Asad Shafiq’s success is key to Pakistan’s new era

Osman Samiuddin in Abu Dhabi

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Reboot? Why not? Last year at The Oval, the moment was ripe for Asad Shafiq to move up and confirm himself as the best batsman in the Pakistan side. A...

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Reboot? Why not?

Last year at The Oval, the moment was ripe for Asad Shafiq to move up and confirm himself as the best batsman in the Pakistan side. Azhar Ali had been pushed to open the innings, and given Younis Khan’s iffy form, it made sense for Shafiq to come in at No. 3. He duly hit a hundred – from No. 4 because Yasir Shah went in as nightwatchman – though in much the way of his career, it was a little overlooked in the bright lights of Younis’ double.asad

Still, Shafiq was the one. Younis was a legend slowly on his way out; Misbah-ul-Haq a man who got the most out of the talents he had; Azhar was an exact contemporary, but one whose perennial struggle paled beside the assuredness of Shafiq; yes, now surely, after a career built at No. 6, was the time to graduate.

Except, it wasn’t. Not quite. It wasn’t a total failure. It wasn’t a resounding success. Shafiq hit three fifties in his first four innings at No. 3, but a pair in Sharjah against West Indies was swiftly taken as proof that he was better off at six, and wasn’t he as good as Sobers there anyway? And then, at six, he went and played what looked like the defining innings of his career at the Gabba.

Except, since the Gabba, Shafiq’s inexplicably gone cold, averaging less than 19 in five Tests with just a single fifty. Did the promotion unsettle him? We’ll know soon enough, because against Sri Lanka from Thursday, he will be moving up once again, and this time, there can be no backward step.

Pakistan will play at least one of two debutants in the middle order, and with Babar Azam’s Test career still developing, Azhar and Shafiq will be the senior men in the order. Azhar will likely come in one-down, Shafiq at four and Babar at five.

“This is the discussion we’ve been having in the dressing room, about the batting order,” Shafiq said. “Hopefully, I will bat a little higher because the combination is such that a few new batsmen are in.

“It’s not pressure. I feel like me, Azhar bhai, Sarfraz [Ahmed] we are a few who have played alongside Misbah and Younis bhai. We’ve played 40-60 Tests and we have good experience of playing together.

“Of course, their absence will always remain, they’ll be remembered always. But we’re hoping to be a bit more responsible and to fill that loss.”

In truth, there is a bigger picture through which you could look at the move and his dip in form, and it is that the latter is not necessarily only a consequence of the former. The dip, in fact, is not a mini-phase, but a year-long trend. Since the start of the England tour last year (when he was comfortably ensconced at six), Shafiq averaged 30.88. The two hundreds have been important ones, and there have been five fifties as well, but there are also two pairs and 14 scores of less than 25 besides that.

It has stood out more because of the rise of Azhar in precisely that period. Until the England tour, it was difficult to pick them apart by numbers. Azhar averaged 43.37 from 45 Tests till then; Shafiq 43.28 from 41. Azhar had nine hundreds, Shafiq eight. Since then, Azhar’s Test average has risen to nearly 47 while Shafiq’s has dropped to below 40. In the modern age, for an established player of 56 Tests, that begins to look like an inadequate record.
By dint of that experience and longevity, he is now automatically part of Pakistan’s leadership group. It will be to Shafiq – and Azhar – that Sarfraz turns for plans and plots, to vent and seek ideas and advice. Though Shafiq has never struck anyone as a leader it can’t harm Pakistan that Sarfraz and him have, essentially, grown up playing cricket together in Karachi.*

If you were to locate a poster-boy for the MisYou era, you’d do well to find a better candidate than Shafiq. Dutiful, disciplined, committed to the cause of bettering himself, a career very much on the straight and narrow. He debuted in the second Test of Misbah’s captaincy, in Abu Dhabi, all but seven years ago. That time is gone and Pakistan need somebody – preferably Shafiq – to be right in it, front and centre, fashioning a new era.

*19.15GMT: This story was amended to reflect that Shafiq hasn’t officially been named vice-captain

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