As the Pakistan Test team progressed through last season, it became clear that the Achillies heel of the team was its opening pair. In Younis Khan, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Yousuf, Pakistan possess a very strong, stable and experienced middle order.
Throw in two more out of Shahid Afridi, Abdul Razzaq, Asim Kamal, Hasan Raza and add in Kamran Akmal, and you have a solid lower middle order to boot.
However, consistency in Test cricket is never forthcoming until you have a stable and confident opening partnership.
Take the recently finished Ashes series as an example. The outstanding performance of the English opening pair versus the Aussies was one of the many reasons England won that series. Looking back over time, the most dominating teams of their times had stable and successful opening pairs. Whether it was Greenidge-Haynes in the early 80's for the West Indies or Taylor-Slater and then Hayden-Langer for Australia, a successful opening partnership is key for consistent success at the Test level.
Why is that so?
Primarily because Test cricket is as much, if not more, a test of mental strength as it is a test of physical skills. And nothing can swing the mental pendulum more than an early wicket or the lack of one.
It is because of this mental struggle early on in a Test innings, in my view, that the greatest quality a successful Test opener needs to have is not technical skills but mental strength. For sure technical skills are important, but to be honest, a successful Test batsmen at any position has to have some basic technical skills. But the ones that make successful openers are the ones who enjoy the mental challenge of starting out an innings, of setting the tempo and dictating terms.
A look a at Sehwag or Trescothick proves this - no cricket purist will argue that they have the best technical skills in their team, yet they are successful Test openers.
Even for Pakistan, players like Majid Khan, Saeed Anwar and Aamer Sohail made successful Test openers without being a Sunil Gavaskar or a Geoff Boycott as far as technique is concerned. I believe this is the reason for the recent chopping and changing of the Pakistan openers.
I think Inzamam and Bob Woolmer are looking, not for the most technically correct batsmen but for those batsmen who can combine a sound basic technique with good mental discipline and powers of concentration. Shoaib Malik's promotion to the opening slot for the last Test in the West Indies was not based on his technical skills, but based more on the faith that the captain and coach had in his mental strength to perform in that slot.
Lots of experts have questioned this move, and most likely will continue to question it, but the argument that Malik is not a specialist opener and hence should not be used, is a false one. Some of the most successful openers over time started their careers as middle-order batsmen, or in Majid Khan's case as opening bowlers!
Majid, Saeed Anwar, Mohsin Khan, Justin Langer, to name a few did not start their first-class careers as openers. I believe Malik will continue to open for a while, and surely the task of facing Harmison, Flintoff, Hoggard et al will go a long way in showing whether he has the mental discipline to take up the job permanently or not.
Deciding on who his partner will be though, is where the bigger problem lies.
There are plenty of candidates - Salman Butt, Imran Farhat, Taufeeq Umar, Yasir Hameed, and possibly even Bazid Khan. The first four have had many look-ins and none have yet 'acquired' a spot.
Some would argue that this is because they have not had a decent run in the side but the only one for whom that argument may hold, is Salman Butt. Quite frankly, it does appear that players like Umar, Hameed and Farhat have been found out at this level and in order for them to succeed, they now need to raise their game a notch.
If we examine on what such a statement is based? Taufeeq has not crossed 50 in his last 13 Test innings and averages just over 20 over that time and this against a career average of just over 40. Farhat has only hit two fifties in his last 12 innings and for average of just over 25 against a career average of over 30, (i.e. he started off strong but has faded quickly). Similarly, Hameed only has 3 fifties in his last 12 innings and an average of 25.75 against a career average of 38.93. More importantly he has not scored a Test hundred in 31 innings.
Will one of these players step up this season? The early signs are not encouraging. None of the openers tried against the Australia 'A' side really left their mark either in the four-day games or in the one-dayers. I believe now the performance in the warm-up matches will be the deciding criteria. In my view, the frontrunners are Butt and Bazid, but should Farhat or Hameed dominate during those games who knows? They may just find themselves in the mix come November 12th.
(Article: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author only.
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