Pinch yourself, Pakistan; Abdullah Shafique is a real, living, breathing opener

For a country infamous for its opening woes, Shafique doesn't just feel like the right answer, but an entire exam being aced

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Six Tests in, Abdullah Shafique has already accomplished feats that have taken batters entire careers to achieve  •  AFP/Getty Images

Six Tests in, Abdullah Shafique has already accomplished feats that have taken batters entire careers to achieve  •  AFP/Getty Images

It's fine. You have permission to get all kinds of giddy about Abdullah Shafique. Permission to throw all kinds of stats and facts and nonsense trivia and taunts and boasts out there, to prove that your opener is bigger than their opener.
Like this first, which is a good, chunky one: Shafique is now only the second opener after Gordon Greenidge to remain unbeaten in a successful chase of a 300-plus target. Yes, Gordon Greenidge. Here is one that is totally arbitrary but also kind of history-bending: Shafique now sits behind only Sunil Gavaskar, Don Bradman and George Headley in the list of most runs made after six (arbitrary alert) Tests. Yes, Little Master, The Greatest and Atlas (because he carried his team).
There's one for purists: the 524 minutes Shafique batted in this chase represent the longest anyone has batted in a successful fourth-innings chase. Yes, half the time Hanif batted in Bridgetown, but for the win. Then this one for the trolls among you: in his six-Test career so far, Shafique already has more runs in the fourth innings than Salman Butt, Ramiz Raja and Ahmed Shehzad managed in their entire careers.
And this one, which is my favourite already: Shafique has faced as many fourth-innings deliveries in six Tests (922) as it took Virender Sehwag 87 Tests to face. Or, as it took Gavaskar 50 Tests to face. It is a totally meaningless stat because how many balls an opener gets to face in the fourth innings is a consequence of events mostly outside of the control of that opener. But it has massive Big Data Energy.
Which, right now, is almost the point of Shafique. He has accomplished feats of such scale, feats that have otherwise taken decades to occur in Tests, feats that have taken batters entire careers to achieve, in such a short span of time that the impulse is to play it down, to dismiss it as the kind of statistical freakery multiple players exhibited early in their careers. It happens.
But a competing impulse to pay it every bit - and then some - of attention is greatest in the aftermath of this 160*. Joe Root scored his first hundred in the fourth innings - let alone in a successful chase - in June this year, nearly a decade and 115 Tests into his career. Younis Khan had to jump through the nine circles of hell to become the fourth-innings giant he eventually became, also nearly a decade into his career. South Africa were lucky to amble across some granite out of which they carved Graeme Smith and here's Abdullah Shafique, nine first-class games old, earnestly strumming covers on his acoustic guitar and saving and winning Tests on the final day of Tests like he's Younis Khan by day and Atif Aslam by night. In some countries, he may have done enough to have already secured a knighthood.
It's also impossible to not get sucked into some hyperbole because Pakistani openers (*checks notes*).. oh that's right, PAKISTANI OPENERS. In the last innings, on the last day, of Tests they are in their truest element. Having scored runs in all situations, this is generally their time to fail, the first to fall in what is usually a prelude to disaster or, on the good days, the early jitters that a middle order eases away.
Pakistan haven't had a genuine, living, breathing opener, one they can really believe in and hold on to, one more durable than a cryptocurrency, for so long it's possible they've forgotten what one looks like. Saeed Anwar's been gone over 20 years which means there's young adults in Pakistan who don't know that in cricket, a good batting order begins with a good opener.
They've had some who have tried hard, bless them. But in those two decades, Pakistan's five most prolific openers are Mohammad Hafeez, Taufeeq Umar, Imran Farhat, Salman Butt and Azhar Ali, who's not really even an opener.
"Pakistan haven't had a genuine, living, breathing opener, one they can really believe in and hold on to, one more durable than a cryptocurrency, for so long it's possible they've forgotten what one looks like"
There are some decent numbers between them. There are some good innings too. Some decent careers. But if a collective epitaph were to record their contributions, it might say they were openings into an innings for the opposition, more than openers of an innings. It might be a little cruel sure, but it wouldn't be entirely inaccurate.
In those two decades, there's not a single Pakistan opening pair that has scored 1000 runs together while averaging at least 40 as a partnership. Nine Full Members feature in that, most of them multiple times, which tells you that the filter benchmarks are not elite. Not a single Pakistan pair. So desperate were Pakistan for an opener that all through last year - true story - they played a specialist slip catcher in that position.
Against this backdrop, what does it matter that Shafique's match-saving 96 against Australia was made on a flat pitch, sorry, great batting track? Or that this 160* was against an inexperienced Sri Lanka attack banking on the guy in his second Test? Fourth-innings runs are like Tough Mudder runs - considerable distances and with obstacles which, in the case of Australia, meant Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon.
And in Galle, it meant Galle, which is to spin what Sabina Park and Perth used to be to fast bowling. Before this chase, no ground in the world (where at least 20 Tests have been played) was more difficult for fourth-innings batting than Galle.
This surface maybe didn't bite quite as sharply as it can do there and maybe it was slower, but it never stopped doing things. It was never not difficult. But to be able to concentrate for as long as Shafique did, to hold his nerve after being beaten by rippers, blank it out and move on, took plenty of doing. It's not like he was hurtling into this target, so he had to do that very often, relying entirely on his defensive technique as the means of attack. There was never any real momentum to ride along on, except for a period in the partnership with Mohammad Rizwan. For the last 67 overs of his innings, Shafique hit just two boundaries and one of them was the final hit.
A 90% control factor, over nearly nine hours across the last two days on a Galle surface, with just the one rush of blood - possibly because he knew rain was coming - can be sliced in any number of ways, none of which can play it down.
Pakistan have been here before with openers, admittedly to far lesser degree of giddiness. Among all the ordinary data for modern Pakistani openers is also the trend which shows that a good number begun brightly. Five Tests in Abid Ali (averaging 69.5), Sami Aslam (43.5), Hafeez (45.88), Imran Farhat (37.11) all felt like the answer. Six Tests in, Shafique feels not like one right answer but an entire exam being aced.
And that is why Pakistan is here and why post-Galle - apologies for the comedown - is where it gets real for Shafique. The problem isn't that Pakistan's openers don't start well. It's that they end badly.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo