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Analysis

Abdullah Shafique speeds down Pakistan Way

The team's new approach wasn't his natural game, but they believed he could adapt and now he believes it too

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
26-Jul-2023
Abdullah Shafique leans into the off drive, Sri Lanka vs Pakistan, 2nd Test, Colombo, 1st day, July 24, 2023

Abdullah Shafique has shown the world - and himself - that he can bat in a more aggressive manner  •  AFP/Getty Images

Pakistan's much-vaunted new way draws parallels to England most easily, but Abdullah Shafique would have been wise to be under no illusions of the differences between the two teams. It remains to be seen whether the Pakistan Way survives its first downturn in results - or even the next administrative shuffle - and any long leash their batters might feel they've been given has not been stress-tested.
Shafique will have felt the tautness in that rope by the time this Colombo Test came around. After a fairy tale start to a Test career that put him on course to become the fastest man to 1000 Test runs, the dip that followed was equally dramatic. Following a first-innings hundred against England in December, he went 11 innings without a half-century, averaging 15.4 in that period. While the dry spell against England and New Zealand was internally dismissed as a case of an inexperienced batter coming up against world-class bowling, the run continued in Galle, where Shafique contributed 27 across two innings to Pakistan's six-wicket win.
Shafique is no Zak Crawley. For one, he averages about 20 more runs and has as many hundreds in 44 fewer innings, so perhaps the comparison is unfair in any case. More importantly, though, he differs from his English counterpart in the sense that the new aggressive style Pakistan are trying to grow into is perhaps the antithesis of what fuelled his rise through the ranks and made him their first-choice opener. He can't hit his way through a bad patch of form. The Pakistan Way wasn't formed with Shafique in mind; he just had to adapt to it. And the guarantee Crawley enjoys that long strings of low scores won't jeopardise his place in the side? Forget it.
But Shafique bought in. After never having ended an innings with a strike rate north of 60, he's breached that mark in two of three innings in Sri Lanka. Two days and two hundred runs ago, he began his innings by driving balls he wouldn't have gone near, scoring three sumptuous boundaries in his first 14 deliveries. The first over he faced from Ramesh Mendis, Sri Lanka's economical spinner, he plundered a six and a four, and carted Prabath Jayasuriya for six in the following over. He'd been told he was good enough to bat this way, and now he was finding out just how good he could be. Craven conservatism had got neither Shafique nor Pakistan anywhere over the past year, and the time for polite negotiation was over.
Day three began differently at the SSC. Shafique was nearing a hundred, batting alongside his captain. Babar Azam is perhaps the only batter not to have been drawn into Pakistan's new style, but then again, Babar gets runs however he bats, so he might as well do whatever he wants.
Pakistan scored only six off the first 33 balls, but just as Sri Lanka fancied turning this day into grinding trench warfare, Shafique made his first belligerent forays across opposition lines. Back in the barracks, they'd prepared for this.
"The team management and staff helped me out, raised our practice standards to a level that it would benefit us in-match," Shafique said after play. "In the camps we practiced, where we said if anyone plays three dot balls you're out. This was helpful because you can't defend every ball, you have to score as well.
"When we score, it puts the bowler under pressure as well. Whether that means employing sweep shots or reverse sweeps, using our feet, and adjusting positions within the crease. This helps strike rotation, and also puts the bowlers under pressure."
Asitha Fernando was about to be put under pressure. Two boundaries took Shafique swiftly through the 90s, before a tickle to square leg brought up three figures. He punched the air, raised his bat towards the dressing room and his head skywards. In the early stages of his career, these runs came so easily it was tempting to think this was how it'd always be. Now, Shafique was discovering how hard-earned these moments can be, and how much sweeter they are for it.
Unshackled, he launched Jayasuriya for a six over long-off, making him look like a regular slow-left-arm trundler than the world-class spinner he is. This, is the man who dismissed the Pakistan captain two balls later; no one has got Babar out more often in Test cricket. He was the only bowler whom Shafique showed some deference to, scoring just 49 runs off 105 balls from Jayasuriya on day three. Against Mendis, his strike rate was nearly 83 and his combined strike rate against everyone besides Jayasuriya was in excess of 75.
"The captain supports me a lot, and all of the players. After the first innings, he came and had a chat with me which was immensely helpful," Shafique said. "What you have in mind is you play aggressively no matter the bowler."
The pressure was now off Shafique and Pakistan. This was the scenario the Pakistan Way was geared towards setting up, and for players of his quality, and indeed Salman Ali Agha's, pressing home the advantage came naturally. Shafique's 150 came and went, and after a brief stutter in the 190s, he became the 17th Pakistan batter to score a double hundred away from home.
Shafique had found himself in a rut, been told to adapt to a new playing style that didn't come as naturally to him, and got 201 runs out of it. He stormed back into form, and casually added another gear to his game along the way. It's easy to see why his captain rates him so highly.
It had been a while since he hit Jayasuriya for six, and the itch needed to be scratched once more. He danced down the track, but Jayasuriya landed the ball just a touch wider, and spun it just a little more. An edge, a slice to mid-off, ended an epic. It had taken 326 balls for Jayasuriya to get his man, and even that had happened on Shafique's terms.
He's not going anywhere. And now it'll be even more fun to see him stick around.

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