Pakistan's new faces need to forget the art of falling apart

Perennial search for consistency heaps pressure on latest talented opening partnership of Shoaib Malik and Salman Butt
  • @stephenbrenkley

After all these years, it is still archly said of Pakistan that the way they play depends which Pakistan team turns up on the day. This is jauntily to do with their endearing, whimsical inconsistency for which nobody has been able to nail a better explanation than the side of the bed they got up on.

But then there is also the matter that nobody knows which Pakistan team will turn up on any particular day because it keeps being changed. Maybe it has not always been so and the 185 men who have played for the country in 313 Tests is a lesser ratio than the 285 in 539 who have trotted out for England in the same period.

Lately, however, they have been swapping about in key areas like kids playing pass the parcel. This has been caused by a mixture of form, injury, capricious selection and a new coach, Bob Woolmer, trying to decide what works best.

In the past 12 matches they have used nine different opening bowling pairs, though in Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Sami in this match they appear again to have alighted on their favoured pair. The same set of Tests has also seen 10 different opening batting combinations, though some unofficial assurances have been offered that the latest new pairing, Salman Butt and Shoaib Malik, would have some time to bed down. This might be no more than this three match series.

Pakistan would appear to need above all a pair of openers who can provide some respite for a middle order that is handsomely gifted. In Younis Khan, Muhammad Yousuf and above all the captain Inzamam ul-Haq they possess a three, four, five who all average well into the forties home and away. But they have been exposed lately, forced perhaps to play an unnatural game by having to go in earlier than they might reasonably expect much of the time.

Over those 12 matches there has been only one first-wicket stand above 100 and only four above 50. Indeed, in the five years since Saeed Anwar and Aamir Sohail ended their (relatively) long partnership after 37 innings Pakistan have registered a mere three first-wicket partnerships in three figures. Whatever else it is, this is not constructing a platform on which carefree strokeplay will flourish.

Maybe it was the uncommon promise provided by a first-wicket stand of 80 yesterday which threw Pakistan's middle order. They simply were not used enough to it to take advantage, even on an inviting pitch where India made 675 for 5 last year. England bowled well at them, refusing to allow them much freedom. It took its toll and if Younis Khan was a mite unlucky to get such a searching delivery from Stephen Harmison straight after a break and Mohammad Yousuf was perhaps overly anxious to do well after deciding to renounce his Christianity and convert to Islam, it did not add up to batting riches.

The most culpable was Salman. But boy, he can play some shots. He is only 23 and already has to his credit a century against Australia in Australia in his first Test series last year. But he will be painfully aware that he should not have given Shaun Udal the bowler's first Test wicket yesterday.

He was on 74 and Pakistan were, if not cruising, at least in no trouble. But Salman had been desperate to break free for a while. He launched at one without much foot movement, usually a risk-free strategy in this country, and edged. When Pakistan's batsmen fail to move properly sufficiently Woolmer has a habit of asking: "Where were your feet, in the toilet?"

Salman will have known his were at least adjacent to the bowl yesterday. He has already been likened to Saeed Anwar by no less a judge than Adam Gilchrist who stood behind him for long enough in Australia last winter. He has some way to go to match that but Saeed and Aamir Sohail were his boyhood heroes, so the incentive to match their durability is doubled.

He seems to be a thinking cricketer and after his wonderful start which immediately elevated him to start status at home (he has still played only seven Tests) he was eager to stay grounded. "In the subcontinent you can play with your feet away from the bat but not elsewhere." He still forgets that entreaty sometimes.

Salman is aware too that things are different in Pakistan in terms of selection and opportunity. Asked about the swift elevation to the stratosphere of celebrity of Australia's Michael Clarke and England's Kevin Pietersen, he said: "They have been brought up in a different environment with different facilities and back-up to support them. Their options are vast while in the case of the subcontinent it is different."

He must now hope fervently that Woolmer will continue to support him and indeed is around long enough to give him that support. The coach, in conjunction with the selectors, has decided that Shoaib Malik should be the other opener. Previously, Malik has performed pretty well in the middle order but there places are hard to come by... Pakistan's search for openers has bordered on desperation.

The pair had one trial run, for Pakistan A against Australia A in September and although their returns were distinctly unspectacular they must have done something right. Their left-hand (Butt) right-hand (Malik) combination worked well enough yesterday, though Malik also did enough to show that he has not yet become a natural opener, if that is possible.

They both need a tighter method to deal with the moving ball and since Pakistan play most of their Tests abroad they had better get it quickly. On English pitches next summer (if they survive that far) they will both be candidates for edged catches, but nor would they be the first Pakistani tourists to fall into that category.

Woolmer, for it is his selection above all it can be presumed, has taken rather a huge punt on this pair. There are reasons to think positively but they will have to find their feet in all ways before this series is done. If England were to prise out an early lead that might not be possible.

On initial evidence it must be reported that they have a better chance than Hasan Raza of staying the course. Brought in for his sixth match in nine years after making his debut at 14 in 1996 the manner of his duck was more important than the score. It was not the shot of a man who either expected or wanted to be around long. Of course, when he is making a hundred at Lord's next summer he can have the last laugh but for the moment he does not look as if he will be making the trip. Pakistan need big runs soon.