July 9, 2009

Pakistan's trouble at the top

Openers are a neglected breed on the country's domestic circuit, and that's been a key reason for the team's failures in Tests in recent times

This is not a post-mortem. One frame on TV during the Galle Test, though, summed up a bulk of Pakistan's problems. The screen was split in two, each one showing the stances of Salman Butt and Khurram Manzoor, the former's weight too far forward and the latter's back. Those who follow Pakistan cricket will say, "What's new?" Those who follow Pakistan cricket will know there haven't been solid Test-match openers since Saeed Anwar and Aamer Sohail, and very few before. Even Anwar was a naturalised opener: he used to play in the middle order in domestic cricket.

There is no better feeling in a small chase than the knowledge of having reliable openers, especially when the bowlers have finished their stupendous work in the final session, with an edgy period to follow. In the first innings in Galle, Pakistan lost Butt and Manzoor before the half hour was out on the first day; in the second they lost Manzoor in the evening and Butt first thing in the morning. There is no way the openers should solely be blamed for the dramatic loss, but No's 1 and 2 have always been a lottery since Sohail and Anwar opened together for the last time in March 2000.

Nineteen different openers have been tried since that period - and 37 combinations - including Abdul Razzaq, Azhar Mahmood, Kamran Akmal, Shoaib Malik and Shahid Afridi. That even by Pakistan's standards is a fairly big number: 56 players opened in their 48 years of Test cricket before that.

Younis Khan's response to the issue tells a story. "If you see, this has been the story for the last four-five years," he said moments after the defeat. "Sometimes they do well, sometimes they do badly. That's not a big issue - anybody who's played there. It keeps going up and down like this." In the land of reverse-swing, masterful spinners and great middle-order batsmen, opening the innings has been a neglected art, perhaps non-glamorous. Heroes do play a big part, and Pakistan simply haven't had enough heroes opening the batting.

Ramiz Raja, himself a fairly successful naturalised opener, wants an emergency declared on the opening front. He has seen over the years that in all levels of cricket in Pakistan the opener is the most neglected entity. "It has never been given importance by captains," Ramiz told Cricinfo. "It was thought that on docile subcontinental pitches, where you played almost 70-80% of your cricket, specialist openers were really not required. That has been the thinking of most Pakistan captains, but it doesn't help."

The approach perhaps comes right from the domestic circuit, where more such pitches mean the openers are hardly tested, and anybody does the job. The business, as is the case in Indian domestic cricket, starts in the middle order. Sohail, one of the more traditional openers, has an interesting theory.

"Ultimately reverse-swing hasn't helped Pakistan cricket at all," Sohail told Cricinfo last year. "How many new-ball bowlers have you seen who are very good? Reverse-swing has helped Pakistan achieve things temporarily, but when you look at it in the long term, it has actually hampered Pakistan cricket. You are not getting good new-ball bowlers. If you are not getting good new-ball bowlers in your first-class structure or club cricket or at the top level, how do you actually think of getting good openers?"

"You need a special temperament for the job. Different levels of energy for different situations and times. There isn't enough emphasis on that at the domestic level, or at the academy level. Openers are not made at Test level."
Ramiz Raja

But if that be the case, why aren't there openers scoring thousands of runs in domestic cricket and putting pressure on Butt, who can't complain of not having been given a full run? "I have no plausible reasoning," Ramiz says. "The players in the seventies, even in the eighties, had a chance to hone their skill in county cricket, so that helped Pakistan batsmen to rise to a certain level. When it got stopped, our domestic set-up was not of a certain standard that provided a strong base for openers to grow.

"It's just that we have got to develop openers," Ramiz said. "There is not enough importance given to that aspect. When I say that, I mean both technically and temperamentally. You have to leave a lot of balls, you have to be technically correct, you have to see off tough situations like batting in the last half an hour of the day. You need a special temperament for that job. Different levels of energy for different situations and times. There isn't enough emphasis on that at the domestic level, or at the academy level. Openers are not made at Test level."

Times changed, foreign coaches came and went, but the callous attitude towards openers didn't. In the 2005-06 series against England, under Bob Woolmer and Inzamam, Pakistan went with Butt as the only specialist in the squad of 16, with Akmal, Malik and Afridi as options.

Butt, who's enjoyed the longest run in the post Sohail-Anwar era, had the promise, but needed a better opener to learn from. Openers grow together. They are a team within a team. They are often good friends, they often sit and discuss their batting and the bowlers even after the cricket. They are honest enough to ask the other to farm the strike against a particular bowler who's troubling one of them. They point out to each other the mistakes they are prone to making. They are almost a couple, and Butt has been pretty polygamous there, though not by his choosing.

There is an interesting story about how Sohail chose to become an opener. When he was fairly young, Wasim Raja, his captain at Lahore, told him if he wanted to play for Pakistan he needed to start opening the innings. Sohail hesitated. Raja said, "Do it. Pakistan won't be needing middle-order batsmen in the next four or five years. There is Saleem Malik, there is Javed Miandad; it will be hard for you to get in. Start opening the innings, you will play for Pakistan."

By that logic, chances of a 16-17-year-old starting to open the innings look bleak. From the current middle order, Yousuf and Younis are nearer to the end than the start. Pakistan better start doing something about it, as Ramiz said, at the school level, club level, academy level and first-class level.

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • usman on July 11, 2009, 5:20 GMT

    I don't understand how anyone here is calling Inzamam such a great batsman. After all, a single century against the two best bowling attacks in the world - SA and Aus in at least 150 international outings (yes, 1 in 150!) tell the picture of an epitomy of a flat track bully, nothing more.

    Funny how Inzamam's "life-threatening back ache" only used to surface when he had to face McGrath and Warne on the Test arena....,remember how he copped out of '01 Series V Australia too leaving lambs for the slaughter. Contrary to the false claim that he was advised to rest in the Aus Series, he was taken apart by the very best - Imran Khan for dereliction of duty and leaving the young team at the mercy of a rampaging opposition. Mind you, he had scored 1 & 0 in the Test before then - a "dubious feat" he repeated again in the Super Test a few years later against the same Aussies after crying against his earlier excluson from the team.

    Salman is our best bet amongst the current lot of openers.

  • yuosif on July 10, 2009, 19:55 GMT

    MY dear friends its no use arguing here o commenting bcoz PcB will select those players who are from well known family or friends of politicians.Asim kamal suberp left handed player he should be in this team instead of misbah who is of no use n he becomin aged now get him in the team

  • yuosif on July 10, 2009, 16:45 GMT

    Pak should play more test mathches to be a good team.to get good openers or these openers to improve pak be allowed or given moe 5day games tht ill help big time

  • Aamir on July 10, 2009, 16:19 GMT

    They keep saying how many combination of players being used for open but most of the time these are the same players who have failed on many occasion. What Pakistan needs to do is to try new young combination of players who they can grow. By the time these batsmen gets a test cap it's too late for them to change their habits. It's good to try young batsmen who have the talent and then build on it. Misbah and Shoib has not done anything major in a while but they are still in the team.

  • kaiser on July 10, 2009, 12:16 GMT

    I don't know how is anyone praising Butt head as a good opener. His 100 is recalled to shower affection up on him against Australia. Mat Inns NO Runs HS Ave BF SR 100 50 4s 6s Ct Tests 22 40 0 1146 122 28.65 2428 47.19 2 6 168 1 9 An average of mere 28.65 doesn't make him a good opener maybe a cork opener can be suggested. Inzimam's volumes of runs speak for themselves even he made a solitary run against Aussies in that test but remember he had a back pain and due to pressure from former player's comments he decided to play that test. Inzmam was a great player and leader.

  • ali on July 10, 2009, 7:28 GMT

    The World has witnessed a great opener from Pakistan, and he was undoubtedly the Great Saeed Anwar. Aamer Sohail was successful because Anwar used to take all pressure of him. In all the good partnerships that the pair had, Anwar contributed more than 60% of the runs and Aamer only 30 to 40%. A string of failures from PCB was tried to make Afridi a formidable opener but he failed. Where are those great young openers Pakistan had like Imran Nazir and Imran Farhat. They must have been given longer period to prove a point. Unfortunately, when they scored, the PCB selectors needed a change. Why was Wajahat-ula-Wasti given an opening spot for more than 2 years when others were around? He played in the World Cup 1999 and did nothing. PCB can do ANYTHING and they have to sort things between themselves first before we can blame our cricketers.

  • Abdul Kadir on July 10, 2009, 5:40 GMT

    The problem is not lack of openers, its lack of selection and strategy. Butt's inclusion in 20-20 format has ruined his confidence for tests even though he was never a 20-20 player. Similarly players like Azhar Ali, who have the temprament to be openers have not been given the proper chance. Finally there has been too much chopping and changing. Butt needs to be told that he is only a test player and then be given an extended run, Azhar Ali needs to be inducted for the NZ series and Ali Asad needs to also be given an extended run.

  • WASEEM on July 10, 2009, 4:58 GMT

    Yes ofcourse the huge responsibilty of building Pakistan innings is only on the shoulders of Yousaf and Younis........ Other guys like Butt, Misbah, Malik, were only their to have some chill on the field. They even dont bother to think that what are they doing.. Butt Thinks if i got runs well other wise Younis or Yousaf will do it their own. Malik thinks who am I? No one will ask me if we lose so just chill man...... and Mr. Misbah is always not a good finisher... He is a good batsman but cant finish it off as Inzi. And man dont talk about these young new players i dont know from where they coming or had they played at any level of cricket... 5% of our young cricketers are promising to Play for Pakistan. Others just wana to enter this hall of fame want to play for Pakistan never mind how they played.... Yes one man in this forum talked about Fawad... i had seen him he is a very good young guy who had the passion of cricket. I think we can teach these guys and promote them to open.

  • Bakwas on July 9, 2009, 23:02 GMT

    I was so angry, frustrated and could not believe that Pak lost wich was supposed to be an easy win. Well my words fail to explain Pak's situation, such an embarassing, oh boy. Only Yousuf wanted to bat, others dey betta explain demselves.

  • usman on July 9, 2009, 18:29 GMT

    I concur that Aamer Sohail was not an excellent performer but in tandem with anwer formed a formidable opening pair, touted by many including Michael Holding as the finest opening pair of their times.

    Regarding the issue of Salman, I wonder how many would be aware that along with Misbah, he is the hardest working Pak team member. His routines for net practice like those of Misbah are drawn out and very arduous, what to say of his regularity in fitness training. Even the very next morning upon returning from Australia after his successful '04 Series, he was right there in NCA doing net practice for over a couple of hours. This excellent work ethic regime gets even more accentuated when you consider that the two players had someone like Inzamam as the supposed role model - the unfit out of shape skipper who hardly ever condescended to get up from his chair for considerable while whilst the rest of the team sweated in practice sessions.

    Salman is the best talent we have as opener.

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