Asad Shafiq and Fawad Alam: The Dilemma

“Did Pakistan invest in the wrong batsman” appears to be the most popular talking point on social media nowadays. But is this viewpoint simply the benefit of hindsight?

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Pakistan has seen a lot of polarizing cricketers, but perhaps none of them has been quite as polarizing as Asad Shafiq. He holds the record for the most consecutive Test matches played for a team – 72 in a row for Pakistan. A nation blessed with Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Javed Miandad, Younis Khan, et al., and yet Asad Shafiq holds this record. How did this happen?

In the last three years leading up to his final Test (so far), Shafiq averaged just 35, with two hundreds in 21 Test matches. Osman Samiuddin wrote in an article for ESPNCricinfo last year: “It’s just assumed he will be there, that he will always be there, being beatifically unfulfilling like it’s a cause.” That perfectly sums up Shafiq’s career, a career that promised so much but delivered so little.

With Fawad Alam having made a comeback as a 34-year-old in the Pakistani middle-order, the general feeling is that the long-format specialist has gotten this (second) chance too late. With more than 12,000 First Class (FC) runs to his name before the recall at a staggering average of over 56, there’s merit to that argument.

To investigate the possible reasons why Shafiq (and Azhar Ali, to an extent) were preferred over Fawad and how Pakistan could have fit the left-hander into their lineup, we’re going to go in-depth into their FC careers… and much more.

Before Their Respective Debuts

Career FC Stats Before Test Debut

Batsman

Matches

Inns

NO

Runs

HS  

Ave

100

50

Azhar Ali

50

80

11

2789

153*

40.42

11

9

Asad Shafiq

35

63

5

2535

223

43.70

8

7

Fawad Alam

48

82

18

3632

296*

56.75

5

26

It may come as a surprise to some, but Azhar Ali started out as a lower-order batsman/bowler, then transitioned to the top-order by 2006/07. He was promoted to #3, made 84, and was immediately promoted to the opening position. In fact, this happened in the same match. In the first innings, he batted at #3, made 84, was promoted to open, and made 115* in a match for KRL against HBL. His captain at the time was a certain Mohammad Wasim, Pakistan’s current Chief Selector. He only batted twice at #3 in FC cricket before making his Test debut; however, he would go on to become Pakistan’s specialist long-term #3.

Another surprise is that Asad Shafiq batted a lot in the top order. Besides his 34 innings at #3, he opened the innings 25 times with moderate success. Eventually, he moved down to #3 and forced the selector to pick him after his third season, as he amassed a monstrous 1244 runs with four hundreds and four fifties. While Azhar was consistent as an opener and earned selection with performances over a longer period, Shafiq forced the selectors’ hands with a huge season – similar to how Kamran Ghulam did in 2020/21.

Fawad Alam, on the other hand, was very much a #5 specialist and has been in this role throughout his career. Batsmen in this position generally have it easier than the others in the lineup as they usually face the older ball and can capitalize against bowlers who aren’t quite as fresh anymore. We can see this in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy (QeA-T), where batsmen at #4 and #5 generally average higher than the rest. In QeA-T 07/08 to 09/10, openers averaged 31, #3s averaged 30, while #5s averaged 36.

Favored Batting Position Before Test Debut

Batsman

Position

Inns

NO

Runs

Avg

SR

100

50

Azhar Ali

Opener

59

5

2195

40.6

43.4

10

6

Asad Shafiq

#3

34

3

1546

49.9

55.2

5

5

Fawad Alam

#5

47

9

2168

57.1

52.9

3

17

Start of Test Career

Fawad Alam

Fawad was the first debutant of the three. In typical Pakistani fashion, he was thrown in at the deep end. Interim Chief Selector Wasim Bari selected him for the away series against Sri Lanka in 2009. After Salman Butt’s failures in the first Test, Fawad was brought in to open the innings. He had only done this once previously in FC cricket – in a fourth-innings chase of 16 where he made 4*! A salute to the Pakistan team management… Fawad, however, rose to the occasion. With Pakistan facing a 150-run first-innings deficit, he slammed a debut ton in the 2nd innings – an impressive 168.

Fawad’s 2nd Test didn’t see any such success for him, though. He made twin 16s, and by the time Pakistan played again, Imran Farhat arrived as an opener while Fawad was put in at #3 against the likes of Shane Bond. This was another position he was unprepared for – he had only batted once before at #3, and on that occasion, the openers put on a partnership of 285! Bond dismissed him cheaply in both innings, and that was it for Fawad Alam. He was dropped and wouldn’t play a Test again for more than ten years.

Azhar Ali

Azhar was the second to debut. He was selected by Iqbal Qasim for Pakistan’s tour of England in 2010, where they would play six Tests – four against England and two against Australia. Number three would be his designated batting slot, and in his second Test, he made an impressive 51 in a fourth-innings chase to help Pakistan defeat Australia. However, a few dismal performances followed, and in the 5th Test of the summer, he received a demotion to #6. Again, he impressed with a fine 92*, helping Pakistan to another win.

The rest of the summer passed uneventfully for Azhar, but the spot-fixing saga shook Pakistan cricket. When Pakistan played again, Misbah-ul-Haq was the captain, and he opted to put faith in Azhar at #3. Azhar repaid that faith with three consecutive fifties against South Africa and secured a position in the Pakistan batting lineup for the foreseeable future, with the likes of Mohammad Yousuf out of the picture.

Asad Shafiq

After his incredible season, a debut was always on the cards for Shafiq. After one wild hoick from Umar Akmal to get himself out, his place was assured. Asad Shafiq made his Test debut in Nov 2010, in the 2nd Test against South Africa, replacing Akmal at #6. This would actually be the first time Shafiq would ever bat at #6 – 59 of his 63 FC innings came in the top 3 before this, with the other four at #4 and #5. He made it count, though, hitting 61 in his maiden Test innings.

Pakistan’s next assignment was in New Zealand, and Shafiq continued at #6. Once again, he made it count. After coming in at 107/4, he put on a 149-run partnership with captain Misbah, hitting 83 and falling LBW to a dubious decision. Two good innings to start – it looked like Pakistan had found a batsman who could take over the batting mantle from the likes of Younis Khan and Misbah…

The Ideal Way To Ease a Batsman Into a Test Team

The pathway for batsmen differs wildly. Some may have to bat completely out of position at the start of their career, such as Fawad Alam. Others may have to begin in tough, unknown conditions, like Azhar Ali. Some may be eased in via a lower middle-order spot.

The most common method appears to be the last one, where middle-order batsmen get a go at #5 or #6 in familiar conditions and then move higher up the order. Shafiq started out at #6, and he made it count.

Pakistan did the right thing with Azhar as well. Despite initial struggles, they persisted with him as he debuted in tough conditions for batsmen. He managed to rise to the occasion at times and made it count as well.

Fawad Alam, though. Not a single Test at home (or the adopted home). Made to bat woefully out of position. Dropped after just three Tests, including one where he scored 168. Rough? Rougher than the surface of a fast-deteriorating day five Asian pitch…

Why Investing In Asad Shafiq Wasn’t the Wrong Decision

Anyone who says that investing in Asad Shafiq was a terribly wrong decision and devoid of any logic is speaking with the benefit of hindsight. The fact is that Shafiq performed well initially in his career, and his trajectory was quite decent for the average batsman.

After three fifties, Shafiq converted his fourth into his maiden Test ton in his 9th match against Bangladesh. In his 16th Test, he hit 75 and 100* against Sri Lanka at Pallekele to win his first Man of the Match award. Two Tests later, he hit a Test hundred in just his second Test match in South Africa against a full-strength Proteas attack. Another Test ton against SA would be next, followed by hundreds against New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and England.

By the end of 2015, Asad Shafiq was in a critical phase of his career. He had done well so far, and the next part of his career would determine his fate as a Test batsman.

65 Innings

Batsman

Runs

Ave

100

50

0

Javed Miandad

2964

55.92

7

18

2

Mohammad Yousuf

2886

48.10

9

15

5

Inzamam-ul-Haq

2555

44.82

5

18

5

Younis Khan

2765

44.59

9

11

7

Misbah-ul-Haq

2404

44.51

3

18

5

Asad Shafiq

2597

43.28

8

13

3

Zaheer Abbas

2597

42.57

6

9

5

Saleem Malik

2140

39.62

6

11

5

Azhar Ali

2358

38.66

5

15

7

Only Younis and Yousuf had more hundreds. More runs than Inzamam and Misbah. Fewer ducks than anyone besides Miandad. After 65 innings, i.e., at the end of 2015, it would appear that Shafiq was ready to launch to that next level that most batsmen on this list achieved. These nine batsmen are the only frontline batters to have played more than 120 innings for Pakistan in Tests. The other three were Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, and Waqar Younis.

This is not exclusive to Pakistani batsmen. After 65 innings, Virat Kohli averaged 45. In the next 25 innings, he would raise that to 50 and never looked back. After 65 innings, Kane Williamson averaged 39. 26 innings later, the average crossed 50. After 128 innings (the number that Shafiq has played till now), Yousuf’s average had risen to 56. Younis’ 60th innings had been the 267 against India that showed the world what he was capable of. Within the space of a few more Tests, that average was close to 50.

That phase of 35-50 Tests appears to be the point where most Test batsmen elevate their games to the next level. On the other hand, there are some who fail to do so, and they invariably end up dropped from their respective teams.

The Next Phase (After First 65 Innings)

Batsman

Inns

Runs

Ave

100

50

0

Asad Shafiq

63

2063

33.27

4

14

10

Azhar Ali

96

4095

45.50

12

17

9

Saleem Malik

89

3628

46.51

9

18

7

Zaheer Abbas

59

2465

47.40

6

11

5

Misbah-ul-Haq

67

2818

48.58

7

21

4

Javed Miandad

124

5868

51.02

16

25

4

Inzamam-ul-Haq

135

6275

51.85

20

28

10

Mohammad Yousuf

91

4644

55.28

15

17

6

Younis Khan

148

7334

55.56

25

22

12

Five years into his career and having played more than 40 Tests, it was time for Shafiq to repay the faith. Alas, that’s not how things transpired.

There are no two ways about it; the numbers are quite dismal. Shafiq’s Test career from 2016 onwards resumed brightly. He was Pakistan’s top run-scorer in the infamous Lord’s Test of 2016, Pakistan’s comeback to England, which they won. 73 and 49 assured runs meant that he made a total of 122 for the match, eclipsing Misbah’s 114, though the captain deservedly got the plaudits for his first-innings ton.

This was followed by what can be termed as erratic performances at best. 4, 39, and a pair in Birmingham was followed by a ton at the Oval – overshadowed once again by Younis’ double-hundred. Three fifties against West Indies, but then another pair in Sharjah. Failures in New Zealand, then a scarcely believable 137 in Brisbane, which netted him his second Man of the Match award. Tellingly, none of these awards came in wins.

Just when you thought he had finally cracked it during the Australia tour, there was another barren patch – 11 innings without a fifty. However, in the midst of all this, Younis and Misbah called it a day, and now Shafiq was to be one of the mainstays of the middle-order.

But rather than elevate his game to the next level, Shafiq’s game slowly but surely declined. His conversion rate dropped. His output lowered. And the fat lady had started to sing. His eventual (current) batting average is closer to Imran Khan than any of the other eight batsmen in the tables above.

Weaknesses

Asad Shafiq

Before 2016, Shafiq had an average of 41 against pace and 47 against spin. After 2016, the average against spin rose to 56, but against pace, it dropped to a miserable 26. That was reflected in his playing style, where he frequently displayed a weakness against the incoming ball, often getting bowled/lbw playing across the line or caught while flicking the ball to midwicket.

One wonders whether shielding Shafiq from responsibility and putting him at #6 contributed to the inability to step up his game. Shafiq batted at #6 60% of the time in Tests. Usually, this number is reserved for bringing new players into the team and then moving them up the order. Alternatively, all-rounders or wicket-keepers often bat a lot at #6. There are very few specialist #6 batsmen for a reason. Perhaps Pakistan and Shafiq could have benefited from a change in the lineup… more on that later.

Azhar Ali

The top-order batsman has witnessed a steady decline that seemingly seems to be age-related. He peaked in 2016, successfully overcoming technical issues to bounce back in England. Then, Azhar had a stellar tour of Australia while opening the batting. Now with his powers clearly on the wane, this probably doesn’t apply, but one wonders how he may have fared as an opener if he did that more often in his career.

Before 2017, Azhar averaged 46 against pace and almost 55 against spin. Both numbers have dropped to 32 and 49 since 2017, with the exaggerated decline against pace noticeable.

Fawad Alam

There isn’t a huge sample size in international cricket to be able to judge Fawad’s weaknesses. However, there is a common consensus that his awkward batting technique makes him susceptible to pace, with short-bowling in particular likely to pose a threat. The limited sample size of 10 Test matches so far tells us as much.

He has been dismissed 12 times by pacers for an average of around 33, while he has made over 300 runs against spinners, being dismissed just three times. That equates to an average of 100+ against spin.

How Pakistan Could Have Played All Three of Azhar, Shafiq, and Fawad

The Opening Position

This is a highly subjective topic, and everyone’s views will vary. However, a cursory glance at Pakistan’s Test team under Misbah until the 2016 England tour will show that there was a big problem with the opening partnership. Number 3 to 6 was almost always settled: Azhar, Younis, Misbah, and Shafiq. However, for openers, Pakistan tried the likes of Mohammad Hafeez, Ahmed Shehzad, Khurram Manzoor, Shan Masood, etc., with limited success.

The only opener to have proven effective in and outside Asia during Misbah’s era was Taufeeq Umar, a good player of pace who had some good performances against top-class pacers. Hafeez averaged 55 in Asia but less than 20 outside – an unsustainable option. After settling down at #3 and showing that he has the game for the top-level, perhaps Azhar should have moved up immediately instead of in late-2016.

Azhar opened the batting 37 times in Tests and averaged a more-than-reasonable 46. Now, that’s not to say that he would have done the same over a longer period. Still, given that he was a regular FC opener early in his career and averaged 40 where openers averaged 30, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that he could have done a decent job. As it is, Pakistan’s weak opening pair meant that he often walked out to bat in crunch situations against the new ball.

Number Three

Promoting Azhar to open the batting would have opened up the slot for Shafiq, where he originally gained success in FC cricket. From 07/08 to 09/10, the toughest position in QeA-T was #3, where batsmen averaged a measly 29. Shafiq averaged 49.9 here, and he clearly enjoyed playing that role. Perhaps Younis could have remained at #3 in the short-term, and then when Shafiq had shown he had the aptitude for Test cricket, he could have been promoted to #3.

Elevating Asad Shafiq to Number 3 would have also resulted in him being forced to accept responsibility up the order early on in his career, as was the case with Azhar. If he proved to be effective, he would free up another slot in the batting lineup and provide more security for Younis and Misbah. If he failed to overcome the shortcomings in his batting methods, then perhaps another batsman could have benefited.

Fawad Alam…

With everyone playing at their natural positions, Fawad Alam could now be considered for #5 or #6. Between 2010/11 to 2012/13, Fawad amassed more than 3000 runs in three back-to-back seasons, where he smashed 11 tons and 10 fifties.

By now, he had clearly figured out how to score big runs consistently, something that he struggled with earlier on. As the table earlier in this article showed, he hit only five hundreds before his Test debut, with the high average a consequence of a high rate of not outs and lots of fifties. In this latter 3-season period, Fawad hit 11 tons in just 63 innings.

Bottom Line

It’s a pity that whenever this discussion is had, the points will always revolve around “What if?” The highest-averaging Pakistani batsman in FC cricket should have gotten more chances to show what he could do at the highest level. Still, having discussions about who was ‘responsible’ and who should ‘pay’ for that decision-making is unlikely to bear any fruit. Instead, it’s time to enjoy Fawad Alam’s batting in Test cricket while he’s still going strong.

At the same time, Asad Shafiq’s decline is one of the greatest disappointments of Pakistan cricket. “What if” his trajectory had gone the other way, a la a Younis Khan or Mohammad Yousuf? What if he built on those hundreds he hit on his first tours of South Africa, England, and Australia? Instead, we are left questioning why he wasn’t dropped earlier on so that Pakistan could move on.

At the end of the day, Azhar Ali emerges as the most successful batsman of the three on the international stage, with more than 6,000 runs while batting in the top 3, a Pakistani record. Not many would have seen that on the cards when he played 8 FC matches between 2002 and 2005, mostly batting at #8 or #9. But he turned it around and became one of the finest batsmen Pakistan has ever produced – an admirable turnaround.

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5 comments
Arham Hamid
07 May, 2021

A fantastic analysis. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it!.

Anonymous
03 May, 2021

very good analysis. What helped Shafiq was a reluctunce to play 5 bowlers also in this time..fawad vs shafiq vs azhar is a debate and fawads success at this age compared to the decline of azhar/shafiq, shows that potentially a wrong call was made.

Raja
03 May, 2021

good analysis but the point is that no one says asad shafiq's inital selection was no justified, it that it was not justifiable for him to be with for so long when it became obvious he did not have the capability to level up after being promoted up the order against England, only to be demoted again. also asad had a terrible knack of scoring small hundreds, alluding to the fact that he lost concentration consistently after reaching three figures, his highest test score is one of the lowest for batsmen with more than 10 hundreds. fawad has 4 hundreds, half of them are higher than asad's test best. azhar was a severely limited batsmen who made the most of his abilities, asad on the other hand was the opposite..

Furqan Bhatti
03 May, 2021

Azhar and Sarfaraz at open, Shafiq 3, Younis 4, Misbah 5, Fawad ALAM 6,Rizwan 7....what a batting line-up this would be.

Mustafa Ali
03 May, 2021

Haven't read such a good article in years. Great great job!.