Pakistan batting needs a guiding hand
Pakistan will feel they can look England in the eye ahead of the Test series after they clawed their way to victory against Australia at Headingley, but it is probably wise to throw in a dose of reality. It was only their fast bowlers who stood tall and bailed out an inexperienced batting line-up that remains incredibly brittle. A collection of players brought up on a diet of one-day and Twenty20 cricket didn't often show the mental resilience or physical technique for the longer format.
The MCC Spirit of Cricket series was bizarre as it didn't include a single century, although the overhead conditions in both games clearly played a part. Still, Pakistan's batsmen scored just four half-centuries compared to Australia's six. There were just two hundred-plus partnerships, both for the second wicket, with the 110-run stand between Imran Farhat and Azhar Ali at Headingley leading the way.
Yet that was nothing new for Pakistan with their batting having been a concern for a considerable amount of time. A comparison between the number of hundreds Pakistan's batsmen have scored in relation to other sides in the last five years makes the deficiencies glaring, although Pakistan's relative lack of Test action needs to be considered.
Australia have 80 hundreds in 45 Tests followed closely by England with 76 from one fewer match. Pakistan have notched 39 centuries in the same time. In the last year itself four of England's batsmen have managed nine Test centuries while just three Pakistanis have recorded a ton each.
The key factor behind the top batting teams performing consistently is the presence of one or two established players who have not only led from the front but have stabilised the innings in the event of a collapse. Their anchor presence has helped more times than not to build large partnerships, which in turn has helped the bowlers find their own feet in unfriendly conditions. In contrast, Pakistan's batsmen consistently fail to adapt.
It isn't a question of talent, Pakistan have that in bucket loads. But as far as experience goes they are a long way back. Following the retirement of Inzamam-ul-Haq, and coupled with the PCB's growing indifference towards Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan, the only man who has the skills and the experience to play the batting pivot is Salman Butt.
Butt's elevation to the captaincy has already put a truckload of responsibility on his shoulders, but Pakistan's latest leader is also their highest run-maker in Tests this year. He has become their go-to batsman. For years Butt has been seen as a promising opener, but his career batting graph is highlighted by more troughs than peaks. His conversion rate is low having passed fifty 13 times with three hundreds. Making a start is not often his problem, but despite logging thousands of miles on the Test highway he still remains stop-and-jerk driver. Out of 54 innings to date, 19 times he has been dismissed between the scores of 20 and 49.
Captaincy could bring out the best in him if he worries less about his own game. But he also needs to remember he is the batting captain and the young middle order will look up to him. England will be confident of attacking the nerves of the inexperienced figures. "It's a young batting line-up, there's no doubt about that and if there is inexperience in these conditions we need to exploit that," Andrew Strauss said.
Butt and the team management have been relentlessly telling all comers that the youngsters will only learn and grow with time. Farhat's aggressive attitude is hard to tolerate when he chases every second ball, but he can equally put pressure back on the opponent if he uses his aggression more selectively. The new pair of Azhar Ali and Umar Amin have shown the openness to learn. Umar Akmal will flourish soon despite his recklessness. But these youngsters need somebody who is willing to act as the driver-cum-navigator. There is nobody else better than Butt to accomplish that.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo