsmen who destroy our faith in fellow man. Here, Saeed Ajmal and Co enjoyed the rare luxury of a large total to exploit. They indulged themselves, almost sealing an innings victory. Questions about South Africa's ability to succeed in Asian conditions quickly resurfaced. Any team with ambitions to rule the world must vanquish challengers on all continents.

That might prove difficult as Pakistan have turned the Middle East into an impenetrable citadel. But the true test of champions is how they respond to defeat. The great West Indian and Australian teams summoned an instant reaction, bloodied your nose at the next bout. England failed to react when they toured the Emirates in 2011 and were whitewashed. South Africa now face a similar fate, especially with the unfamiliar challenge of Pakistan's batsmen in confident mood.

Younis Khan and Misbah may offer peace of mind in the middle order. Asad Shafiq may be an able sidekick. But the key to this match was the difference made by a proper top-order performance. Pakistan's bowlers were no better or worse than they have been, simply as excellent as ever. South Africa's batsmen were no less responsible than usual. It was Manzoor and Masood who shifted the balance. They set Pakistan on course for victory, allowing their middle order to play a more natural game instead of the wars of attrition many supporters have cringed over.

With Nasir Jamshed and Ahmed Shehzad in the wings, eager for the limelight, Pakistan have some openers to work with. Which of these players end up being part of a long-term opening partnership is unknown but it would be nutty to prefer another option to M&M, or to recall the Professor after his "rest". Pakistan cricket finds players with international ability but is generally unable to develop them. A test of the new ad-hoc system will be how successfully it nurtures this crop of promising opening batsmen.

A more immediate test will be what Pakistan do about the No. 3 spot, where Azhar Ali is struggling with technique and form. It seems premature to drop him for the final Test of a two-match series. A better option is to support him now and review the position at the end of the contest.

These are important considerations for Pakistan's new cricket committee. A productive top order is fundamental to challenging consistently, and Pakistan have been weak in this area for a decade. For the committee's attention, it is a weakness that must become a strength. One performance offers a ray of hope, nothing more, but at least Pakistan can relish a grand opening.

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

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