July 13, 2006

These boots were made for filling

Pakistan's age-old dilemma - the search for that seasoned, durable, Test opener - still remains

Pakistan's history with openers has been a chequered one. Since the departure of Aamir Sohail and Saeed Anwar, Pakistan have been experimenting with several players in the hope of finding a reliable opening duo. In a two-part feature, Osman Samiuddin addresses the issue.

Waiting to exhale: Saeed Anwar's absence has left a huge void © Getty Images

Reality shows are increasingly popular in Pakistan. Searches are on for pop idols, VJs, survivors, blind dates and though it hasn't been pitched yet, one of these days, one TV exec will light up and tell his boss that `Opening Idol - the search for Pakistan's next opening pair' is money waiting to happen.

Given Pakistan's recent trials and their inability, since Aamir Sohail took up golf and Saeed Anwar religion, to replace them, it's not such a bad idea. In the last 18 Tests, seven different players have opened, 13 different combinations used, yielding two century partnerships, and 11 half-century starts. The keeper has opened, their latest opener has batted at nearly every position and Imran Farhat and Salman Butt are, increasingly, doppelgangers of the other.

Why the struggle? Rameez Raja, once an opener, reckons Pakistani openers are just not versatile enough. "See a good opener needs a solid technique to be able to adjust to different conditions but he should also be one who can be explosive and able to improvise when the situation demands it." Though Raja may not have been either completely as an opener but having once made 41 in nearly 200 minutes against the West Indies in a Test as opener as well as nine ODI hundreds, he may have an idea of what he is talking about.

Raja and Sohail, in fact, are useful touch-points, having opened and worked within the administration as well. As with the style of their batting, Raja tries to shed some conventional light on the subject, arguing that "the first-class system has not been conducive to the development of batsmen." He adds, "I don't think it promotes developing mental organisation within batsmen. Kids rarely play anything other than limited-overs cricket until they are older and so the basic grounding is not there. The will power, the mental discipline that Gavaskar had or Hanif, to not go for some balls and leave them, or to really cash in when you are set, that is rare."

Sohail, typically, is more radical: "We are not producing good new-ball fast bowlers who can really test openers domestically. It's a plague where our bowlers develop only with the old ball and reverse swing. Thus our openers do not get tested properly."

Alas, both are adamant, one time-honoured ill looms largest, one that essentially remains outside the direct control of an opener - the impatience of the Pakistani selector. Raja remembers getting used to a "new partner every two or three games," in the eighties. He wasn't the first; before Sadiq Mohammad and Majid Khan happened, Sadiq had been partnered by eight different men in only 16 Tests since his debut.

Pakistan's current management and Wasim Bari's selection committee has merely perpetuated the trend in the modern day. Sohail admits to the mistakes he made as chief selector in 2003 but he is quick to point to one legacy he tried to leave behind. "We have never allowed any pair to really settle. In my time, I tried with Taufeeq Umar and Imran Farhat in Tests and I saw no reason why subsequent selectors dropped Umar just because of one bad series against India."

Salman Butt: just one of the many replacement killers © Getty Images

In eight Tests together, the two averaged 50 together and also produced three century stands. Sohail refers to Umar when he says, "you have to be patient with them. You can't drop a player, then bring him back soon after because when he comes back, he will be under a lot of pressure and playing mostly for himself." He could easily be referring to Yasir Hameed, who after two fifties as opener in the Sydney Test against Australia had his confidence boosted by being dropped for the next two Tests in India. A 76 in the win at Bangalore in the last Test only bought him two more, in which he failed and has since faded slowly.

He could also have referred to Salman Butt. Having scored a century in that Sydney Test, he failed in Pakistan's next in Chandigarh and was immediately dropped. When recalled for the last home season, he scored a century and two fifties in six Tests against England and India. Yet a fifty at Karachi against India only resulted in his dropping for the next Test against Sri Lanka. Since Woolmer took over, in 18 Tests, the longest run any opener has had is six successive Tests (Malik and Butt) and the longest run any pair has had together is five Tests (Malik and Butt). Sohail is justifiably livid that, "we have to do with makeshifts when we do actually have specialist openers. Why not play Taufeeq or Butt or even Faisal Athar? It's a damn shame that we have to make Shoaib Malik and Kamran Akmal into openers."

The squad for the series against England includes only two specialist openers and Malik. In all likelihood, two specialist openers will not be walking out at Lord's on July 13th and a greater likelihood is that Younis Khan, at one down, might be walking in with not many on the board. But as we will see tomorrow, it certainly won't be the first time that has happened and probably not the last. And ultimately, as it turns out, it actually reveals little about Pakistan's chances of success.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo