September 23, 2012

Imran Nazir's last chance

Mazher Arshad
He has got several chances over his decade-plus in the international game, but this World Twenty20 could be his last opportunity to make a mark

Of current international cricketers, only a handful made their debuts in the '90s. Teams such as Bangladesh and England don't have any such survivors, but Pakistan have four - the most for any team. All four are playing in this World Twenty20, and Imran Nazir is one of them. Nazir's career dates back to the days when Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar and Saqlain Mushtaq were bowling in tandem, and Bill Clinton was still the president of the USA.

Nazir opened with Saeed Anwar in 21 ODIs - the pair are the only Pakistan batsmen to have scored 150 in limited-overs internationals. Yet, 13 years later, Nazir frustrates you with his lack of maturity. If you talk to him about his being an underachiever, Nazir rues his early debut - at the age of 18. However, many Under-19 contemporaries of his, early starters most of them, have gone on to become formidable opponents: Chris Gayle, Yuvraj Singh, Graeme Smith and Virender Sehwag to name a few.

Like Mohammad Amir and Umar Akmal were in 2008, Nazir was one of the most celebrated U-19 players from Pakistan in 1999. An international debut beckoned when he stood out as an opening batsman on the U-19 home series against South Africa. The next month he was playing a Test match in Lahore, one remembered for the first Test hat-trick by a Pakistan bowler. Nazir was in contention for the 1999 World Cup, but another opener from his debut Test, Wajahatullah Wasti, got the nod after making twin centuries.

That is not to say Nazir didn't get opportunities. Nor were they unearned. Apart from his brisk 64 on debut, he put on some fine performances early in his career to suggest definite talent. For a while it seemed Pakistan had found an opener to partner Anwar after they had done away with Aamer Sohail. In his second Test, Nazir scored his maiden Test century against Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. Not to forget his innings in crucial ODIs in finals in Sharjah and in Brisbane. And that six off Shane Warne is almost a defining image of the good Nazir.

Good Nazir, though, has appeared all too infrequently, as averages of 33 and 25 in Tests and ODIs suggest. You hark back to those early days and wonder what went wrong with the abundant talent. Did the expectations ruin him? Or was it the careless batting, accentuated by the advent of T20 cricket? (Remember that no country took to T20 as Pakistan did.)

Regardless, given the shortage of able openers in the country, Nazir did keep making comebacks, like in the Asia Cup in 2004, in the ODI series against South Africa in 2007, and the Champions Trophy of 2009. He is also one of the few to have been rehabilitated after playing in the ICL. That talent, though, kept refusing to translate into performances, so much so that even T20, a format seemingly made for him, couldn't help him establish himself in the side.

How often has he thrown it away after a stylish innings, how often have the expectations of fans been flirted with? And he does enjoy a big fan base in Pakistan - until the team started winning again, his popularity stood next to Shahid Afridi's alone. Every time he is dropped, though, his fans are left thinking why they ever wanted him back in the first place. And how often has he been baited by shrewd field-placing, like in in Lahore in 2007, when Graeme Smith bared the off-side field to get him driving and then placed Justin Kemp at short extra cover for the drive, which materialised as forecast.

Nazir is back again on the strength of his performances in domestic T20 leagues. This year he was the second-highest run-getter in Pakistan's Super Eight T20 Cup, second-highest in the first BPL, and he also scored 114 runs at an average of 38 in his four matches in the SLPL. The attacks there, though, often feature at least one ordinary bowler, as perhaps proved by Nazir's scores of 0, 2, 4, 22, 0 and 1 in his last six T20 international innings. If Nazir makes it to the final XI, it will be more on potential than form. And it is quite possible that he might come up with a fine innings against New Zealand or Bangladesh. It is just as likely that he might follow it up with another indifferent patch. A version, if you will, of three or four stylish shots followed by a hit straight to a catching man.

The selectors may have gambled by picking him, but Nazir can do with a more calculated approach. He has a lot to learn from the highlights of his initial days in international cricket. In Brisbane, for example, he was 13 off 28 by the end of the tenth over, and yet ended with 66 at a strike rate of 90.41. Both his Test centuries featured cautious starts too. There is no reason he can't take some of those virtues to T20; even Chris Gayle does. If he plays the metaphoric loose shot again, though, given the number of opportunities he has been given, it might well be the last we see of him.

Mazher Arshad is a freelance writer based in Pakistan