Fakhar Zaman occupies an odd place in Pakistan cricket. He is, at once, a man whose role is so unique that just about no one else in Pakistan can replicate it, but also the batsman whose place in the side is only as secure as his last couple of performances. When he finds himself in the zone, few other batsmen in world cricket look as capable of sending every delivery over the heads of any fielders placed between long-on and midwicket. Equally, when that confidence dips, no other Pakistan cricketer finds himself needing to prove they have the technical mettle to compete at this standard.
Just a week ago, he had to prove that point all over again. After becoming the fastest man to 1,000 runs in ODI cricket history (18 innings), he had partaken in another 29 without doubling that tally. He fell early on in the first ODI, chopping a ball back onto his stumps when targeted in that tight off-stump channel, and questions about his place in the side were openly being asked.
And then, Zaman found himself in the zone once more. He made 294 runs over the next two innings, including a record-breaking 193 in Johannesburg, and reminded everyone once again why Pakistan have such unshakeable faith in him.
"There's no player who hasn't been through a bad time," Zaman told a virtual press conference. "You learn through those lean spells. i was just waiting for some time off where I could work on my game. Because of Covid-19, there was no cricket last year, so I worked on my game a lot. I was just trying to control what was in my hands - otherwise whether you do well or poorly people will criticise you anyway."
Criticism in Pakistan can be vicious, often coming not just from supporters and media but also former cricketers. One of those, former Pakistan fast bowler Tanvir Ahmed, made headlines recently when he suggested Zaman's heroics in the second ODI had more to do with fortune than skill. When the question was put to him, Zaman said criticism from outside "doesn't matter to me".
"If somebody does criticise you, you become stronger," he said. "The people who supported me through the lean times, I just want to thank them. I've played enough cricket to understand it. The Test cricketers who've criticised me understand it very well, too. Maybe I haven't been able to satisfy them yet, but I'll continue to try."
While Zaman will understandably scoop up the bulk of the awards and the attention, his opening partner for much of his career, Imam-ul-Haq, has enjoyed a similarly impressive ODI run, something Zaman drew attention to. While Zaman was the quickest to 1,000 ODI runs, Imam only took one more innings to bring up that milestone, with the current Pakistan opening pair occupying the top two spots in that list. He has seven ODI hundreds already, one more than Zaman, and his average of 51.73 is the highest for a Pakistani opener. He scored two half-centuries this series, and Zaman said the two "understand each other's game".
"I've played alongside Imam a lot, even with Habib Bank in domestic cricket. We understand each other's games. When I played a handful of games, Imam emerged onto the national scene too. He's a magnificent player, the way he reads the game and situation. He plays within his own limitations, which is a sign of a great cricketer, to understand what he can and can't do.
"It's not just this tournament that our top order has been doing well. Misbah told us we were the specialist openers and our places in the side were secure. So we came in here expecting to be the two openers. It's cricket, and anything can happen, but the management continues to be very happy with us and back us."
Some of the more discerning followers of Zaman's career have pointed out that the approach he took in this latest series was markedly different to the one that defines him. Rather than trying to bludgeon right from the outset, Zaman appeared wary while negotiating the first Powerplay. In the second ODI, he took 70 balls to reach his half-century, while in the decider, he needed 62, with Imam beating to the milestone.
Zaman said that didn't so much signal a shift in his approach, revealing it was more a product of where the series was being played. "In South Africa, the wickets are different to anywhere else in the world, especially with the new ball. You can't just go out and play your shots like you can in England or Pakistan. You have to see off the new ball here, and that was our plan. If the bowler makes a mistake, you punish them, but otherwise you have to take a more circumspect approach."
"If somebody does criticise you, you become stronger. The people who supported me through the lean times, I just want to thank them. I've played enough cricket to understand it."Fakhar Zaman
Zaman attempted to draw a line under the most contentious moment of the series: the run-out in the final over of the second ODI that denied him a second ODI double-hundred, and possibly a chance to win a historic game for Pakistan. He stuck to what he had said in the immediate aftermath, and termed it "my fault completely", absolving Quinton de Kock of any blame in the matter.
"I've said before that run-out was my fault. I've played a lot of cricket and these situations can happen. I don't hold Quinton de Kock responsible at all. If I say I got out because of him, that's an excuse and at this level, if you're giving excuses, that's not appropriate. I should have been aware of my end. I really did want to score 200, but only if it meant we won the match. Otherwise it didn't matter quite so much."
Last year, Zaman, who was part of the Pakistan Navy before he getting involved with Pakistan cricket, was honorarily promoted to Lieutenant, and today Zaman called it "an honour and a dream. I felt after that that I had to live up to the responsibility. The Navy's had a huge role in my career, and how they've taken on ownership of me has helped immensely."
For a while, Zaman had looked like he was all at sea when out in the middle. But, drawing guidance, perhaps, from the instincts his first career will have instilled in him, he has managed to turn that ship around very effectively indeed.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000