When Imran Khan pontificates, people still listen. He's not wrong as often as his critics claim or right as often as his supporters do, but take note they all do. So when he writes a column, part of which robustly questions Shoaib Malik's credentials as player and captain, ripples are inevitable.
"A captain can only earn respect if he is doing his bit as a player," Imran wrote in today's Hindustan Times. "Shoaib [Malik] is a good cricketer and seems to have a sensible head. However, the question is, does he automatically select himself as a batsman? Unfortunately, the answer is no, and till he changes that he cannot lead with authority."
It is unlikely Malik read the column before he went out to open today against India. But as the beginnings of a response, his wasn't half bad. Malik as a top-order batsman is a different beast altogether to Malik anywhere else. Indeed, part of the problem through his career, why people never think him a certain starter, is that he has never made one spot his own. Instead he has batted here, there and everywhere.
Why this is so is unclear. The 58 ODIs in his career where he has batted in the top four, he averages nearly 44 from. All his centuries and nearly half his fifties have come from here. More than all these stats, he looks more authoritative up there, able to run the singles and take advantage of fielding restrictions, as he did here.
His sixth hundred was a fine hand, controlled and always up-tempo. It gave Pakistan just the base they wanted, though it ended just when it shouldn't have. Yet as captain, in 28 matches, he has batted in the top four only four times. Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf at three and four are accomplished batsmen, but not immoveable from their spots: if Malik is not going to impose himself as captain, when will he? "We always look for the right combination in our batting," Malik said later. "It's not that every time you open you score a hundred."
Ultimately, after this loss and the nature of it, Imran's questions still hang in the air, awkwardly unanswered. So Malik was handicapped from the off by the early loss of Umar Gul, as acknowledged by Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Defending 300 with two seamers and one spinner on what Dhoni said was one of the flattest tracks in the world was never going to be easy.
Though cramps and time off the field meant he couldn't bowl today, his lack of bowling is also problematic. Board officials and Malik himself insist that he is in the team as an allrounder. Yet against the teams that matter - South Africa, India and Sri Lanka - Malik has bowled just 49 overs in 16 matches. If three overs per match is the criteria, then Virender Sehwag is a bona fide allrounder. When asked about Pakistan's recent performances and whether morale is down, he replied bizarrely, "Are you sitting in my heart? The Pakistan team is famous for comebacks. My form if it wasn't good, at least I am still the best allrounder as far as I know."
Perhaps on an evening lit up by Suresh Raina and Sehwag, none of it might have mattered anyway. But how many can deny that Pakistan under Malik, Kitply Cup or not, have been, not just uninspiring, but unsure of themselves?
Little wonder, when the captain is not only unsure of where to bat, but also apparently unwilling to fulfill his all-round role. He has to decide on one spot in the order, he has to stick to it and perform. Either he is an allrounder or he isn't. A surly press conference later, where he inadvertently re-lit a simmering selectorial debate, wasn't the ideal way to finish off a demanding night. More results like this and this time Imran Khan may well be proven correct.