Usman Salahuddin: You can not judge a player on one Test match

The batsman spoke about his disappointment at being dropped and his aspirations of a return to the Test side.

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30 years old. More than 8000 First Class runs @ around 50. Dropped after just a handful of Test innings. If you said this about a Pakistani batsman five years ago to an average cricket fan, they’d probably guess you were talking about Fawad Alam. Well, half a decade later, the same is applicable for Usman Salahuddin.

Consider there’s a 20-year-old in his early years of First Class cricket, and he puts up the following numbers over the next 18 months: 42 innings, 2594 runs @ 74, 11 hundreds. Then, he gets to play 2 ODIs, one of them while batting at #7, and is discarded from the national team setup for a lengthy period. Once again, this was the story of Usman Salahuddin in his early years.

Now a veteran of the First Class setup with 2910 runs to his name in the last 5 domestic seasons at an average of 53.9, Usman is eagerly awaiting his next chance in Test cricket. Having made his Test debut during the 2018 tour of England, the right-hander was dropped after just one match. In a wide-ranging interview, he spoke exclusively to Grassroots Cricket about his disappointment at being dropped and his hard grind in domestic cricket.

The Interview

Being Dropped and Strike Rate

Usman Salahuddin: “I was dropped from the team after playing one Test match, but since then, my performances have been improving day by day. I spoke to the selectors and coaches about why I wasn’t getting a chance, so they said that rather than any technical issue, my strike rate was quite low – which I had to work on. Unfortunately, despite me doing that as well, I’m now waiting for the next thing I will have to ‘prove’ to get another chance.

“We should bat according to the situation. Sometimes, you need to bat slowly. Other times, you need to hit. Overall, the strike rate doesn’t matter so much. The pitch behavior and team situation matter. When the pitch is such, you can score fast. Other times, it’s hard, and you can lose your wicket, so you need to bat conservatively.

“You can not judge a player on one Test match and say that a player has a problem with SR or that he bats slowly. I was playing my first Test, and I was a new player. When you want to build a player, you try to give him chances in easy conditions first. I played in testing conditions where we lost against a world-class team after 2-3 days. If I got further chances, I would’ve definitely performed well. In the second innings, I played like a mature batsman and faced 100 balls against world-class bowlers like Stuart Broad and James Anderson. You can’t judge anyone on one match.”

2020/21 Season and Batting Position

Usman Salahuddin: “I played for Central Punjab. We had Ahmed Shehzad, Azhar Ali, and Abid Ali in our team, but they were available for early matches only. Then, the coach said, ‘You’re a senior player with 130+ matches, and the responsibility falls upon you.’ So I had that pressure, and I had to play very carefully.

“This season, I batted at number 3. In the past, I’ve batted a lot at numbers 4, 5, and even sometimes 6. I couldn’t express myself properly in these situations, and the team also needed a top-order batsman since Azhar Ali wasn’t available. I spoke to the coach and batted there for the rest of the season. I faced the new ball, and alhamdulillah, I fared well and didn’t have major difficulties.

“If you’re picked for the national team, you have to play at whatever number is needed. Wherever I am needed, even if that’s to open the batting and we don’t have other openers, I will be more than willing. Of course, players have a preferred spot. I batted at one down (#3), and my future plan in cricket is to do the same. But I am ready to bat wherever needed.”

The Age Factor

Usman Salahuddin: “It’s great that the Chief Selector has given chances to players like Abid Ali and Nauman Ali. Especially with Nauman Ali, I’m glad that the age factor wasn’t a problem. In the past, when you cross the age of 30, people would say that the player has become old. If you are fit and performing, you should be able to play for Pakistan.

“I get motivation by watching Fawad Alam and seeing how he made a comeback at this age and performed. His stance and playing style doesn’t matter; his game awareness is incredible, and the way he bats make it very difficult to get him out. This is how it should be in Test cricket. The other team should have to think hard about how to get you out.”

Format-Mixing and Giving Players a Proper Chance

Usman Salahuddin: “I got dropped after 1-2 innings, which I never understand. On my debut in 2011 (ODI), I was batting at #8 with 4-5 overs left. In my 2nd ODI, I was wrongfully given out LBW. After that, I got my next chance in 2018 after so many performances. Then, I was discarded after one match. If you don’t give a proper chance to a player, you can’t make any remarks about him. I’m glad to see that Imran Butt is being given chances. He’s a good player, and all players should have some security about being allowed to perform rather than being dropped after one game.”

Domestic Cricket Format and Continuity

Usman Salahuddin: “I think that PCB should ensure that the current domestic format continues as it is. If the government changes, the system should not change. This will bring doubts into players’ minds. The current system is very strong, no doubt, and only good players can play in it. If you struggle, you can’t survive.

“In the past season, KP had to drop players like Fakhar Zaman and Junaid Khan. If you fail to perform, you can be dropped in this system as a big player because all the players are good. There is still scope for improvement in the financial aspect, however. If the PCB works on that, it will be great for players.

“We need to have regular U19 and A team tours. This also puts pressure on the senior team because they can see that the A team players are also performing. This helps the senior team to become strong. We used to have A tours almost every year, but we haven’t had any recently. Junior tours are also essential to make the international team strong. This will allow youngsters to get exposure and groom themselves, and they will then find it easier when they play at the international level.”

Youngsters Making an Impression

Usman Salahuddin: “Kamran Ghulam and Saud Shakeel are very good players, and I’ve seen them closely as well. However, if you have a player ready from before, you first try him and give him chances. Some of these younger players have just started making runs recently. I’ve been playing and performing for the last ten years, and I’m like a ready player at this time. If I got a proper chance right now, I think I can perform better than them. They are good players, but they need time to mature further.”

Talking Points

Strike Rate

It must be said that perceptions do build over time, and they are usually true, though the understanding of their implications may vary. Usman’s strike rate in the last few years of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy is among the lowest, though his balls-per-dismissal figure is way beyond anyone else’s.

Strike rates in Test cricket have fluctuated a fair bit. In the early 2000s, they jumped from the mid to high-40s to the low-50s. However, since the fast-bowlers era made a comeback in 2018, they appear to be on the way down. The current aggregate strike rate for 2021 is 47.6, the lowest in 20 years. India’s recent victory over England showcased a stunning example, as Cheteshwar Pujara – a batsman who has also faced criticism for being ‘too slow’ on many an occasion – dragged India back into the Test with a 206-ball 45, enabling the rest of the batsmen to set up victory.

Batting Position

Usman Salahuddin in First Class Cricket

Pos

Inns

Runs

100s

50s

AVG

SR

BPD

#3

14

789

2

6

65.8

46.7

140.9

#4

104

4081

12

23

47.5

43.6

108.9

#5

62

2701

7

19

51.0

46.0

110.7

#6

22

761

3

2

38.1

41.9

90.8

It’s interesting that Usman hasn’t batted higher up the order during his First Class career. A deeper dive into his numbers shows that he is best suited to playing the Azhar Ali role, i.e., seeing off and blunting the newer ball. Having a batsman who scores extremely slowly in the middle order can be a liability, but at the top, he can be an asset.

In the absence of ball-by-ball data, we can instead focus on the number of dismissals vs. pace and spin to better gauge a player’s strength. We’ll use Fawad Alam as a comparison point here since both these batsmen are the most prominent Pakistani FC performers over the last decade. We should also keep in mind that for most of the 2010s, First Class cricket in Pakistan was played in conditions that pacers enjoyed.

Around 65% of Usman’s dismissals are against pacers and 35% against spinners. In contrast, Fawad Alam, a good player of spin-bowling by reputation, has a breakup of 78%-22%. Hence, the overall number of deliveries faced per pace dismissal is 173 for Usman and 124 for Fawad. It’s important to note here that this doesn’t mean that Usman is poor against spin. But it does show that pacers have difficulty dismissing him – important in a system where pacers have regularly prospered (tournament-wise batting average in the 20s until 2018).

In the new domestic cricket system where spinners have played a bigger role, Usman has faced 2800+ deliveries with 12 dismissals against pace and 14 against spin. In contrast, Fawad has 11 dismissals against pace and just 4 against spin (1800+ balls faced).

This shows just why Usman’s preferred batting position is number 3. However, before the 2020 season, he had only batted in the top 3 five times. Considering the lack of opening options and Azhar Ali’s presence in the Pakistan team at #3, Usman’s national team prospects may even be brighter if he opens the batting and fares well. In the 2020 edition of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, openers struggled, with barely anyone able to last more than 70 balls per dismissal (Zain Abbas the only one to do so with a large sample size).

Importance of the Coming Season

With Usman Salahuddin batting up the order last season and showing a willingness to do the same in 2021/22, this is potentially the most pivotal First Class season of his career. At 30 years of age, he is probably in the prime of his career. Additionally, most of the domestic performers in contention for the Test side are more suited to the middle order. A good season batting in the top three can catapult Usman into contention for the Pakistan top order. The ball is now in his court.

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