The Muddle of Pakistan’s Test Openers
Pakistan’s newest opening combination of Abid Ali and Imran Butt has failed to click so far in Test cricket.
Rarely has a Pakistani newcomer made such an impression in his ‘extra’ facet while simultaneously failing so horrendously at the primary job he was picked for. That is the story of Pakistan’s latest Test opener amidst what seems to be an ever-revolving door of top-order batters. Such has been his success at his secondary field that he may not even be the most fragile opener in the Test team at the moment.
Imran Butt made his Pakistan debut seven months ago. Since then, he’s taken 16 catches in six Test matches, mostly in the slips and in other close-in fielding positions. Only one Pakistani fielder has ever taken more catches in a year – Mohammad Yousuf with 17 in 2000. And he played 12 Test matches that year.
On the flip side, Pakistan’s two other regular slip catchers (Abid Ali and Babar Azam) have combined to take 8 catches since Imran’s debut. But they’ve also dropped a further 8 catches.
Test Catches and Drops by Pakistan Fielders Since Imran Butt’s Debut
That Imran Butt has turned out to be a good catcher shouldn’t be surprising. After all, he has been among the standouts in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy as well, with only one fielder taking more catches since 2015. Still, success at the domestic level doesn’t guarantee the same at the top level. Iftikhar Ahmed has been one of the standout catchers in First Class cricket but shelled Alastair Cook at slip on Test debut – though he made amends in the second innings by catching the England captain. However, Imran’s immense confidence combined with his athleticism has made him one of Pakistan’s standouts in the slips, reminiscent of the likes of Inzamam-ul-Haq and Younis Khan in the cordon.
Most Catches in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy (Since 2015)
Imran Butt, the opener, has struggled. So far, he’s played one notable knock in Test cricket – 91 against a modest Zimbabwe bowling attack. Beyond that, he’s yet to face more than 50 balls in an innings. The Pakistan management sensibly chose to give him a few consecutive chances rather than chucking him out after initial failures, but patience is likely wearing thin. If it weren’t for his catching, he might have been out of the side already.
Worst Averages for Pakistani Openers in Tests (Min 10 Innings)
At the same time, Imran Butt’s partner Abid Ali has had some great highs and a lot of lows. He started well with a massive series against Sri Lanka, then struggled. He has a massive series against Zimbabwe, then struggled again.
Abid Ali in Test Cricket
|vs. SL & ZIM
|vs. the rest
Abid, unlike Imran, has managed to see off the new ball quite often, however. He faced 100+ deliveries three times in England and New Zealand and 50+ deliveries a further four times vs. New Zealand, South Africa, and West Indies. However, he failed to make his starts count on these occasions, often committing the cardinal sin of falling in the 20s and 30s. He also happens to be nine years senior to Imran, turning 34 soon. Long-term investment in an opener at this age, hoping that he turns his game around, is unlikely to pay off.
What are the solutions, then?
Hard Times for Test Openers
Test cricket in the early and late 2010s wasn’t the same. The mid-2000s to mid-2010s were among the highest-scoring eras in Test cricket, especially for Test openers. However, it’s all gone downhill for batsmen since 2018, with openers bearing the brunt. Openers since 2018 are averaging just 31.3. Not since the 1950s has there been such a sustained period of misery for the two new-ball batters.
Simultaneously, as expected, the level of fast-bowling is perhaps at its peak. The ICC Test Bowling Rankings currently have 18 fast bowlers in the top 20, with the sole two spinners being Ravi Ashwin and Nathan Lyon. Not since the late 70s and early 80s have there been four consecutive years where pacers averaged under 30. Since 2018, pacers average just 26.6 runs per wicket.
Picking an opener on the back of one good season and expecting him to be able to make the jump from First Class cricket to Test cricket… that’s tough.
Imran Butt was primarily selected on the basis of his performances in the 2019 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, where he was the top run-scorer with 934 runs. However, 2019 was an anomaly. This was the first season in the new domestic cricket system. In their efforts to compensate for the low scores in past seasons, the organizers clearly ended up overcompensating, with openers that season averaging 47. In the other seasons since 2015, openers averaged 28, 30, 23, 26, and 30. In seasons besides 2019, Imran didn’t make much of an impact as an opener, as is obvious from his overall numbers in recent seasons.
Abid Ali was among the best-performing openers before being called up to the Test side, with the highest balls-per-dismissal figure among all openers. The left-handed duo of Sami Aslam and Salman Butt are the only ones with higher averages than Abid. Sami can consider himself unlucky to have missed out, and he would have possibly been selected ahead of Imran if he had continued playing the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy and hadn’t made himself unavailable. Salman Butt, meanwhile, opted out of the First Class tournament last year as well.
None of the other prospective options stand out among their peers. Imam-ul-Haq didn’t make a huge impression in his fledgling Test career and continues to be susceptible to the moving ball, especially lateral movement into him. Omair Bin Yousuf is still very young in his First Class career and struggled immensely last season after a good start.
Shan Masood made his comeback to the Test side in late-2018. Straight away, the left-hander showed that he had spent his time away from the side working on his game, and he was a better player for that experience. A series of starts and middling scores were followed by three back-to-back hundreds against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and England (in England). However, what followed was a terrible run in the rest of the England series and the short tour of New Zealand. He was dropped right after.
The average Pakistani opener in Test cricket over the past decade gives you 35 runs per dismissal. That is essentially what Shan offered since his return, with a few standout performances. Dropping him should have been based on some sound reasoning. Could Imran Butt, averaging a shade over 30 while opening the batting in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy over 5+ seasons, perform better than Shan at the highest level in the toughest era for Test openers in recent times – on the back of one good First Class season?
It would have been interesting to see how Shan would have countered after that terrible New Zealand tour had he gotten the home series against South Africa. A more detailed read of the topic is available here.
Azhar Ali’s best performances in First Class cricket before national selection were while opening the batting. However, that was almost 15 years ago. He still boasts an above-average record while opening the batting (averaging 38, 85+ balls per dismissal), but promoting him to open at this stage of his career may not be the smartest strategy. Pakistan’s former Test captain began to go through a rough patch in 2017/18. Since then, he had rediscovered some of his form in the past couple of years – primarily while batting at number 3. Meanwhile, he’s struggled while opening.
Azhar Ali Opening the Batting in First Class Cricket
Azhar Ali is 36 years old and should have opened the batting a lot more earlier in his career. However, at this stage, it’s unlikely to pay off. Rather, it may just hasten the end of his batting years.
Criticism is of little use without a solution, but the harsh reality is that there are no quick fixes at the moment. Imran Butt is an amazing catcher, but how long will his poor returns with the bat be tolerated? How much longer does Abid Ali have at the top level in the harshest era for top-level openers in recent times?
Abdullah Shafique is the backup opener in the squad, but he’s only played one First Class match. Perhaps he can be groomed for the role in the longer run; he’s just 21 years old. The upcoming season of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy will be useful, as long as the openers don’t all make hay like 2019. Perhaps one of the middling options like Zain Abbas or Imam-ul-Haq will have sufficiently improved their games to make an impression. Maybe Imran Butt and Abid Ali will show improvement and retain their spots.
Pakistan harbor ambitions of faring well in the World Test Championship, and understandably so considering the scheduled series. However, it will prove to be very difficult with an opening partnership that only scores 20 runs or lasts five overs on average. Simultaneously, it will be very challenging if they fail to establish a slip cordon that bowlers have confidence in…