From Pakistan captain to spinner to makeshift opener, Shoaib Malik has seen it all

On Tuesday, he returns to the Test side for the first time in over five years, in another role. He is now filling in for the injured Azhar Ali.
Pakistan's Shoaib Malik is happy to grab another opportunity to be in the Test side when they host England in Abu Dhabi for the first Test on October 13, 2015. Ishara Kodikara / AFP
Pakistan's Shoaib Malik is happy to grab another opportunity to be in the Test side when they host England in Abu Dhabi for the first Test on October 13, 2015. Ishara Kodikara / AFP

Nearly 10 years ago, the late Bob Woolmer thought it might be an idea to turn Shoaib Malik into a Test opener. It happened to be in a Test series against England.

Pakistan were going through a particularly troublesome period with their openers – when are they not? – and Malik and Salman Butt were to be the 22nd different combination in a five-year period preceding that series.

He played as opener in his next five Tests and did not acquit himself too badly, though neither did he set the world alight. His father passed away, forcing him to miss a Test, but he returned, made an epic eight-hour 148 in Colombo to save another and then got injured ahead of the next tour to England.

Seeing as that was the 2006 tour, which ended with the forfeited Test at The Oval and was the pits for Pakistan’s openers, it was no bad thing. After that everyone forgot that Malik had been a Test opener at all and instead began turning Mohammad Hafeez into one.

It was one of several experiments on Malik’s career, none of which have been resoundingly successful, or allowed to continue for long enough to be proven otherwise.

What if, for example, he had remained an off-spinner)? What if he was Pakistan’s permanent one down in ODIs? What if he had never been made Test captain (and one day, when he is gone from the game, he might open up on how the captaincy actually affected his career? What if, what if and what if?

On Tuesday, he returns to the Pakistan Test side for the first time in over five years, in another role. He is now filling in for the injured Azhar Ali and will be expected to take on a fair burden of bowling. It is temporary but Malik has a way of sticking around, given that he is also, in part replacing Mohammad Hafeez, as a batting all-rounder, you can easily imagine a couple of Asad Shafiq failures paving the way for a longer run.

Should he be there? His return owes itself to a good run of form against modest opposition in limited overs cricket. And it would be remiss to not note the influence of a boisterous social media presence that has allowed him to float high above the ocean of obscurity that engulfs most Pakistan cricketers who have been in and out of the side as often as he has. A hugely successful, very public tennis player spouse helps, too.

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Just ask Fawad Alam, who has also returned to the Test squad after a five-year gap, who boasts the highest first-class average for a Pakistani batsman and who was the actual replacement batsman in the squad in case of injury. If only he had been active on Twitter. Someone might think to tell him.

“I’ll try my best to maintain the level of performances I’ve had in T20s and ODIs through Tests,” Malik said on Monday. “Obviously this is Test cricket – it is a little tougher than those formats.”

It will be tougher still against a quality attack armed with a CV that shows just 25 first-class games since he played his last Test in 2010, also against England. Indeed, if anything about his career had finally become clear in that time, it was that he was definitely not a long-form player anymore. Until now when he is again. A couple of times, even he thought Tests had permanently passed him by.

His first-class record in that time is strange, thin on appearances but not necessarily on substance. It may surprise many to note, for instance, that he is averaging over 58 in those games, has seven hundreds, though not one since February 2013, and 12 fifties. And that he has taken 65 wickets.

He has just not been as prominent as he has been in Twenty20 leagues at home and around the world, and it is easy for Pakistan’s first-class cricket to slip by unnoticed altogether. Yet he has not played a first-class game since November last year and now here he is, at one down against James Anderson and Stuart Broad.

“I haven’t missed a single first-class season and I’ve played in Pakistan whenever I’ve been free in the last five years. It will be tough but as a professional I will have to handle that pressure, and I have some experience of it.”

This, even he acknowledged, feels like a decisive phase in his career. He has been around for so long that 33 feels far too young. His fitness is impeccable too.

But surely there is now no further role left to thrust upon him? Even he acknowledged it, laughingly. Is this a second phase for him someone asked. “No, I’ve been in and out a few times. But this is a phase that now, if I leave cricket it has to be the end.”

Such is the way of Malik’s career it is either that or, you know, captaincy.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

Follow us on Twitter at NatSportUAE

Published: October 12, 2015 04:00 AM

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