Often all it takes is one match for a career to be defined. That one performance that seems to signify to the sportsman, his teammates and peers, that he has finally arrived at the highest stage.
For Asad Shafiq, that performance came in the second Test against England back in January 2012. Prior to that match, Shafiq’s place had been under question – a hundred in Bangladesh aside, he had only scored one fifty-plus score in twelve innings. Forgotten in the celebration on the back of Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman – who bowled England out for 72 in the fourth innings – was how important Shafiq had been to that victory. His first innings fifty supported Misbah as Pakistan began to falter. In the second innings he scored only 43, as the perfect foil for Azhar Ali, as Pakistan dug themselves painfully slowly out of the hole they were in. Since then he has only cemented his place in the Pakistan middle order. An impressive tour to Sri Lanka was followed by him top scoring in the South Africa series.
But the progress of Asad Shafiq the Test batsman has not been replicated by Asad Shafiq the ODI batsman. Over the past two years, since Misbah-ul-Haq took over, Shafiq has been hugely disappointing. During this time he averages a mere 24 with a strike-rate under 70. Those are not the numbers of someone expected to be the backbone of Pakistan’s middle order, or of someone described often as the most technically complete batsman in his generation. It isn’t even as if he has been attacking relentlessly (as his SR shows) or that he has had difficult conditions to face (more than 60 per cent of his innings have been in Asia during this time). More often than not he has given his wicket away. In his last two major outings (against South Africa in Bloemfontein and West Indies at the Oval), he has gone out top edging to fine leg and to third-man off short balls. So it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him peppered with chin music for the rest of the Champions Trophy – international cricket can be an unforgiving place.
But there is a caveat to all this, and that is that he has never been given a real run in the side. He has only played 20 of the 42 ODIs played under Misbah despite being in the 15-man squad for every series. So it becomes a catch-22; he is dropped because he doesn’t perform, and he doesn’t perform because he is never given a long enough run in this side. What Pakistan does now could make or break his career. They could give him a long run in the side, as they did with him in the Tests, and allow him the platform to prove himself. Or they could do what they did to Umar Akmal; blame him for their own failings, and throw him out of the team. Thankfully, the reports from within the Pakistani camp indicate that it is the former that the management is attempting to do. Of course, those reports could turn out to be false; the Pakistan team management and its vision have usually been as predictable as the team itself.
The same cannot be said for Asad’s teammates though. He is not the only batsman in the current lineup with a pathetic ODI record. In an era when teams are packed with players averaging over 40, Pakistan’s current squad has only two players who average above 35, even. Predictably, it was those two – Misbah and Nasir – who did not seem out of their depth against the West Indies. The other three – Hafeez, Malik and Farhat – can best be described as tried-and-tested failures. Hafeez can, at least, be relied upon to bash the minnows, and is one of the best spinners in the world in this format. As for Malik, I called him a passenger when he returned to the side almost sixteen months ago, and that is what he has continued to be – a passenger who contributes little. The fact that all three of them debuted more than a decade ago shows that their samples sizes, and abilities, are pretty clear by now. Add Kamran Akmal – another who averages around the 30-run mark – to the order and you have a quarter of below par batsmen. On these pages,Qamar Ahmed described Pakistan’s selection policy as one of “bringing back the same faces who rarely perform, [which] is not only self-deceiving but also self-defeating”. That quarter best illustrate that policy.
Thus, it is imperative for Pakistan that Shafiq rises to the occasion – and Nasir continues to play more like his 2012 self than what he did on the tour to South Africa – if Pakistan are to succeed in the Champions Trophy and beyond. Misbah’s time is coming to a close and it would help to have a competent batsman or two by the time he leaves.