Shoaib Malik has averaged nearly 44 when he has batted in the top four
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
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.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo