Openers April 12, 2010

Stodgers, flayers, stylists

Opening has been one of Pakistan's most thorny problems - which is not to say that there haven't been fine, even great, openers in the team's history

In no country is the career of a player as precarious as it is in Pakistan. Just under a fifth of Pakistan's 198 Test players, for example, are one-Test wonders, comfortably the highest among the established Test nations*. Does that make the job of our suitably diverse jury - writers, historians, journalists, commentators, selectors, administrators and ex-players - easier in sifting through the many names and selecting an all-time Pakistan XI?

Perhaps more so than we can imagine initially, for there are, if we put our minds to it, quite a number of players who pick themselves and would make the XI of almost every Pakistan fan. But there are issues, of course - little ones and not so little ones. Where would you, for example, play Majid Khan, if you play him at all: as opener or in the middle order?

A more basic one involves the question of the very shape of the line-up. Should it have five bowlers, including one of the greatest allrounders the world has seen, and thus enforce the area that has always been Pakistan's strength and source of most of their triumphs? Or should it have four and instead beef up the batting, traditionally Pakistan's weaker suit? That debate, among many others, readers, begins here.

We start with what has been, at least in the modern age, Pakistan's most vexing problem (fielding aside). Count has been lost of the openers and opening combinations that have been tried over the last five years, and still no settled pair appears in sight. But that is not to say that quality has not been produced over the years, or even variety. There have been the monumentally patient and technically robust, as was Pakistan's first - some say best - opener, Hanif Mohammad. There have been those who have made up for gaps in technique with their hearts, like Hanif's younger brother Sadiq and Aamer Sohail.

Others have been impeccable stylists, and effective ones at that. We remember the value of Majid's hundred before lunch against New Zealand in Karachi, but we also celebrate the grace and elegance with which it was made. Majid disciple Mohsin Khan's double at Lord's is similarly recalled. Pakistan's most modern opener, in terms of taking an attack to the bowling side, has also been one of its best: Saeed Anwar.

Who opens the XI essentially answers the question of how we want this team to be moulded: with weak openers, Pakistan have been on the back foot, relying on the middle order too much. With a solid opening pair have come Pakistan's most attacking sides.

*South Africa have a slightly higher proportion overall, but their statistics are essentially those of two countries, pre and post-apartheid. Post 1991 the proportion of one-Test careers is under 10%.

The contenders

Aamer Sohail
Abrasive and aggressive, Sohail formed one half of Pakistan's last successful and stable opening pairs with Saeed Anwar. He was particularly strong off the back foot, though as a fluent double-hundred at Old Trafford in 1992 showed, he had the nous to expand his game. He also brings to the table useful spin, good catching hands and an attitude.

Hanif Mohammad
When renowned coach Alf Gover set eyes upon a young, yet-to-debut Hanif in 1951, he said he wouldn't change a thing about him (and advised others not to do so as well), so complete was he. The most technically sound opening batsman Pakistan have had, by some distance, Hanif also possessed a most critical quality: patience. Naturally an attacking batsman, Hanif chose stoic abstinence to further the cause of a Pakistan side full of merry strokemakers. Like Bradman's average, Hanif's 16-hour Bridgetown marathon of defiance will not be easily - if ever - bettered.

Saeed Anwar
A pair on debut doesn't promise much, but like Graham Gooch, Anwar forged a remarkable career from that adversity. The magic was in his wrists, and he had such timing and sense of placement that poor footwork hardly mattered. He was a very modern opener, in that he attacked no matter what the format and situation; and that he maintains the highest average of this august company says many things.

Majid Khan
Somehow it is fitting that one of Pakistan's best openers didn't even start life as one, or that he took to the role so late. Majid remains one of the country's most stylish opening batsmen. He loved to hook and the driving was, on its day, a thing of joy. He did it all looking as if he hardly cared. That he is one of the best slippers ever from Pakistan is a bonus.

Mudassar Nazar
A solid contrast to his regular partner, the flashier Mohsin Khan, Mudassar was a batsman of immense patience, though not as compact as Hanif or with as many strokes. He holds the record for the slowest Test hundred, and alongside his father, Nazar Mohammad, is one of only four Pakistanis to carry their bat through a completed innings. In the right conditions, a more than handy swing bowler.

Sadiq Mohammad
A right-hander at birth, he was told to switch by elder brothers Hanif and Wazir because they felt he had more of a chance of succeeding that way. Sadiq was immensely brave, like all the Mohammad brothers, once saving a Test against West Indies with a heroic unbeaten 98, made after bearing a fierce facial injury. Loved taking on faster bowlers and scored runs in what were for Pakistanis tough conditions. Pakistan's success in the 70s was based on his partnership with Majid.

Mohsin Khan A stylist in the Majid mould, Mohsin could be bewitching to watch. As well as the Lord's double-hundred, he scored big runs on the bouncy surfaces of Australia, a bogey venue for most of his countrymen.

* South Africa have a slightly higher proportion overall, but their statistics are essentially that of two countries, pre and post-Apartheid. Post 1991 the proportion of one-Test careers is under 10%.

We'll be publishing an all-time Pakistan XI based on readers' votes to go with our jury's XI. To pick your openers click here

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo

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