Asad Shafiq steps out of the shadows as Pakistan's new senior pro

Asad Shafiq grimaces after holing out to Boyd Rankin AFP

Asad Shafiq, Pakistan's No. 4, walked across the outfield towards the middle after two early wickets had fallen. In his customary quiet and neat manner, he marked his crease, took guard and defended the first ball to the off-side.

Four hours later, he fell into a trap, pulling a short ball straight to short midwicket. But he'd made a century that would help Pakistan secure a stunning win.

The time was August 2016; the venue, The Oval. Shafiq's first-innings partnership with Younis Khan paved the way for a ten-wicket victory over England that levelled the series and elevated Pakistan to gloriously giddy heights at the top of the Test rankings.

That Test was the first time in more than five years that Shafiq had batted at No.4 for Pakistan. With Younis and Misbah-al-haq batting above him, Shafiq had quietly risen to No. 13 in the Test batting rankings and, in the process, become almost a specialist No. 6. A celebrated one, no less. He currently holds the record for the most Test centuries scored in that position. He had made an art of batting with the tail, hurting sides with lower-order runs and instilling confidence in the bowlers when they were batting at the other end. But he desperately wanted to be a No. 4.


In a frustrating period since his last tour to the British Isles, Shafiq has shown many glimpses of the potential he has not quite fulfilled. It's been a lean couple of years punctuated by two magnificent centuries: in a heroic chase against Australia at the Gabba and again in a losing cause facing Sri Lanka in Dubai.

In the 14 Tests Shafiq has played since his Oval century, he averages just 32.20. What's more, his shelf-life as a No.6 seems to have expired - in his eight most recent innings in that position, he's made 137 runs at an average of 17.12, as if making the point that he needs to influence innings these days, not merely react to them.

His overall average fell below 40 a year ago and when he fell to Boyd Rankin - succumbing to the opposition captain's plan and pulling a short ball as he did at The Oval - it remained just under that mark. He is now No. 25 in the Test batting rankings.

It can hardly have helped that Shafiq has batted in every position from 3 to 7 in the past two years, as Pakistan mused over the jigsaw pieces after the retirements of Younis and Misbah. He has also had to overcome a recent lack of top-level cricket: his last Test was seven months ago and, as a red-ball-only player, he has been restricted to domestic cricket and net practice.

However, an innings of 62 in conditions favourable to swing suggests rustiness isn't an issue and to see him cutting with confidence and fluency, as he did here, is always a good sign. While several of his teammates appeared to waver between playing forward or back to the swinging ball in the hands of Tim Murtagh, in particular, Shafiq was more decisive. He had his share of luck, with edges landing safely, and he rode it well. But Shafiq's technical proficiency means he rarely looks bad, he just somehow manages to lose his wicket at an inopportune time.

Post the #MisYou era, Shafiq's importance has naturally grown, along with the burden of leadership. Coming into this match, debutant Imam-ul-Haq, Haris Sohail and Babar Azam had just 13 Tests between them: in the top five only Azhar Ali and Shafiq have any significant experience.

But Pakistan's top-order wobbles go back further. In the past five years Pakistan have lost three wickets before reaching 100 in 60 percent of their innings. Only three teams have lost their first three wickets at a higher rate: Zimbabwe, West Indies and - perhaps encouragingly for Pakistan's next engagement - England, at 60.34 percent.

Faheem Ashraf and Shadab Khan were the batsmen who formed the rearguard in Malahide in the same way Shafiq did so often batting at No. 6.

But Shafiq is now a No. 4. And he knows the expectations are bigger.

"I always wanted to bat up the order, like three or four, and so did the coach, Mickey Arthur and Sarfraz [Ahmed], especially after the retirements of Misbah and Younis so it's now my responsibility to take that No.4 position," said Shafiq at the close of play.

"Now the responsibility is with me, Azhar Ali and Sarfraz, the guys who have played 40-50-odd matches. It's now our job to play more responsible innings."

There is no doubting Shafiq's talent and temperament. His selflessness in batting wherever Pakistan have needed him is admirable. But he now has the position he has always coveted and the chance to fulfil his promise as one of the senior players in the side.

Even so, for a batsman who has so often played a supporting role in the wings, it was somehow fitting that he should top-score in his new role as a senior batsman, and still be overshadowed by the close of play.