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Sunday, July 21, 2024

SPOTLIGHT : Asad Shafiq – Pakistan’s ever-present sidekick

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hershafique-3e weren’t supposed to be three rows. Younis Khan’s gesticulations had made that obvious. Shan Masood thus had to move up to the second row, and so he stepped up, forcing the little man to move to the edge of that row. There, on the periphery of the formation, he stood, away from the cameras, never likely to be the centre of attention. The push-ups and the salute that followed transcended sport like few things in recent Pakistani history. Yet the photos that would grace the newspaper and Facebook posts in the days to come would cut him out altogether. The match would be remembered for Misbah’s salute, Yasir’s ten-fer, Amir’s return, Bairstow’s resistance and Pakistan’s push-ups. In the midst of it all, in the outpouring of exuberance that followed, the little man who wasn’t in the photo had just ended the Test having scored more runs than anyone on either side. Even as the hero, he was reduced to being a sidekick. It was an apt summary of Asad Shafiq’s career.

In the winter of 2009-10, Pakistan went to Australia, for what would eventually become arguably the worst tour Pakistan have had in modern times. The results tally across all three formats at the end of it read: played 9, lost 9. The only reason I say arguably is due to what ended up happening in England the following summer.

Whilst all this was going on, as the first season without international cricket at home became a reality, Pakistan had the latest iteration of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy taking place. The premier first-class competition in the land had not seen a single player reach the 1000-run mark since Younis Khan had crossed that barrier in the 1999-2000 season which also led to his Test debut. Of course that record had something to do with PCB’s constant tinkering of the tournament too, with a couple of seasons in the middle of the decade having as few as 6 first-class matches for a team in the season. But the format and number had mostly remained constant, and yet only one player had even scored over 950 runs in a season – Misbah-ul-Haq in 2002-03 – let alone challenge the 1000-run mark. The Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, in effect, was a reflection of the paucity and decline of the state of Pakistani batting in this century.

Four of his nine hundreds have come with Pakistan four down for under a hundred runs on the board. And of the twenty four 50-plus scores he’s had in his career, 13 have come with the team’s score under 160 when he walks in.

In the midst of the nadir of Pakistani cricket, there emerged a glimmer of hope. The 2009-10 season of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy saw Asad Shafiq score 1104 runs, the most in a season for 20 years, as his Karachi Blues team won the championship.

Yet it would still take several months before Shafiq would make his Test debut. But, in his mind, it was something of a blessing. After averaging 58 in his debut season, just two years before his record-breaking winter, Shafiq had averaged just 21 in his second season. And many, perhaps including him, weren’t sure if he was anything more than a one-season wonder. “After a good debut season, I had had a bad second season, and started having doubts,” he says. “If you don’t perform at first-class level, your cricket starts fading away. So not being included immediately, or during that season helped me, because I was still learning at the time.” It wasn’t just on the field that he was learning though. After the sub-par second season, he had even reconsidered his cricket future, but, he says, his mother and brothers backed him through the worst of times, and allowed him to recover as quickly as he did. It’s a story familiar to observers of Pakistani crishafiquecket, the influence of the immediate family plays an incalculably big role in the careers of cricketers here.

Of course, everything since then has been atypical. In a land where your international debut is no guarantee of having even a short-term career, Shafiq has been an ever-present. In just the second Test of the post spot-fixing era, he made a debut fifty against Steyn et al. Since then he has only missed a single Test (against Zimbabwe in 2011) in 46, as Pakistan have forged an identity around a middle-order comprising players from bygone eras. That isn’t something he was ever expecting to experience. “I couldn’t even dream of playing as much as I have done,” he says when talking about his Test debut and career. “I didn’t think I would even get a chance as early as I did. We still had guys like Mohammad Yousuf and Umar Akmal playing in the team at the time, so I thought it would take a while for me to break through.” But an injury to Yousuf meant that one spot in the middle-order was now open for a straight shootout between him and Umar Akmal.

On the surface, Akmal, who had been playing regularly for a year by then, was expected to retain his spot. But when he was dropped Shafiq grabbed onto his chance. “I had never batted at No. 6 before my Test debut. I thought whenever I play, it would be as an opener or No. 3, because that’s where I had batted throughout my domestic career. But Misbah bhai and then Waqar bhai sat me down and told me about their decision to include me in the team and what batting at No. 6 would entail. I didn’t care where I was playing. All that mattered was that I was playing a Test for Pakistan. And after that the more I batted at No. 6, the more I learnt about that role – how to bat there, when you have to counter attack, and especially how one bats with the tail.”

On the surface of it Shafiq’s numbers don’t seem to jump out as representative of the turnaround of Pakistan from seventh in the world to first. But those alone fail to measure the weight of his runs. That first Test at Lord’s, for instance, saw him come in at 134 for 4 and 60 for 4 before taking Pakistan to respectable, defendable totals. It’s been a common theme throughout his career – that debut fifty against South Africa came with the team at 156 for 4, still over 300 runs behind the Proteas’ first innings score. A hundred-run partnership with Misbah followed, ensuring that Pakistan would not lose their first series in the post spot-fixing era. Four of his nine hundreds have come with Pakistan four down for under a hundred runs on the board. And of the twenty four 50-plus scores he’s had in his career, 13 have come with the team’s score under 160 when he walks in.

Thus, he is a true representative of #TeamMisbah: a natural strokemaker whose career strike rate is still south of 50, and who scores big when the team needs him the most. In that dressing room, the ability to “dig in” is prized above any other. It’s why, despite all the flaws before and after them, that the Pakistani middle-order has been the key to where Pakistan find themselves today.

But unlike other members of that middle-order, one question that’s rarely been asked of him is about his technique. On the one hand, Azhar and Misbah represent the block-and-hit school where concentration and discipline trump all; on the other Younis and Sarfraz represent the modern Karachi school of nurdling, killing spinners, and finding ways to score even where your technique may not be up to the mark. Shafiq, though, even at his worst, has always been the anomaly – the lone technician in the side. And it’s not something that’s come as an accident. “The thing with having good technique is that it reduces the doubts in your mind,” he says. “You don’t worry about where your front leg or head is going, and it’s easy to correct a mistake as soon as you start doing it, because it is easy to pinpoint. If your technique is solid, you can then focus on just the ball itself.”

In a nation that prides itself on doing things in its own unique ways – from reverse swing to doosra – his is a very traditional mindset. His style seems to hark back to sepia-tinted cricket of Karachi. In fact, his viewpoint might be closer to what happens across the border, than within Pakistan. A student of the Mumbai school who ended up on the wrong side. So, I ask him, where that comes from. His response shows why he is closer to the Mumbai school than the Karachi one. “It’s down to a lot of things, but most of it comes to observing the best and trying to learn from them. For example, whenever Sachin (Tendulkar) used to bat I would never leave the TV screen, until he got out. I would keep watching and try to understand what he was doing, and then go out in the streets and try to emulate him, try to bat like him whenever I had a chance to bat. Then when I grew older and played regular club cricket I would do the same. Also around that time (Mohammad) Yousuf bhai was at his peak, and I was playing club cricket more regularly, so I would try and copy him too. I wanted to create the blend of borrowing from different players and combining it with my natural game. I always had this desire that I need to have a technique like them. Because with a technique like they had, you can play no matter how difficult the conditions are.”

Talking about his technique he goes on with a caveat though. “You have to remember that your technique is ever evolving. For example, after the struggles I had in 2013-14 with the bat, I talked to Younis bhai and Misbah bhai and decided to remove my trigger movement and now try to play from as still a position as possible. That’s helped me become a better player, and perhaps a better limited-overs player too.”

He says this at the start of a domestic T20 tournament where he would end up being one of the three leading scorers, while going at a strike rate in excess of 130. That, considering his limited-overs track record, is a vast improvement. In fact, his record in those two formats is one of the reasons he hasn’t become the star he should have – of course, the fact that he is the perfect embodiment of sharafat doesn’t help his case either, especially in a country which grew up with Wasim, Waqar, Shoaib and Javed. But even he admits that those formats may have hurt him in the past.

“I’ve always focused on my technique, but it suffered when I was playing all three formats. It’s not easy to play in every format when you are young, sometimes your technique deteriorates because of it. Once I was sidelined from T20s, I started focusing on my long-form game. T20 is about hand-eye coordination more than technique, so switching from playing that way to playing as we do in Tests isn’t easy.”

Within 18 months of his debut, Shafiq was a regular in all three formats for Pakistan. In fact, he played in 10 straight T20 internationals for Pakistan during that time, even though he was quite clearly unsuitable for the format at the time. His ODI record too became the millstone to his advancement as a player and a star, to the point that his Test achievements were often underplayed – by pretty much everyone in Pakistan baring the man he had tried to copy in his youth.

But over the last two years, as his role in the shorter formats has diminished, he has become a more successful batsman. It is one of the things that separates him and Azhar from other players of their generation who came in with far more fanfare and promises of talent. Over the past two years, he’s played only nine of Pakistan’s last 40 ODIs – failing to score a fifty in any of them – but as an ever-present in the Test team, he’s averaged 52.9 in 17 Tests. He puts that down to his constant desire to improve. “Whenever I am struggling I talk to Grant (Flower), and usually we find the solution to whatever problem I am facing. When I am not satisfied with that though, which isn’t often, then I talk to Misbah bhai and Younis bhai and we share ideas about how to change my game. As a batsman you have to keep improving every day, because the game changes every day. The bowlers bowling at you are going to keep working on how to get you out, so you have to constantly improve, or you won’t succeed for long.”

He is a true representative of #TeamMisbah: a natural strokemaker whose career strike rate is still south of 50, and who scores big when the team needs him the most.

Of course, Asad’s graduation from talented youngster to the backbone of the team hasn’t exactly been smooth. His career has been defined by landmark innings. The first was 18 months into his international career – he top scored in the 2nd Test against England, which laid the foundation for a famous series win. The second innings of that match in particular, where he and Azhar combined to score 88 runs in more than 40 overs of grinding cricket, having joined each other at the crease when Pakistan found themselves four down with a 16-run deficit, was one where he certainly took a step up. But in his eyes, it’s the innings a year later, just his second Test hundred, that he remembers most fondly. “That innings against England was very important, because if we hadn’t had that partnership we might have lost that series,” he says. “But individually the more important innings was against South Africa in Cape Town in 2013. Before going there people kept telling me how bouncy and green the tracks there were, that great Asian batsmen had struggled there etc. It almost felt like everyone was trying to put fear into my heart. So that was in the back of my mind, that if such great players couldn’t succeed there then how could I? But I came in at 33 for 4 and scored a hundred! After that innings, considering the situation and the fact that I was playing against the best bowling attack in the world, I knew that I could succeed anywhere against anyone. Whatever doubts I had about myself were gone after that series.”

Even then though, his numbers don’t do justice to what he brings to the table. A modern batsman averaging in the early to mid 40s isn’t one that will ever be considered a great, but that ignores the context in which Asad has played. During the recently concluded England series he crossed Alan Border and Shiv Chanderpaul to jump up to 7th in the all time list for runs at No. 6. And each of the six above him (SR Waugh, HP Tillakaratne, VVS Laxman, AW Greig, IT Botham and GS Sobers) could claim to be greats of their countries too. In fact, no one barring Sobers has scored as many as his 8 hundreds at No. 6, despite the fact that only Sobers himself and Chanderpaul have fewer innings than Asad at that position in that list.

But that too tells only half the story. It ignores the dirge that Asad has often had to bat with, and is the major reason he has no “daddy hundreds”. If he had had the tail that, say, England have, you imagine with all those big hundreds he would be averaging close to 50 by now.

Over the first three and a bit years of his career (until 2014) Pakistan’s bottom five – that is everyone batting after him – averaged 14.03 with the bat. Only the Zimbabwean bottom-five had a worse record. Since then Pakistan’s bottom-four have averaged 13.22, a number bettering only those of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. But Asad’s own average in those two periods is 38.4 and 47.8 respectively – all thanks to the dirge going from bottom-five to bottom-four. Or to put it another way, all thanks to Sarfraz Ahmed.

“We haven’t had a great tail in recent times,” he understates. “If you look at the stats our tail has consistently been 8th or 9th in the world. So what used to happen was that I would be on 20 or 30, and would be batting with the tail already. And since I was the recognized batsman the opposition would set fields just to stop me from making runs. But once Sarfraz came in, that changed.”

And it’s not something that would have surprised him. For nearly a decade, since before either of them made their international debuts, Sarfraz and Asad have played together for Pakistan Cricket Club in Karachi. And their understanding from all those years is something that Pakistan have gained from.

“When you bat with Sarfraz you can build pressure from both ends,” Asad says. “Both of us play in a counter attacking way, so when we are five down, and the opposition is thinking of cleaning us up immediately we can turn the tables on them. The bowling side is trying to save runs in that situation, because they also know the state of our tail, but that helps our batting. The more they attack us, the easier it is for both of us to hit boundaries, and if they go defensive then you can milk the singles and doubles. The way Sarfraz plays makes them more defensive too, so instead of cleaning up our tail, the opposition captain suddenly has to think about how to stop the flow of our runs.”

But that partnership may become an anomaly now. After Asad had scored a pair in the third Test in England this summer, Pakistan decided that forty odd Tests into his career it was finally time for him to bat at his natural number. And his first innings batting in the top order resulted in a game-changing century. It was quite the turnaround for him and the team, but considering the nature of this team and the personalities in the dressing room, it wasn’t much of a surprise. Nor was it a surprise that his turnaround came about with partnerships with Azhar and Younis Khan.

“I was very happy to bat up the order,” Asad says, talking about the change from the third to the fourth Test. “That responsibility was something that I felt that I had earned. But obviously my confidence was pretty low at the time. After I got out on duck in the second innings, I came back to the dressing room, and while I was still taking my pads off Younis bhai came up and sat beside me, and said that you’ll score a hundred in the next innings. I told him that I knew he was trying to gee me up but I wasn’t in the state to believe such a thing. I could see that they had worked me over, were continuously bowling me the inswinger and with my head falling over I was having trouble dealing with it.

“But he sat there with me for fifteen minutes. He kept telling me about his own struggles from the past, including the time he scored three ducks in a row and was in such a bad state that he didn’t want to play anymore. His teammates then told him that ‘Younis, you’ll be fine’, and the next innings he scored a hundred. He told me that this wasn’t something unique and that he had seen it happen five or six times. And all that I had to do was work hard, everything else would come.

“At the time I just felt like he was saying this to improve my confidence, but the funny thing is that the next innings I did get a century. And he was with me at the crease when I got there, and he just kept telling me ‘see, I told you so’. And all I could do was laugh.

Whenever Sachin (Tendulkar) used to bat I would never leave the TV screen, until he got out. I would keep watching and try to understand what he was doing, and then go out in the streets and try to emulate him, try to bat like him whenever I had a chance to bat. Then when I grew older and played regular club cricket I would do the same. Also around that time (Mohammad) Yousuf bhai was at his peak, and I was playing club cricket more regularly, so I would try and copy him too.”

“It’s really easy batting with him. People think he has these great partnerships because he talks to the youngsters when in actuality he doesn’t say much, just tells you to keep playing your game. But the message he conveys is from his batting itself – when to attack, whom to attack, when to defend, basically what to do, you can just follow him and succeed.”

In the years to come you imagine that is a role Asad will have to embrace too, especially when the two old men are gone. But before leaving they, and Asad, have been able to restore Pakistan’s reputation. And that, he feels, is their greatest achievement.

“We had great preparation for that tour. We were at peak fitness after the Kakul camp. And then the time spent in England, on green wickets, in the nets and warm-ups, helped us gain confidence too. We realized that if we applied ourselves we could score big here too. And most importantly there was this motivation for all of us – that England is where it all went bad. We had worked six years to change that. The way we had conducted ourselves, rebuilding Pakistan’s image and reputation, we all felt like this was a chance to complete that journey, to make people see the real face of Pakisshafique-2tan cricket. We wanted to cover up the mistakes from our past, wanted to make sure that no one had any chance to question us or our conduct. And if we achieved our individual goals with it, then that was just a bonus.”

Thus, in a nutshell, he explains why this team of nomads has reached the mountaintop; how their motivation to change their reputations, to prove themselves to the world, has taken them where no modern Pakistan team has gone before. But his belief that no one can question this team anymore is pretty idealistic, considering the media they have to deal with. But as they have done over the past six years, they’ll keep providing answers to those questions, keep proving people wrong. And Asad Shafiq will always play a major role in that. Even if he may not get the recognition for it.


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