EXPERIENCE IN QUEUE
Before the start of the World Cup, Malik was averaging 29.21 and scoring at a strike rate of 77.62 in 2018. © AFP
When Pakistan included Shoaib Malik against England following a comprehensive loss to the West Indies, not many could argue with the call. A batting lineup, featuring names supposed to carry the burden of the side, had failed terribly. So hapless was the state of batting that the whole contest was wrapped up well within the time allotted for the first innings.
That there was going to be a debate on whether to include Malik, a player with almost two decades of international cricket under his belt, in the playing XI may sound rather appalling for someone who hasn't been following cricket for the past two years. After all, it is quite natural for the teams to return to their experienced men to weather the storm. But what to do if that very player himself is fighting a fight to establish his credentials?
But, there's a thing with Pakistan cricket. Rather than going with the horses for courses approach, it is the recency bias and reputations of the players which shape the squad lineups.
How else do you explain the persistence with Mohammad Amir throughout last year despite his wicket-drought stretching with every game, and then his inclusion in the World Cup squad? Or Mohammad Hafeez's return in the national side for Tests against Australia on the basis of his List 'A' performances after being dropped from the squad for the last year's Asia Cup? Or the fast-tracking of Mohammad Hasnain (he made his 'List A' debut against Australia in an ODI) to the national set up for hurling deliveries at over 150kph in the Pakistan Super League. They even put Abid Ali in Pakistan's preliminary World Cup squad, only to drop him later, on the basis of a single century.
There were questions whether Malik merited a place in what will be the last World Cup of his playing days. Since 2018, the most senior of the Pakistan batsmen was averaging 29.21 and scoring at a strike rate of 77.62 - which was six and four runs less than his overall numbers - before the start of the World Cup. His record in England, which read an average of just 14.37 in 25 innings, was the second worst in any of the Test playing nations. But whenever these figures were put to the team management or the selection committee, the response was that he had been put on the plane to England because of the wealth of experience (sic) that he brings to the dressing room.
Pakistan staged an astonishing win over England. They were simply brilliant with the bat and terrific with the ball. There were some cringe-worthy fielding lapses, but they were overshadowed by the quality and quantity of the ones that England committed. In Pakistan's daunting 348 for 8, Malik managed only eight. That was brushed under the carpet. After all, don't they say: All's well that ends well? Chipping in with the ball with Mohammad Hafeez to fill up the vacuum created by the absence of a specialist fifth bowler, he picked up the prised wicket of Ben Stokes in his three overs.
But if there was ever going to be a true measure of what Malik brings to the table, it was amidst the middle-order meltdown in the chase against Australia. After all, that's when the truest of all rise when they are most longed to.
Pakistan had lost their second most senior player, Hafeez, to what will go down as one of the most epic gambles. With 162 remaining off 23 overs and six wickets intact, the match seemed to be in Pakistan's grip. After all, what is 162 off 138 deliveries in this day and age? So, when Malik walked into the middle, all Pakistan required of him was to tow the team over the line.
But, the scorers ticked another wicket off the scorebook three balls later as Pat Cummins found the inside-edge of Malik's blade when the latter (it is important to add this detail) attempted to defend the ball. That was pretty much the end of Pakistan's chase - they would lose the match by 41 runs.
But, the head coach of the side, Mickey Arthur, wants to wait for a couple of more games before he makes his mind on Malik. "As far as I'm concerned, Shoaib Malik didn't play the West Indies team because of balance of team," Arthur said. "He batted in the last three overs against England and failed against Australia. So to say he's failed, there's not much of a barometer just yet. That will be determined over the next couple of games."
But with the most anticipated clash, which is perhaps more about national pride than mere cricket, upon us, the debate over whether the name of Pakistan's most senior man should be on the playing sheet is louder than ever.
"I can tell you a guy that's played over 200 ODIs, tomorrow presents a real opportunity for him," Arthur said of Malik. "What I do know is Shoaib Malik brings a hell of a lot to our dressing room. He is an incredible team man. He has incredible skills, and I'm hoping that, on the biggest stage tomorrow, those skills come to the fore."
The ardent lover of this game often pinpoint the relatedness between cricket and life. There's this thing with both, they keep on throwing chances at you to set your legacy straight.
The Sunday fixture against India may just be Malik's final go at setting his.