Not that Shoaib Malik needed reminding, but just how thankless a task his latest role is, was driven home by the tasteless scapegoating of Inzamam-ul-Haq in a board committee report on the World Cup. The only thing they didn't blame him for was the judicial and political crisis gripping the country. Had they more time, they might have done so.
As a young man, leading his country for the first time, it makes for a fine message to walk out on the field with: 'great that you're captain Shoaib, but no wins and it's your mess, not ours.' Younis Khan's refusal might not look so foolish anymore eh?
And yet, everything suggests Malik is anything but foolish. Rashid Latif, a fair spotter of character, says he's siyaana, which roughly means shrewd and implies more. That is just to add to the many leadership endorsements he has had, whispered and out loud, over the last two years.
An ODI series offers a comfortable beginning for it is in this format that he is most settled. He holds down a place, has batted nearly everywhere, and has bowled in most situations. He doesn't bring Inzamam's security with the bat, but he brings some of his intelligence and calm. Ask yourself also whether there has been a better fielder as captain in recent years for Pakistan? It's worth asking, for the captain so often sets the mood in the field; Inzamam was a good slipper with a great arm, but supremely lumbering and inelegant otherwise. His side followed suit. Malik, in contrast, has a lithe athleticism about him, good hands and better energy. While the first two are not contagious, the last might be which, for the worst fielding side in international cricket, is handy.
One eye should be kept on where he puts himself in the field (the other, naturally, on where he puts himself in the batting order). Pakistan's leaders have favoured mid-on and mid-off, from where they not only offered advice to bowlers but semi-hid their distaste for diving, chasing and the dirty work. Some, like Inzamam, stood at slip and then short midwicket or short cover. Few, like Malik, prowled the covers, where the action is, where sleeves are rolled up, where knees and elbows are dirtied and grazed. Will he stay at cover and get his hands dirty, or will he move and regally survey and direct from elsewhere? Either way a little of his leadership will reveal itself.
To be optimistic, here then lies a tremendous opportunity for him. The men who will help him make or break that opportunity initially are not new to him, which is, in one sense, a shame. A cull along the lines of 2003 wasn't necessary for sure, but a low-key series, with low stakes and lower interest, against a quality opponent, was ideal ground for uncovering younger, newer, fresher names.
Only two players will be unfamiliar with the others. Had they not picked Fawad Alam, so empowered does the judiciary feel right now, you reckon someone would've taken suo moto notice of his exclusion and called the selectors to court. Such has been the impact he has made this season. The selection committee may be new, so too their terms and spheres of influence, but their ambition, with this squad at least, remained much the same as their predecessor. Time and opportunity remain on their side.
Some kind of ambition is apparent elsewhere though, in Pakistan's decision to play this series, effectively, coach-less. Indeed, let it never be said after this that Pakistan does not further cricketing debate. There are people still who question what coaches are for; indeed Rameez Raja said recently Pakistan doesn't need one at all. This series may only be three matches, but here is a chance for debate to inch forward, for those who feel coaches are mere accessories to back their talk with some practical evidence.
Talat Ali's twin role of manager and coach, in fact, completes a full circle of sorts. International coaching, of a fashion that modern-day coaches might recognise, grew in part from Ken Barrington's broadening of his managerial role with England in the late 1970s. Ali's job sounds similar now and who knows, like Barrington, it may prove popular with the players. Feel for Malik though, for without a full-time coach, there is one less potential employee to share the blame with, making his job more thankless still.