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