Butt backs youngsters to kick back
It would have been understandable had Salman Butt been losing sleep in the week since he inherited the Pakistan captaincy following Shahid Afridi's shock resignation at Lord's. But outwardly at least, he's not showing any ill-effects from the rapid promotion. Key to his comfort is the promise of youth, for Butt believes his inexperienced team possesses the ability to defeat Australia if they can keep their heads straight. But, he warned, Pakistan will only move forward if their administrators can stay patient.
"It is not an unbeatable side [Australia] even if we have lost quite a few matches against them in the past," Butt said on the eve of the second Test at Leeds. "I know we have the ability to beat them. [But] we need to persist and remain patient with the youngsters and appreciate whatever small improvement they make."
Despite their 150-run defeat at Lord's, Pakistan have been all smiles during their training sessions on Monday and Tuesday. Even if their practice lacks the rigorous and methodical pace of top-ranked teams, the Pakistan players have all been devoted to, and enjoying, the various drills imparted by the coaching think-tank led by Waqar Younis and his two assistants Aaqib Javed and Ijaz Ahmed, along with the hardworking trainer David Dwyer.
After nearly a month in their displaced home, the players have finally started to understand their responsibility and don't always need the walking stick presence of the coaches. This was evident yesterday when Waqar was absent from the training but the squad went through the moves without any stutter.
Butt, too, does not want to impose himself straight away. "You don't become a dad," Butt said on his style of his captaincy. Still, his elevation has been unprecedented even by Pakistan's chaotic standards. Butt himself was unaware of Afridi's decision till he had been informed by the media. Subsequently he has kept a clear head and has spoken in mature fashion. "It's a challenge for me but at the same time I have to keep on going as a player and as a batsman, which is more important."
That is proof of his priorities. Pakistan need Butt the batsman to perform to begin with. Though Shoaib Malik is likely to take Afrid's spot, the former Pakistan captain is battling his own demons, after the team management opted for the debutant Umar Amin ahead of him at Lord's. Malik remains a capable bat but is still vulnerable to distractions and it would be a huge challenge for him to anchor the lower middle order. So it is Butt, the second-highest run-scorer behind Simon Katich at Lord's, who remains the pivot. And Australia will gun for him. "If we get two or three partnerships going we'd be in with a good chance to get up a good total," Butt said.
After their abysmal fold-up in the first innings at Lord's in just 41 overs, Pakistan's top-order showed a bit more resolution with Butt and the debutant Azhar Ali combining well to raise a 112-run partnership for the second wicket. Sadly the rest of the batsmen displayed a weaker temperament, throwing their wickets without putting in much effort. One of the culprits was Umar Akmal. Just 20, Umar is a fast-rising talent, arguably the best young batsman in world cricket, but he went for an unnecessary cut in the final over before lunch on the fourth day.
"He's just 20. Having great talent does not mean that you've got experience in your pockets," Butt said, defending Umar. But he followed that with a subtle message. "Because he's a very good player - I think he's the best talent around the world at the moment - sometimes he goes and watches the ball so well that it is hard to control himself. Still I have to back him and be positive with him. I can't ask him to stop his natural game. At the same time I have to [remind him] to respect the occasion. If you've lost a wicket just around the corner, if you're having lunch after one [more] over, maybe you have to be a bit more watchful. But I would never ask him to stop his natural game because that's his strength and I would like him to attack the oppositions."
Such a blunt appraisal will not hurt Umar. It applies to every batsman in the team including the likes of Mohammad Aamer and the tailenders, who showed a weak spirit as soon as the specialist batsmen had departed. Such sloppiness will not yield Pakistan anything and might even prompt their fickle administrators to shake up the side once again.
When asked what Pakistan need to do to level the series, Butt was clear in his requirements. "We have to bat a bit longer, put some more runs on the board," he said. "I think the bowlers have always done well against the Aussies, it's just that the tail we've got to get out a bit quicker."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo