Growing to be Everyman
Not many roles remain in the Pakistan team to pass through Shoaib Malik's hands. He made his Test debut slated to bat at number ten (he didn't) but took two wickets. In his ODI debut too he was scheduled in at number ten. In a 13-Test career (including today), he has shuttled between seven, six, five, four and one; three and two can't be too far away if only to complete the countdown. Famously, in one-day matches he has batted at all positions barring two and eleven and has taken nearly a hundred wickets.
Hardly has he disgraced himself in any function he has been asked to perform. The first significant impression he left on any Test, against South Africa at Lahore in October 2003, came through four wickets and a patient 47. Successively at positions five, six and seven, he made 48, 59, 44, 53, 6 and 41 in Tests against Sri Lanka and Australia at the end of 2004; the fourth in that sequence settled Pakistan's nerves eventually in what threatened briefly to be a shambolic low-target chase at Karachi. His last two fifties in Test cricket including today have come as opener. And on the same ground against England last month, let's not forget, he took three first-day wickets.
His ODI centuries have come as opener, one-down and number four and yet at number six, he was once still malleable enough to pull off a startling death-overs massacre against South Africa that yielded, eventually, 82 runs off 41 balls. Then - only two years ago - he had been moulded seemingly into an off-spinning version of Abdul Razzaq. Yet, he now is more often than not an astute one-down, a soother of early jitters, an organised instigator of chases (though not so present at the finishes) and through accomplished running, an accumulator.
His batting repertoire doesn't burst forth with strokes; there remains a distinctly utilitarian appeal to it. His drives straight are generally checked, dispossessed of flourish and in his forward defensive prods, there is an exaggerated care, just to make fully sure. It doesn't mean elegance doesn't come to him, as a couple of cover drives off Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh to bring Pakistan nearer its hundred showed. Midwicket slogging also comes naturally to him, usually more effective than beautiful. Strangely though more important than how he scored his runs was that he at least scored them.
For in the backdrop of the much-discussed opening dilemma Pakistan face now (and have done since the time of Saeed Anwar and Aamer Sohail), his innings today is a small contribution. On this pitch it will be argued he should have scored many more and especially so after the shot he played to get out. Pakistan have tried numerous players and even more combinations before they happened upon the makeshift potential of Malik. Makeshift openers some say will not work and they may yet be proved right. But after flattering only to deceive against England as opener and the recall of Imran Farhat, his achievement is doubly commendable: one, for the faith the team management has invested in him where continuity has bred some result at least.
But also in his willingness to persevere in a role alien to him, all this proves nothing else other than that he is possessed of a remarkably flexible approach to the game, both in his temperament and with his basic skill-set. It speaks too of an intelligence in his game, one that has ridiculously early perhaps, evoked hushed whispers of his potential to captain. Talk of it now is equally likely to be a hindrance as much a boon but if the day comes (and it is as big an if still), the evidence suggests he is at least unlikely to be fazed by it.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo