When one is writing for any publication, it is best to try and avoid too much emotion. Though your passions are central to any good writing, if you wear your colours too openly, you are prone to being sideswiped by accusations of bias and prejudice. After a few harrowing experiences with cyber mobs, I have generally tried to hide any agenda behind data and evidence.
But the person I am writing about here is somebody I have opposed quite vocally, and so it seems futile to try to pretend I am being objective here. With that disclaimer in place, let us examine the news that the former Pakistan captain and opener, Salman Butt, is expected to be included in the upcoming ODI series against West Indies.
My issue with Butt isn't limited to the fact that the spot-fixing scandal tainted him. While the act was extremely contemptible and shameful, over the last few years I have consistently argued for allowing the three disgraced cricketers to return to playing the sport at any level once their bans were served. In my opinion, if you don't wish to see them back, then your issue is with the laws and not the players themselves.
The reason I don't particularly like Butt has been because of his attitude since the scandal. While Mohammad Asif displayed indifference and Mohammad Amir remorse, Butt showed defiance. Now I am not going to argue whether any of these reactions were sincere, and indeed, I expect they were carefully created reactions rather than heartfelt ones. What I am talking about here is the chosen response.
For several years, even as his lawyers were accepting his guilt, Butt acted as if he was the victim of a vast conspiracy and someone who was completely innocent. He showed up at political rallies against corruption, attended conventions on accountability at elite universities, and appeared on talk shows where he seemed to stop just short of blaming the Illuminati for conspiring against him. In a country that is never short of conspiracy theories, Butt played out a remarkable narrative where five years in, it left many wondering if indeed he was just some pawn in a massive game.
"Butt showed up at political rallies against corruption, attended conventions on accountability, and appeared on talk shows where he seemed to stop just short of blaming the Illuminati for conspiring against him"
But that is not a reason to oppose his return to the team. That is a decision that should be taken purely on cricketing grounds, and in that sense, Butt has made some sort of a claim. In his first List A tournament since returning, he was the second-highest scorer, averaging over 100 in seven games, with a century and four fifties. He was then selected in the more elite Pakistan Cup, based on five teams. Butt passed 50 once, and averaged 27. His latest outing has been in the recently concluded National T20 cup, where he averaged over 70 with four fifties, once again ending up the second-highest scorer behind an Akmal.
For his supporters, such numbers surely merit a return to the side, but there are a couple of caveats. In the two tournaments that Butt has done well in, the bowling stocks were fairly weak, with few internationals playing. Butt did much worse in the higher-quality List A tournament. More importantly, his strike rate has been worryingly poor throughout. In his first tournament, he and Shan Masood stood out among the top ten batsmen for their strike rates, around 75, with the rest all at 85 and above. In the Pakistan Cup, Butt's strike rate of 65 was worse than those of his team-mates Masood and Asad Shafiq, both of whom are known for batting relatively sedately.
In the National T20, his brilliant average came at a strike rate of 102, which was an aberration among the top batsmen. His semi-final knock displayed this trait best - he scored 55, yet took 55 balls to do so. In charitable terms, it could be said that his approach is obsolete in modern batting. In cynical terms, it could be said that he is selfishly putting together runs to get back into the national side.
Now it might be harsh to judge a player returning after five years this way, and more appropriate to focus on his successes, but given that Butt might be poised to return to national duty, it is important to consider what he brings to the table. As an opener, he is contesting for one of two spots, given that the other is taken by the incumbent captain, Azhar Ali.
Azhar has had a major impact on the top spot, and his personal record is among the world's best. And though he has played with ten different partners, over the last year Pakistan's opening partnership has put on more runs than that of any team bar England, at an average better than Australia's and South Africa's. But Azhar's strike rate is still below international standards, and unlike other options such as Sarfraz Ahmed or Sharjeel Khan, Butt will definitely be the slower partner of the two. Bringing him in as an opener feels both unfair as well as a step back in terms of ignoring younger options.
Pakistan's real problem lies in the middle order, where their partnership numbers are just about respectable in terms of the average, but their run rates are closer to those of Associate sides. Once again, Butt can't quite be expected to provide the answers here, even when accounting for the fact that if he were to play here, he would be batting in unfamiliar positions.
Given all that, it doesn't make sense to turn to someone like Butt in the white-ball side, at least at the moment. While even a critic like myself can't deny the sheer weight of his runs, it would be foolish to imagine that strike rates don't matter in the modern game. Moreover, with Pakistan struggling to qualify for the next World Cup, picking a player like Butt feels like giving up. Given that Pakistan's coach, Mickey Arthur, recently criticised his ODI side for playing '90s-era cricket, it's quite puzzling that Butt's sub-75 strike rate is being viewed as an option. Of course, he still might be able to convert his style to a more modern pace, but he hasn't given any indications of doing so at the moment.