Pakistan's ODI opening conundrum
There was once an era of international cricket, where nearly every ODI match was played the same way. Survive the first 10 overs, mingle with the ball for singles, double, and the odd boundary until the 40th, and swing for the fences in the last ten.
At the forefront of this batting game were the openers, faced with the most daunting challenge of all: survive the swinging ball. If the openers were to get out quick, the middle order has to consolidate, losing precious time of those gracious middle overs where it seemed both teams agreed the less important runs were scored.
Then it happened. One Sri Lankan opener threw away the rule book and scorned at the part where it said "Openers must see off the new ball for the rest of the lineup"
In an incredible career spanning over two decades and and nearly 450 ODI matches, Sanath Jayasuria changed the name of opening in cricket. Over 13000 ODI runs at a blistering strike rate of 91, absolutely unprecedented numbers.
Suddenly teams were thinking, "Why not us?"
Australia opened their batting with Adam Gilchrist. India put a young Sachin Tendulkar in the opening slot. Pakistan found a nifty duo of Shahid Afridi and Saeed Anwar, both aggressive batsman.
However, 15 years after Anwar's last appearance, Pakistan are still yet to find a stable opening pair. Around the world we see duos such as Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, Aaron Finch and David Warner, Hashim Amla and Quinton De Kock setting the scoreboard on fire from ball one. Yet where are Pakistan?
In the last ten years, Pakistan have tried 25 batsman at the opening helm, second only to the West Indies. Ten of those have played at least ten matches while opening, a fairly decent sample size.
Salman Butt was the stalwart for the first few years, but we all know what happened there.
Mohammad Hafeez opened for 80 matches and did an admirable job, but never really set the world on fire.
Ahmed Shehzad remained for a while, but perhaps it was for lack of a better alternative than for his actual talent. He seemed more suited to maintaining his beard than his strike rate, a dismal 72.
Azhar Ali took over during his captaincy and actually performed quite well in the 2017 Champions Trophy, but seems more suited to Tests.
Sharjeel Khan seemed to be the one. After a two year hiatus, Khan returned to the ODI setup in Malahide against Ireland in 2016, blasting a powerful 152. His 32 average seems mediocre, but considering the 112 strike rate it came at, his return worked wonders for Pakistan. It provided the impetus it sorely lacked for years at the top of the order. His position as opener was cemented with a Test debut against Australia in 2016, and three consecutive ODI centuries in the ODI series that followed.
Yet a few months later, he too was lost, this time due to the 2017 PSL corruption scandal. As soon as he came, Sharjeel Khan was gone.
As the 2017 Champions Trophy rolled around, Pakistan named four openers in their squad. Ahmed Shehzad made his return, as did Azhar Ali. Mohammad Hafeez was selected, along with an uncapped lefty by the name of Fakhar Zaman.
Zaman was a consistent performer in domestic cricket, and made his T20I debut in West Indies a few months earlier but hadn't done anything of note. However he was a revelation.
After dropping Ahmed Shehzad for his dismal performance against India, Pakistan handed a debut to Zaman, and he did not disappoint. He slammed a blistering 31(23) against South Africa, followed by his maiden 50 off 36 balls in the virtual eliminator vs. Sri Lanka. He bettered that with 57(58) against England in the semi-final.
Then came the final against India. I think we all remembered what happened there. Fakhar Zaman stamped his arrival in the cricketing world, blasting his maiden ODI century in a memorable innings, one for the ages.
Zaman further established his name at the top of the order. He slammed two 50s against New Zealand, and two more against Zimbabwe. His pièce de résistance came against Zimbabwe, where he became Pakistan's first ODI double centurion, with a ferocious 210*(156).
Pakistan seemed to have finally found the opener they'd been searching for.
But opening the innings requires two batsmen. If Fakhar Zaman is one, who is the other? There are a few possible options to pair with Zaman for the 2019 World Cup.
Imam ul-Haq made his debut against Sri Lanka in 2017, scoring a century on debut. He became the first player in ODI history to score four hundreds in his first nine matches. His numbers (62 average at 84 SR as of 25/9/18) are impressive, but they don't tell the whole story of his batting. They're inflated by three centuries against a well below par Zimbabwe squad, and he failed when faced against good bowlers as seen in New Zealand.
Imam ul-Haq is a technically sound batsman, but often bats too defensively, and struggles to find gaps and rotate the strike.
One of Pakistan's most capped ODI players, Hafeez is another contender to open the batting in the 2019 World Cup. He's batted everywhere from 1-7, but opening is his most common role. Though Hafeez will be 38 by the time the tournament comes around, he has tons of experience on his side. He's played in England before, and his off-spin is very handy against left-handers.
Pakistan's dependable Test mainstay is another option. Though he's been a stable fixture for Pakistan's Test squad, he's been in and out of the ODI setup ever since he resigned from captaincy after the 2016 tour to Australia.
Though his style is usually defensive-minded, he performed admirably in the Champions Trophy campaign, stepping up his run rate and meshing well with Fakhar Zaman.
At 22 years old, Sahbizada Farhan is the youngest option on this list. He put his skills on notice in the 2017 Pakistan Cup, scoring a century in the final. He has three centuries and eight fifties to his name, at a fantastic average of 50.27 and strike rate of nearly 90.
Farhan made his T20I debut in the tri-series earlier this year, but was unfortunately stumped off a wide first ball. Although he can be an aggressive player, Farhan's play style is best suited for ODIs. He's able to pick gaps well and relies on singles and doubles before really settling in.
Farhan has earned his ODI call-up, and if his talent is any indicator, he should be the one partering Zaman for the 2019 Cricket World Cup in England.