Shafiq, unsung but not an underachiever

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Asad Shafiq is now just 412 runs away from becoming the most prolific number six in Test history © AFP

The most Asad Shafiq thing that happened to Asad Shafiq on the day that the most heroic Asad Shafiq innings to date ended, just short of having led what would have been Test cricket’s most remarkable chase, was a triple century by an Indian batsman. For the briefest of news cycles, the world toasted Shafiq. A few hours later it moved, agape at the newest Indian batting wonder and Asad Shafiq went back to being Asad Shafiq.

Permission for a little navel-gazing here, because why this should be the case is easily and comprehensively explained by this: the cricket media in Pakistan is not the cricket media of India, England and Australia. Not in size or noise, not in weight and not in rigour. With the career Shafiq has had to date, his prominence in the side and to the side’s rise, he would’ve been, it’s not ridiculous to imagine, a far bigger deal than he is currently, had he been a national of cricket’s Big Three.

We would know every little grain of his cricketing life; the struggles, the hands and eyes that shaped him as he grew, the breaks of luck and heart, the streets and fields he hung out in. His technique would by now have been opened up and dissected by a bevy of current and former coaches, the little adjustments pored over in detail, the periods of self-doubt and reflection dutifully recounted.

The roundedness of his close catching would have drawn greater appreciation, from leg-slip for spin, to gully and now, crucially, at first slip. There has been coverage, of course, but it is scant and usually – as is the case here – it is to point out how underappreciated and side kicky he is.

That is nobody’s fault. It is just the way things are. But it means that even after more than 50 Tests he can arrive in a new country and do so as a bit of a curiosity: ‘Who is this new, neat young batsman, hmmm?’ Fifty-one Tests now – just two less than Joe Root and Virat Kohli and five less than Kane Williamson. Six years since his debut, which came a couple of weeks after Williamson’s, seven months before Kohli’s and two years before Root.

This is not to crowbar him into that conversation but to give a better sense of his non-newness. (Although it is not such a nonsensical notion, in Tests at least, especially when you set this admittedly limited but still revelatory bar: none of Root, Kohli, Williamson and even Ajinkya Rahane have a Test hundred in England, South Africa and Australia. Shafiq does, even more laudatory given he is from the subcontinent). Before the end of January he will be 31 – he is, or should be, in his batting prime as we speak.

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For a guy who was at the centre of a lower-order chase of 490, he was pretty inconspicuous at the Gabba © Getty Images

So the Gabba on the last two evenings was, in many ways, the most appropriate setting for his best work. Less than 3000 people in the ground watching him on the final day, their cheers bouncing around like the desperate pleas of General Zod and his cronies when trapped in the Phantom Zone mirror in Superman. On TV it could have been Dubai, though wherever, the unmistakable sense of his career – that it is going by unnoticed – remained.

Such was the innings too, a little bit. For a guy who was at the centre of a lower-order chase of 490, he was pretty inconspicuous. He did not tear into the target like it was a personal affront to him, as a Kohli might have done, and indeed did in Adelaide. Occasionally we were alerted to his presence, usually when he went square on the off side, or through midwicket. Otherwise, Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz both faced more balls than he did during their partnerships, and Yasir Shah only faced three balls less.

One hundred and thirty-seven was such a Shafiq score as well, not daddy enough to raise eyebrows when perusing a scorecard. It is his highest score, but it is more of a personal best, because it is not that high, not in this age and not when an exact but far less-gifted contemporary of yours has a triple. From where he bats, at six, it is plenty of course, though that is part of the problem.

History is not littered with great batsmen who became great because of the position. Steve Waugh batted there a lot, though the bulk of it came early in his career when he was still an allrounder. VVS Laxman did more of his work there than any other position, but the innings that made him came from three; both batted there in well below half the Tests they played. Other than that, it is a position mostly of allrounders, or batsmen biding time before moving up.

Shafiq is now just 412 runs away from becoming the most prolific number six in Test history, although the most prolific number six in history? That sounds like the most apologetic-sounding achievement ever.

Likely that it is just a question of time. This is a batting order still ordered around Younis and Misbah. Once they go he will move up too, which is why the recent bungling of his promotion, though unfortunate, doesn’t feel fatal. Still, Babar Azam swanning in at three in just his second Test, at the expense of Shafiq was a bit cold of Pakistan.

Shafiq was fine with it. He said so after the game – number three is where he wants to bat, but it’s fine, whatever the team needs. Grant Flower, Pakistan’s batting coach, made much the same assessment.

“He’s a really strong character. He doesn’t seem like [the shuffling around] has bothered him too much. But obviously, most people would prefer to be in one slot. But he seems alright and he’s very mentally tough, so I think whatever people throw at him, he’s usually dealt with it quite well. He’ll be alright.”

There’s no reason to doubt that. Of course he’ll be “alright”. He’s Asad Shafiq and he’s always “alright”. But a little strop would not have been the worst thing in the world, to show, if nothing else, that like the best batsmen there is a selfish streak in him. Even Azhar Ali, as placid and dutiful, has shown himself capable of the occasional hissy fit. Why should Shafiq not get to bat where he thinks is best for him? Because is not what is best for him also, by default, best for the side?

 

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