England in Pakistan 2005-06 October 29, 2005

Spinning hangovers and opening gaps

Pakistan's choice of picking five spinners, for the series against England, will make the headlines but choosing only one specialist opener leaves one stumped, writes Osman Samuiddin

Salman Butt is the only specialist opener in the Pakistan squad. Can they afford such a luxury? © Getty Images

Has squad selection in Pakistan become a pseudo-event? During the last couple of years, squad compositions - historically conducive to the wildest conspiracy theories, tales of selectorial incompetence and favouritism and impassioned debate - have mostly been eerily predictable, staid and generally worthy of only forced comments: Shoaib not in it? Hmm, dodgy attitude and fitness as well. Shabbir? Kinky action and rickety knees too. Sami? Continual injury hassles.

Fundamentally, it is encouraging that a group of 14 to 16 players - 30 according to the coach and selectors - has been identified for the longish term. But surely, it's a Pakistani custom, not to mention never boring, to stir things up a little on occasions?

Thankfully then, for nostalgia's sake if nothing else, the squad for the Test series against an English team that has just won the Ashes - and that is something that hasn't happened to Pakistan since their 1987 tour to England - displays thought processes that induce debate, if not as heated as from yore.

Here and there a couple of observations must be sprinkled. The headline-grabbing decision will be the inclusion of five spinners; three specialist and two part-timers. Much has been made - too much perhaps? - of the part spin is likely to play in this series; Mushtaq Ahmed's recall two years after his last, depressingly flat appearance, has been and will continue to be the focal point of the argument.

As Kamran Abbasi argued, both Mushtaq's recall and the broader reliance on spin is not only a depressing déjà vu from 2000-01, it feels outdated, out of sync with modern-day realities. Five years ago, an English susceptibility to spin - in itself a hangover from Abdul Qadir's '80s - was overplayed and Pakistan suffered for it. And if England did struggle against legspin this summer, then hell, they were only up against one of the greatest cricketers of the century, willing himself to possibly his greatest level. One young legspinner still establishing himself, albeit furiously, and one 35-year-old one some way past his best years hardly proffer the same threat.

But another less immediately apparent, and eminently more bizarre decision, also merits remark only because it poses a greater and longer-term concern. Not very often are 16-man squads chosen with only one man who can be deemed a specialist opener. And over six Tests, Salman Butt has only twice hinted at being special.

Gradually, over the course of ten Tests, nine different opening combinations and six different players, panic has attached itself to the openers' dilemma. Partnerships that could have been developed - and even the most failed surely deserve more than two Tests together - have been shunted out. The solution, on the evidence of this squad, suggests that openers, as an entity, have ceased to exist in Pakistan; that Imran Farhat, Taufeeq Umar, Yasir Hameed are not in fact, as we have come to regard them, openers.

Mushtaq Ahmed was recalled into the side but will be be a real threat for the English batsmen? © Getty Images

Granted, the three have hardly set the world ablaze but to go in against the relentlessness of England's attack with just one? Even picking someone as raw as Khalid Latif, former Pakistan Under-19 captain and specialist opener with a growing posse of admirers, would have provided, at the very least, an option. As would Bazid Khan, who while essentially a middle-order batsman, had his opening credentials openly discussed by selectors.

But it seems certain now that rumours of the impending promotion of Shoaib Malik have not been exaggerated. Having already in his short career assumed numerous guises, he will now make one more, as Test opener. He has a solitary Test's experience, the last one Pakistan played against the West Indies, and he did score a fifty without looking like he would do anything of the sort. Regardless, it is safe to assert that a sterner new-ball test than Steve Harmison or Matthew Hoggard - with only Andrew Flintoff for relief - he won't undergo.

Finally, Shoaib Akhtar's fate was once one such pseudo-event; in need of, rather than always warranting, comment. Pakistan have played a year without him and coped; nothing Shoaib does provokes surprise or shock anymore and subsequently, neither would have his inclusion or exclusion here. The fortnight of speculation preceding the decision seemed more than ever only a prerequisite. Simply, he is in the squad, and given its balance, possibly in the playing XI.

That the squad has been picked for two Tests, rather than the whole series, could be taken as a hint of uncertainty from the management. It has been rare over the last year or so and it signals a proviso of sorts, an escape clause if things don't go to plan at Multan and Faisalabad. Quite conceivably, it could be too late by then.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo