South Africa v Pakistan, 10th match, Champions Trophy October 26, 2006

Younis backs Afridi to come good

'We will try and support him through this period and hope he produces the goods when it counts' - Younis Khan backs Shahid Afridi © AFP

What wouldn't Pakistan give for Shahid Afridi to regain his mojo? It's been over 17 months, and 21 innings, since he's managed a fifty. In between he's retired from Test cricket, reversed his decision and turned into a more-than-handy operator with the ball. Recently, as Bob Woolmer revealed yesterday, he's made it clear that he wants to bat at No.5 - a strange choice because it's a position that requires a calmness to get through the middle overs.

He's capable of the lightning innings but can Pakistan afford to keep staring at the skies and waiting? "It certainly would be frustrating for him," Woolmer admitted, "but we still see him as a positive force in one-day cricket for Pakistan. We will try and support him through this period and hope he produces the goods when it counts."

Younis echoed his views. "Everyone wants to see Shahid play and perform,"he said, "but there is no guarantee that every player will score in every tournament. I have always maintained that this is a team game. If we play as a team and have the energy that we showed in the Sri Lanka game, we can beat South Africa comfortably."

But is batting him at No.5 the option? "We want to utilise Shahid to the hilt," he continued. "As an opener, if he falls early, there is pressure on him and on us. If he comes low down the order, he doesn't have much time. We are trying to give him every chance so that he can settle down. Shahid is the kind of player who can win matches single-handedly. It hasn't paid off till now; it's part of the game.

What that's also meant is that Shoaib Malik, arguably Pakistan's most valuable player over the last two years, gets a chance only at No.6. Younis, though, didn't want that to change. "It's working for the team,"he justified. "He has made almost 100 runs in the first two matches, and he played a matchwinning knock in the first match. It's good for the team too. Before the tournament, he was out of form, and now is back in the runs. He is happy with his spot in the batting order."

Afridi at No. 5 and Malik at No. 6 meant that Younis needed to shoulder the burden at No. 3. He hardly made an impression in the first two games, managing scores of 7 and 2, but he insisted that it had nothing to do with the pressures of captaincy. "My form has nothing to do with captaincy," he asserted. "I am not the captain for the first time. Last year, in Karachi [against India], I led and performed and we won the game too. There is so much cricket that you can't maintain the same level every time. Ricky Ponting too hasn't made runs in two matches. But yes, as captain, your attention is divided. I am thinking for everyone now. I need to carry the youngsters. Maybe my focus has shifted a little away from my cricket. I need to start to get the focus back. I am constantly learning, I want to keep learning."

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo