It was not until the 2007 World Twenty20 where, I think, player of the tournament Shahid Afridi realised he was a specialist bowler, who could bat a bit. It took a decade for him to find his mould, largely courtesy the late Bob Woolmer who instilled this notion during his three-year coaching stint with Pakistan.
The fastest ODI century in his first ever innings, I think, not only distracted his coaches, captains and fans but also shifted his focus. If not for that, he could well have been in pursuit of the great Muralitharan’s record tally of 534 ODI wickets.
Since the year Afridi realised himself as more of a bowling all-rounder, he’s been leading wicket-taker in ODIs and there has never been a prolonged dip in his performance. The last time he really missed out was six years ago, following the 2006 ICC Champions Trophy.
A similar air now breezes through the career of Mohammad Hafeez whose international debut is well-nigh a decade old. But throughout his career, he’s never established himself as a staunch batsman. Save Zimbabwe and West Indies, and he averages 23 with bat in 86 ODIs. Zero in on the stats to this year, you find the average is 25 in 15 ODIs. Playing in the countries where life is difficult for batsmen, it further dips to 20.48 from 43 matches. You could fit him atop the batting order in Twenty20s for his cameos of 20s and 30s, but not in ODIs.
In his 105–match ODI career, you would hardly find an innings worthy of terming overwhelming. Even the centuries have either come against lower-ranked teams or on docile batting strips.
Hafeez is the top-ranked bowler in ICC ODI Rankings, and he is no sleeper to this emplacement. He has earned it through his shrewd lines and lengths, variations of pace, and has become a bogeyman to the southpaws. He has the best economy rate (3.57 from 353 overs) since 2011 among bowlers who delivered more than 5o overs. That he is no more a part-time bowler is evident from the fact that only Lasith Malinga, 435, has delivered more overs than his 353 in ODIs since the start of 2011. A hard-nosed critic might have some reservations for ICC’s rankings system, but even he wouldn’t view these stats as those of a mediocre bowler.
The corresponding ranking for his batting is 43, a far cry from his current bowling ranking (1). The highest batting ranking he ever climbed in his nine-year ODI career is 32.
His performance, either good or bad, as a bowler, would be more palpable once Shahid Afridi and Saeed Ajmal are out of the picture. Of the current corps of Pakistan spin attack (Ajmal, Afridi, Hafeez and Abdur Rehman), he by virtue of his age is likely to last longer than anyone. Possibly, three or four years from now, he will be the most experienced spinner on duty for Pakistan and will find it more difficult when aid is absent from the other end. For this reason, too, he must find the groove of a willow-wielder so he doesn’t get dropped before spearheading Pakistan’s spin cavalry.
That he is the only Pakistan player to have not missed their last consecutive 91 internationals does not license him to make a hash of an all-important opening slot. Time has arrived that he should revitalise his batting duties if he is to stretch the 91-match streak. The lack of output with bat is turning out to be the most and, perhaps, only vulnerable part of his career.
It will make some sense if he is dropped down and slotted in late down the batting order so that if they are to extract only 20s, 30s or 40s off him then they better come at end of the innings with some brisk pace which he certainly can attain as he has all those shots you will find in MCC’s coaching manual. Perhaps, the Batting Power Play would suit him more.
Putting him down the order will also fine tune the current batting order seen in the first ODI against Australia where Kamran Akmal batted at seven. It goes without saying that the eldest Akmal is brought back not due to his keeping duties, but for the frills of some fine batting performances that are attached to his profile. To date, he remains the only Pakistan wicketkeeper with an ODI century, no fewer than five and all match-winning, to his name.
Akmal has delivered his best while batting at the top of the order, and his inclusion as an opener gives Pakistan luxury of accommodating an extra bowler or batsman, as per the conditions. Azhar Ali, who has 245 runs at an average of 61.25 and modest strike rate of 70 aided by three 50s in his five innings as an opener, may fill the other opening blank.
Also, Azhar’s opening strike rate is better than that of Hafeez’s 68 and if Shoaib Malik replaces Nasir Jamshed, it will add another spin option to Pakistan’s arsenal. Replacing Azhar with Malik, and keeping Nasir as opener, wouldn’t be bad either. However, the former case will have an opener who starts off cautiously and looks to anchor the innings.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.