The evolution of Shoaib Malik

Pakistan skipper Younus Khan and Umar Gul celebrate the dismissal of India’s opening batsman Gautam Gambhir during their Champions Trophy match at Centurion. Younus has been a great motivator of the side.-AP

There have been roadblocks in Shoaib Malik’s international career, a few of them career threatening. But the Pakistani willed his way through those turbulent times. And in the process, he has evolved as a cricketer. By S. Dinakar.

Shoaib Malik’s disarming smile masks the destructive nature of his batting. In Pakistan, they often talk about his ability to send the ball a long way out of the ground. Ask the bowlers, and they will tell you that the lanky cricketer can take the match away from the opposition in a hurry.

There have been roadblocks too in his international career that began in 1999 in Sharjah. A few of them were career threatening. But Malik willed his way through those turbulent times. And in the process, he has evolved as a cricketer.

Malik’s match-winning 128 against India on a slow Centurion pitch reflected his maturity. Astonishingly, his effort did not include a single six. It was the kind of innings — he faced 126 balls and carved 16 boundaries — that soothed one’s senses. It was an effort of delicate strokeplay as Malik, taking a cue from the gifted Mohammad Yousuf, used the depth of the crease wonderfully to unsettle the Indian attack.

When a batsman exploits the depth of the crease, he gets more time and space to find the gaps. He also shortens the length of the ball. Of course, a batsman needs to pick the length extremely quickly, and both Malik and Yousuf did just that.

Malik batted with soft hands and a sure touch. He harnessed the pace and the deviation or spin of the ball. Importantly, he dictated the terms to the bowlers. The cut, the late cut, the dab shot and the slice square off the wicket adorned his innings. And India’s ace off-spinner Harbhajan Singh ran out of answers.

Malik adds much to the Pakistani batting with his calm exterior and assured stroke-play. He is easy on the eye and does thrill the senses. The late Pakistan coach, Bob Woolmer, worked hard on Malik’s batting. The right-hander used to shuffle across too much in his early days and Woolmer rectified his initial movement. Now, Malik is more balanced in his footwork and the bat comes down straighter.

The Pakistani has a worthy record in one-day internationals — 5009 runs from 183 matches at 35.27 with a strike rate of 79.36. Malik, who has notched up seven hundreds, has played in most positions in the Pakistani batting order. To his credit, the right-hander has adapted well — whether opening the innings, batting in the middle-order or delivering the big blows lower down the order. His bat swing is a thing of beauty.

In fact, Malik began his career as an off-spinner who was inspired by the illustrious Saqlain Mushtaq. He was not as good as his idol and possessed a doubtful action. However, the young Malik attracted the attention of the seniors by denting the egos of the bowlers at the nets. Malik, the batsman, was truly emerging.

The 27-year-old cricketer also has a useful record with the ball in ODIs — 128 wickets at an economy rate of 4.57 — but his action came under scrutiny. Eventually, Malik had to undergo a surgery on his elbow. By this time, however, it was clear that his future was as a batsman who could also chip in with the ball.

Malik has had his ups and downs in Tests — he has 1394 runs in 26 matches at 38.72 — but produced a match-saving 134 against Sri Lanka in Colombo this year. This was the last Test Pakistan played and Malik is gradually cementing his place in the team.

He had a tough time as Pakistan captain, especially on man-management issues. To some, Malik was too withdrawn and aloof to be a successful skipper. His ability to hold on to his Test spot too was under the scanner.

Malik appears better off with Younus, a blithe spirit, at the helm. Gradually, the talented cricketer is emerging from the shadows. He is now playing with greater freedom and is enjoying his cricket.

Younus has done much to revive Pakistan cricket at a time when the players, given the terror strikes at home, could have so easily become demoralised. The skipper instilled in his men self-belief and confidence.

Pakistan had played little cricket going into the ICC World Twenty20 earlier this year. The side bucked the odds to emerge triumphant. Even during the dark period, Younus and his men kept the fire burning. And heroes emerged.

Left-arm fast bowler Mohammed Aamer, a nerveless paceman with exceptional skill, moved the ball both ways at a lively pace. He has been sensational with the new ball for Pakistan. Off-spinner Saeed Ajmal, who also bowls the ‘doosra’, is undaunted by the big stage.

Shahid Afridi is at the peak of his career as a leg-spinner. He also can whip up the odd hurricane innings.

Umar Gul remains a skilful paceman; his speed and reverse swing were telling factors in Pakistan’s World Twenty20 triumph.

It has not been roses all the way for Pakistan though, and the team, subsequently, had a disastrous tour of Sri Lanka, losing matches from winning situations. Pakistan still has a worrying streak of inconsistency in its cricket.

However, Pakistan also has this habit of bouncing back and the side overcame India only for the second time in an ICC event at Centurion. Earlier, the side withstood a tough challenge from a depleted West Indies team on a lively Wanderers pitch.

Young cricketers with ability continue to come through for Pakistan. Umar Akmal showed much character during the run-chase at the Wanderers even as the ball was flying around. The West Indies pacemen tested him with short-pitched deliveries, but Umar took the blows to his body and played a courageous knock.

Younus has been the path-finder for this side. When the skipper endured pain to play with a fractured finger against India, it sent a strong message.