Malik marks his return in style
A witty smile with a smart salute - this is how Shoaib Malik entered the press conference at Gaddafi Stadium after scoring a much-needed hundred. There were nearly two dozen journalists sitting in the room and Malik went to each, one-by-one, to shake their hand and acknowledge the presence of all those who had witnessed his eighth ODI hundred. With this utterly unprecedented gesture - instigated by Malik, not the journalists - he said a lot.
Malik last played an ODI during the 2013 Champions Trophy and has been ignored over the past two years as he struggled for form. His name kept floating into discussions but he never made into the side. He was randomly selected for the 2014 World T20 but it was for him another international flop. His selection remained a dilemma as his last two comebacks had been accompanied by talk of political sway.
His recent comeback was a surprising one; the Pakistan ODI team to play Zimbabwe was announced in the midnight hours, at a time when the mobile network around Gaddafi Stadium was jammed amid the security protocol of the Zimbabwe team, all set to return to the hotel after completing the second Twenty20 on Sunday. The PCB selectors offered no explanation why Malik was included - he had no extraordinary form to suggest he would be picked.
In the past year, Malik was away from the cricketing limelight but continued to be in the spotlight for his commercial venture in India. Ahead of every team selection announcement he was mostly seen at the National Cricket Academy, training and warming up his Twitter account. Nothing made sense until he scored this match-winning 112 off 76 balls; it was difficult, though, to know the precise value of his innings.
Over the years, Pakistan have spoken of blooding young players but it requires courage from the selectors. They made drastic changes to the ODI squad after the 2015 World Cup but lost 3-0 to Bangladesh, which forced them to back into their shell. Pakistan traditionally adheres to the nucleus of mainly senior players, with a few young players mixed in.
Malik was initially handed an opportunity in his specialist format, Twenty20, where he failed to mark his international career revival. His technique looked poor and he played two of the uglier innings of his career. But coach Waqar Younis had faith in him, which proved a major difference according to Malik himself. He was meant to bat at No.5 in the ODI team but was suddenly asked to bat at No.3 with 23 overs left, allowing him to get settled with ample overs left.
Malik has batted in every position except No.11 over the course of his ODI career. Here, he turned the tables and played a big hand to give Pakistan their highest total of 375 runs in Pakistan. The midas touch was back as his innings revived some old memories of his unbeaten 82 off 41 balls in 2003 at the same venue.
Malik's stroke-making and immense power with his sharp coordination makes him a shrewd batsman. He hit 12 boundaries and two sixes at a strike-rate of 147.36 to mark a valuable revival to his career. "These are the performances that extend your career," Malik said after the match. "I needed that and it came with a lot of backing from the team management."
When Malik was out of contention he was still captaining his regional side, Sialkot Stallions, and led them to the T20 title this month. He himself finished as the third leading scorer at an average of 61.55 in five matches. "Before coming into the series I was playing in Faisalabad in domestic T20 where I played couple of good innings and that actually gave me the flow and confidence. Now I would like to keep it going and be consistent with my form."
Recalling his two years in the wilderness he said: "There has been an obvious disappointment but as a profession you always look for opportunity and you have to perform to get their attention. At the end of the day, it's selectors' prerogative to pick me or not as it's up to them to pick whatever they require fitting in for their combination. Everyone set goals for themselves ... I have some plans to contribute as a team and individually comes later."
The inclusion of Malik, 33, in the team might have discouraged one youngster waiting for a million-dollar opportunity, but after his century, his selection suddenly made sense, with a big vacuum to be filled following the retirements of Shahid Afridi and Misbah-ul-Haq from the format.
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent. @kalson