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Analysis

Is Abdullah Shafique the real deal?

Pakistan haven't unearthed a world-class opener since Saeed Anwar, but their quest may yet have a happy ending

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
19-Mar-2022
Abdullah Shafique defied Australia for 305 balls in the second innings in Karachi  •  PCB

Abdullah Shafique defied Australia for 305 balls in the second innings in Karachi  •  PCB

Like the first sentence of a Tolstoy novel, Pakistan's opening Test batters have, for too long, only existed to lubricate the path to what follows. They offer you a glimpse of what you are about to get into, but pretty or eye-catching as they might be, they are moved past swiftly, letting you get stuck into the heft of the subject matter - be it the social state of 19th century Russia or the middle orders of 21st century Pakistan Test line-ups.
So when Abdullah Shafique arrives, pretty as a Tolstoy opening sentence and as technically sound as the meat of his novels, it is all Pakistan can do not to unload their collective hopes and dreams on those 22-year old shoulders.
Who is Shafique then? Another Pakistan opener? Why are we talking about Pakistan openers? Won't he play some games, do all right, get exaggerated praise, and then mysteriously get exposed against either the moving Dukes in England or the bouncing Kookaburra in the southern hemisphere?
Won't he drop out for whoever has a good Quaid-e-Azam Trophy next season? Or, just as likely, whoever has just had a good white-ball series and happens to be trending on social media?
Shafique might - please hear this out before rolling your eyes - be different. It isn't just because - like Harry Potter to JK Rowling on a train to Manchester - he seemed to appear, out of nowhere, fully formed. He has still played just three first-class matches that aren't Tests, and only one before he made his Test debut. And in that game, he scored a first-innings 133.
When he made his T20 debut the following year, an unbeaten 58-ball 102 helped Central Punjab chase down 201 with more than an over to spare. He would become just the second cricketer ever to score hundreds on first-class and T20 debut.
Shafique is from Pakistan after all, so there was the usual messing around; he was selected for the T20I leg of the New Zealand tour in December 2020 largely off the back of that hundred, even though all signs pointed to red-ball cricket being his true calling. A couple of ducks and a bit of dented confidence later, he dropped out of the side altogether, seeming set for a long stint in the domestic game.
Misbah-ul-Haq, Pakistan's coach at the time, counted himself among Shafique's admirers, praising his technical ability and maturity. And when he got the Test call-up to replace Imran Butt in Bangladesh this year, that precocious ability began to get the wider audience it merited. A pair of half-centuries on debut provided the foundation, but then again, considering the opposition, any excitement was invariably tempered.
Over the past fortnight, though, the reputation has truly begun to burnish itself. The Australians' bowling attack in the first Test in Rawalpindi boasted a combined 1089 Test wickets, a daunting challenge for someone of Shafique's inexperience, however flat the surface might be. Building on an unbeaten second-innings hundred, he went on to produce a fourth-innings masterclass in the second Test in Karachi, showcasing his temperament along with his talent.
It was the cauldron of hostility combined with the hopelessness of the situation that made Shafique's resistance so unlikely. Here was an opener playing his seventh Test innings. He had just witnessed Azhar Ali - a man in his 172nd - misjudge a Cameron Green short delivery so poorly that he ducked into an lbw.
At that stage, Pakistan were nearly 500 runs from their target, and if Shafique had quickly followed Azhar into the dressing room, there would have been little criticism or blame coming his way.
But over 304 balls, Shafique, perhaps the biggest Pakistani batting talent since the man batting opposite him, defied Australia. While Babar Azam was brisker with the run rate, Shafique displayed the maturity that had so impressed Misbah, remaining aware that Pakistan could get little more than a draw out of this.
He played Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins with soft hands behind the wicket whenever possible. Leaving wasn't a regular option given how accurate Australia were, so his defensive game got a workout as well as a huge audience. Nathan Lyon was treated with respect, but not deference; when it appeared he had settled on a length, Shafique knocked him off it by using his feet and stonking him out of the ground.
The 305th ball would produce a rare loose shot when, four shy of his hundred, he went chasing Cummins, driving on the up and edging to slip. It is the kind of shot that he is unlikely to play too often once he acquires more experience, but it couldn't detract from his marathon effort; and it didn't undo his hard work either.
The 50.5 overs he kept Australia out for was nearly a third of the entire innings until then, and the draw Shafique was trying to salvage would be Pakistan's by the day's end.
There are, of course caveats, and there will be detractors. This is just his fourth Test, and he has been a beneficiary of soft opposition or featherbed surfaces. How he copes against pace, movement and high bounce - something that did for him in both those T20I ducks against New Zealand - remains to be seen.
But of the eight Pakistan openers who have debuted since 2010 and played at least four Tests, no one has averaged as high as Shafique's 73.16. Besides Abid Ali, who until that stage had an average of 71.40, no one managed an average above 50.
The idea that Pakistan have found it much harder to produce world-class batters than their fast bowling counterparts falls rather flat when you consider how many batters went on to take their place among Pakistan's all-time Test legends since Saeed Anwar walked away from the sport. Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf, Misbah, Azhar, Babar and Asad Shafiq have all gone on to notable careers since then.
All besides Babar have scored at least 4500 Test runs and ten Test hundreds, milestones the current Pakistan captain should canter to over the next few seasons. In that time, not a single Pakistan fast bowler has come close to taking 200 Test wickets, with Umar Gul - who has 163 - the only one managing to broach 150.
But conspicuous by their absence in that list are opening batters. This isn't a golden age for that kind of player anywhere in the world, but in Pakistan in particular, those lost post-Anwar years have now entered a third decade. It wouldn't be uncharacteristic for Pakistan to move past Shafique at the first sign of a rough patch, or unforeseen circumstances, to extinguish the hopes he has built up.
There is a chance, though, for a happy ending to that quest. It is not an opportunity Tolstoy ever took, but, while Shafique writes his own destiny, Pakistan still might.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000