Can Ahmed Shehzad become Pakistan's greatest ODI opener ever?
The past year (2014), was the year when Ahmed Shehzad stamped his authority and made one of Pakistan's opening positions his own across all formats of the game.
After making his debut in 2009 as an 18-year-old opening batsman, Shehzad found himself on the sidelines after his first ODI series for Pakistan. He remained on the sidelines for two years before briefly returning to international colours just before the World Cup in 2011.
A tour of New Zealand, a World Cup in India and Sri Lanka, and a tour of West Indies later, he was gone again. No one really knew why, considering he had opened for Pakistan and knocked a century in New Zealand and another one in the West Indies. Despite a disappointing World Cup, he did not deserve to be dropped.
Rumours were that he was punished for his closeness with Shahid Afridi who was at loggerheads with the PCB Chairman at the time and had announced his retirement from the game.
Shehzad was the best opening batsman in the country, but he was still not a part of the team. He continued to pile on the runs in domestic cricket, and finally made another return to the side in the middle of 2013 on another tour to the West Indies.
18 months since then and Shehzad has undoubtedly become a mainstay of the side, one of the few players who is key to the team's success across all formats, and is well on his way towards becoming the best opener produced by the country.
After establishing himself as Pakistan's opener in the limited-overs formats, Shehzad made his Test debut at the start of 2014 in the series against Sri Lanka. In his 5th Test innings, he produced a magnificent 147 and followed that up with two more Test tons during the year against Australia and New Zealand.
In March 2014, he recorded his first ever T20I century, becoming the first Pakistani to score a hundred in the T20 format, and only the 7th batsman in the world (at the time) to record a century in each format of the game (Faf du Plessis became the 8th batsman earlier this year).
2014 was truly the year that brought Shehzad to the world stage. He is only 23 and has an entire career ahead of him. He has already achieved so much and one can just start to imagine what he may be able to achieve going forward given his immense talent and potential.
He has scored runs against all comers and in all conditions. His international centuries have not only come in the subcontinent and the UAE, but also in South Africa, New Zealand, and the West Indies. He is yet to play international cricket in England, and the upcoming World Cup will be his first international outing in Australia.
After just 57 innings as an opener in ODIs, he is already the 8th highest run scorer for Pakistan in that position. His 6 ODI centuries as an opener are bettered only by Salman Butt (8), Rameez Raja, and Pakistan's best opener ever, Saeed Anwar (20).
What I find even more impressive is the fact that he has 6 ODI centuries in only 58 ODI innings; that is a remarkable conversion rate with Shehzad scoring an ODI century every 9.7 innings. Comparing that with innings to centuries ratios of Pakistan batsmen who have scored at least 5 ODI centuries, shows that only Zaheer Abbas scored ODI centuries at a faster rate.
There are only 10 batsmen in this world among the top 8 ODI teams who take less than 10 innings to score their next ODI century and Shehzad is one of them!
Sure, we are still in the early stages of Shehzad's career and the challenge for him lies in maintaining the stature that he has already achieved, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that he is well on his way towards greater things.
Shehzad's best days are still ahead of him. When you think of the best ODI batsmen to have played the game you think of Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Virat Kohli, Hashim Amla, and AB de Villiers to name a few. Not all of them started off on the same note that they achieved later in their careers.
Sachin Tendulkar did not score his first century in ODIs till his 76th innings. Yet, he went on to score more ODI centuries than anyone in the history of the game.
Shehzad's career stats compare well against those of some of the greatest ODI players at the same stage in their career; i.e. after 58 ODI innings. Only Amla, among the batsmen shown below, stands out from the rest. All the other batsmen have pretty much the same figures at the same stage in their careers.
Only Amla had more centuries against his name than Shehzad does after 58 ODI innings. There is an uncanny similarity between the careers of Pakistan's greatest opener ever, Saeed Anwar, and Shehzad after 58 ODI innings.
And there's not much difference between what Ponting and de Villiers had achieved at the start of their ODI careers and what Shehzad has achieved. As I have already mentioned, the challenge for Shehzad is to maintain this same form throughout his career. There is no doubt in my mind that he has the ability and the will to do so.
There is also no doubt in my mind that he will.