During the recently concluded ODI series between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Fakhar Zaman and Imam-ul-Haq became the 14th different ODI opening pair for Pakistan since the World Cup 2015. No other team has had more pairs during this period.
Following the 2015 World Cup, Pakistan changed two opening pairs in the series vs Bangladesh. Ahmed Shehzad who had opened in all of Pakistan’s ODIs since July 2013 was dropped due to a dip in performance. They tried another two, different from the opening pairs in Bangladesh, in their next series before settling with Azhar Ali-Ahmed Shehzad for a full series against Sri Lanka in UAE.
Fakhar and Imam became the 14th different ODI opening pair for Pakistan since the World Cup 2015
After the re-birth of Sharjeel Khan in mid-2016, he was paired with another three batsmen over the course of three series to don the opening duties until his involvement in the PSL spot-fixing scandal and eventual ban restricted him from any sort of cricketing activities. The search again haunted the Pakistan selectors who failed to find that right pair which would dissolve this issue and shouldered the opening duties to four more pairs, handing debuts to Fakhar Zaman and Imam-ul-Haq.
The inconsistency in selection of the opening pair prevailed in the Tests too before Azhar Ali was made a regular partner of Sami Aslam at the top. The pair opened in 16 consecutive innings on four different tours. Pakistan had tried six different opening pairs in four series before them. A fall in form of Sami Aslam resulted in him losing his place to Sharjeel Khan and Ahmed Shehzad. He returned to pair with Shan Masood in Pakistan’s recent outings vs Sri Lanka but the pair failed to provide any substantial performances and will most likely be replaced for the next series.
Statistically, Azhar Ali has been Pakistan’s best opener in this period. In the 33 ODI matches he has opened in since the World Cup, Azhar Ali has scored 1288 runs at an average of 39 and 1359 runs in 26 innings in Test matches at an average of 59.1. No other opener in the world has scored test runs at a greater average than Azhar (qualification: 500 runs). Mohammad Hafeez has scored 812 test runs at an average of over 45 with a healthier strike rate of 60.
No other opener in the world has scored test runs at a greater average than Azhar Ali
Pakistan finally found a diamond in ODIs with Sharjeel Khan who racked up 618 runs in 14 games since his comeback. This includes a career-best 152 in Ireland where he sent the Irish bowlers out of the park at will.
In total, Pakistan tried as many as eleven batsmen at the top. Only three of them played in more than four ODIs. It laid bare the inconsistency in selection, lack of trust in the player's abilities and mistreatment of players who get to represent their country internationally only briefly, after loads of runs and years of wandering in the labyrinths of domestic cricket. A prime example would be Sami Aslam who spent 16 months between his first and second ODI undeterred by a decent 45-run innings on debut. Selectors even tried their luck with Babar Azam and Bilal Asif as openers and even bringing back Kamran Akmal as a specialist batsman. Mohammad Hafeez was pushed to open the innings again after he had established his place as a one-down batsman.
The situation in tests is better than the ODIs where Shan Masood, Sami Aslam, Mohammad Hafeez and Ahmed Shehzad played around Azhar Ali mostly. The desperation for instant success in ODIs and the contrast in letting the top domestic performers get a feel of the international stage in Tests and ODIs is evidently distinguishable by the numbers. Among the top seven ODI sides since the WC 2015, Pakistani openers’ average of 36.1 is the lowest. On the other hand, our openers average 39.5 in tests played in the same period - third highest among all test nations.
The numbers for teams at the top are reflective of their consistent selection at the top. India has tried only seven batsmen as openers while Bangladesh has had only four batsmen open for them since the World Cup.
Pakistan has developed sizable bench strength to replace its middle order, all-rounders and bowlers but the situation at the top looks bleak and miserable. The recent pairing of Fakhar Zaman and Imam-ul-Haq accounted for 174 runs in three innings together with two stands of fifty-plus. Shan Masood and Sami Aslam however failed to deliver in the recent Test series. The constant chopping and changes at the top not only makes the players feel bereft of confidence but also derives the team to gel as a unit. Cricket fans would understand that a player underperforming might need to be replaced but it will only be fitting to give our next opening pair a consistent run and let them be average for a while if Pakistan is to find its next Saeed Anwar-Aamer Sohail.