March 19, 2015

The contradiction that is Ahmed Shehzad

Off the field, he's all flash and hair gel; on it, he's a slowpoke, given to hitting pretty shots straight to fielders

Pretty, yes. Impactful? Not quite © ICC

A few years ago Mian Aslam was telling me how great Lahore's club cricket scene used to be. When Mian saab tells a story, books go and die in reverence, he's that entertaining. I asked him my first question and that was it; I had neither chance nor need to ask more. He had been keyed up and off he went. You may (or may not) remember him as an umpire, not particularly reputably given the general reputation of Pakistan's home umpires during the '80s, when he was active.

Much more he is just an old-time cricket guy, the kind who believes these new academies ruin a cricketer and only grass-roots clubs can make one. He runs the Muslim Gymkhana and organises any number of tournaments, but his real currency is in players. He is a cog in the giant machine of Pakistan cricket, without whom no players would come up.

Having ranted himself empty he decided he - and I - needed cheering up. So we went to Iqbal Park - he still calls it by its original name, Minto Park - to show me a player he was particularly excited about. Iqbal Park is a hallowed place, for country and cricket, where the idea of Pakistan was actualised and from where most of its early cricketers emerged.

That day in one of the tattered nets was batting Ahmed Shehzad. It was nearing the end of practice and there was some casualness about it. The collar was upturned, the hair a little too well-set and spiky, and there were the magnificent eyebrows, which have come straight to life from a Stan Lee villain. An old guy like me was naturally a little skeptical. Too much flash.

An assistant of Mian saab's muttered: "Paidaishee collar utthe hain, magar player bara hain." Collar upturned - in arrogance, or excessive self-belief - since birth, but enough of a player to justify the sartorial indulgence.

At Mian saab's insistence he came out to shake hands and introduce himself. It wasn't a particularly memorable interaction and he ended by saying something about how he would play for Pakistan. I suspect he wanted it to have some impact: wow, spiky hair, spiky new kid, spiky attitude, watch out. In reality Imran Farhat may have been first-choice opener around the time, so getting into the Pakistan team as an opener was not so outlandish a prospect to a young guy making his way up.

It was one of those disorienting days, hanging around the fraying edges of an old, fading world, brightened a little by this new-world product.

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Before he became MC Rambo, Ramiz Raja was actually a batsman. He was a decent one. His Test numbers look ordinary but he had the kind of inner substance Imran Khan loved, particularly for battling West Indies. He only averaged 20 across those three great series, scandalously low, sure, but that masked at least five innings worth considerably more to the circumstances of the match than the final output suggests.

Shehzad finds fielders so often it feels preternatural, as if he has trained all his life to become the exact opposite of Brian Lara

That substance was given greater airing through his ODI career. But for a time, especially around the 1987 World Cup, Ramiz had acquired this reputation. It wasn't the one about him being a champion of the run-out (23 run-outs, which, as a percentage of his innings, is only a shade less than Inzamam-ul-Haq, the perceived Clown King of yes, no, and bye). No, more frustratingly, he was seen as this batsman who played the most beautiful shots for zero output. Photographers and aesthetes won, run-scoring lost. In particular, he had this easy, languid flick to leg, which often became an easy, languid flick straight to square leg, beautiful and fatal.

It is a reputation Shehzad is acquiring, especially when he is pinging gorgeous back-foot punches straight to point or cover, time after time after time. Shehzad finds fielders so often it feels preternatural, as if he has trained all his life to become the exact opposite of Brian Lara. And like Ramiz, because he looks so good doing it, it is doubly frustrating. It is bewildering, these great shots that aren't quite, but it fits neatly into the broader Shehzad tapestry, in which he is not quite the player you think he might be.

If you've seen the selfies, the pallyness with Chris Gayle, the Robin to Shahid Afridi's Batman, and then put it together with the carefully manicured look, you might naturally expect his batting to be a certain way. Perhaps it should have the bullishness of Warner, or at least the flash of Maxwell; in any case, it should definitely be post-Sehwagian, not about newfangled shots as much as new-world audacity.

When he made a couple of 40s in his debut ODI series against Australia and they were both slow (40 off 61 and then 43 off 81), they felt like aberrations. There was an uncertain sort of promise in them but the energy he expended in making those runs was very modern, half-thought and half-harried. Time and again he played some bracing, attacking shots for no reward. There was little else in between attempted bashes and correct blocking. There were 38 dot balls in the first innings and 52 in the second but it felt like he was an essentially attacking batsman whose needle had merely started stuck and would soon find its groove.

Except that was his groove. There was a brief phase in 2011, returning after a period out, when it seemed as if his game was catching up to his personality. But that, it turned out, was the aberration, and after a disastrous World Cup, what felt like a truer ponderousness emerged. He needed to keep his place, Pakistan needed an opener and it worked. Since then, the distance between how he appears and how he plays has remained, and perhaps become more distinct. This is the truth, that as a batsman Shehzad is actually the inverse of what he comes across as a person. He has a far more sober game than everything about him suggests, both in attitude and construct. On his game, in fact, is very much the stamp of Aslam's old-school Minto Park scene. The world around him just happens to be new. He looks like he should come out and explode, and instead his strike rate is lower than Younis Khan and on par with Gary Kirsten. If you account for batting inflation, his career strike rate of 72.21 is as slow, if not slower, than Ramiz's 63.31. There is no dizzying whirl of scoops and reverse hits; he doesn't look comfortable attempting them and sticks, instead, to relatively orthodox strokes. It was, and remains, supremely disorienting.

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His most old-world habit is, of course, officially unforgivable in modern cricket. It has felt even more pronounced at this World Cup. Even if some leeway is given for openers, for Shehzad to have played out scoreless 185 of the 300 balls he has faced in the tournament is outdated like the dinosaur is outdated. At the end of the group stages, as a proportion of balls faced, it was second-highest behind Samiullah Shenwari.

Hanging out with Gayle has evidently not quite rubbed off on Shehzad's batting © BPL T20

It threatens to brand him a batsman not so interested in scoring runs as in scoring beautiful. And if you're hitting most of your money shots to fielders and not taking singles off the others, that is an issue. Shehzad will argue - and has done - that it is part of the team plan laid down by coach and captain: bat long and deep, no undue risks, let others build around you. That is trademark Pakistan. But that isn't the same as not scoring at all. What happened against India in Adelaide should not be the template: 47 runs but 48 dot balls out of 73, playing out maidens at inopportune moments (the 14th and 22nd overs), dismissed in the 24th (a beautiful shot it was too). That leaves everyone else to atone for your slothfulness. It was also, incidentally, part of a recent pattern of non-conversion. Of the first 11 times he crossed 50 in an ODI, he went on to hundred five times. Of the last seven times, he's made a ton once.

Of all that can ail batsmen this is the most infuriating and inexplicable. Is it technical, some failing of the hands and wrists so he's just not good at shot manipulation? Or is it in his head, where he doesn't feel the need to, because boundaries will come? Either way, it is potentially fatal because Shehzad finds himself now at a delicate point. He is having the kind of tournament, on a big stage, that doesn't go down well in Pakistan. His off-field persona is conflating with his on-field output, and exasperation at the disconnect grows. If only, goes the joke and complaint, he scored runs as prolifically and quickly as he takes selfies. He'd do well in the IPL, right? And maybe score some runs too - badoom tish.

There was that fielding-coach altercation, and hey, hasn't his fielding - which was, by Pakistan standards, truly modern - also slipped? That conversation with Tillakaratne Dilshan? Last year he was talked up as captain. Not this year. A few more failures, more off-field scrapes and it's not as if Pakistan deal with openers particularly well.

It would be a terrible shame, because for all his faults, he is the most genuine opener Pakistan has had in years. He is not a wicketkeeper pushed to open, nor an offspinner pretending to be an opener, or a middle-order man shunted up. He is an opener. Just last year, he became the only Pakistani to score a hundred in all formats, a feat that, maddeningly, still fuels hopes that he can be a modern batsman; if nothing else, perhaps it can buy a bit more time for those collars to remain upturned.

Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National and the author of The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket

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