The Pakistan cricket team’s opening slots have been one of the sport’s all-time great puzzles. Following Saeed Anwar and Aamer Sohail’s now much celebrated, even if not quite as prolific, opening partnership, Pakistan spent a good two decades to find an opening pair consistent enough to string two series together. Most of these two decades have actually been jarred by not even a single reliable enough opener, who one could really say will go the distance.
After a tragic ODI continuum that featured the likes of Shahid Afridi, Imran Nazir, Imran Farhat, Yasir Hameed, Taufiq Umar, Salman Butt, Kamran Akmal, Mohammed Hafeez, Ahmed Shehzad and Azhar Ali, Pakistan seemed to have finally found the man who could carry the burden that came with the position, while fulfilling the needs of the modern game.
He was left-handed, a find of the Pakistan Super League, and had an explosive style of play. His name was Sharjeel Khan.
After setting the inaugural edition of the PSL afire with the champions Islamabad United in 2016, Sharjeel went on to impress at the international levels in places as tricky as England and Australia. But the same platform that gave him the springboard to reach new heights saw his downfall as the spot-fixing saga in PSL 2 saw him banned by the PCB.
A bright young Pakistani talent halted by involvement in spot-fixing – where have we seen this before? But after Sharjeel, Pakistan cricket almost immediately found a replacement.
He is left-handed, a find of the Pakistan Super League, and has an explosive style of play. His name is Fakhar Zaman.
While Sharjeel came up with the inaugural champions of the PSL, Fakhar has done so with a side that has finished bottom in all three editions: Lahore Qalandars.
But while he hasn’t quite seen success at the domestic franchise T20 league, where Fakhar has benefitted from is working directly with former New Zealand skipper Brendon McCullum.
While McCullum has failed to turn around the Qalandars’ fortunes, his unearthing of Fakhar Zaman alone might make his stint with the PSL worth it. Fakhar’s fearless brand of batting is a leaf out of the successful career of the New Zealand veteran, who has ruled the roost around the world especially in the shorter formats of the game.
On Friday, Fakhar broke the 21-year-old record held by Saeed Anwar’s 194 in Chennai, as he became the highest scorer in a single innings for Pakistan with 210* in the fourth ODI against Zimbabwe. As Pakistan posted their highest ever ODI total 399/1, Fakhar along with Imam-ul-Haq posted the highest ever opening partnership in a 50 over contest with 304, which is the fourth highest partnership of all time for any wicket.
Fakhar is only the sixth double centurion in ODI history, the first for Pakistan, and the one who took the least number of matches to notch the first double hundred. On Sunday, he also became the quickest to 1,000 ODI runs taking only 18 matches.
And yet his exploits in Zimbabwe – given the opposition – are hardly the greatest achievements of his young and prolific career so far.
His performances in the ICC Champions Trophy final last year, and the T20I tri-series final against Australia this month showcased that he is a big match player who thrives under pressure. That the latter came in a chase means that Fakhar looks like singlehandedly addressing two of Pakistan’s age-old problems: opening batsmen and struggles in run chases.
While it is Babar Azam who has been getting the plaudits for his run-scoring over the past couple of years, it is Fakhar Zaman who is the archetypal modern day batsman. Contrast Fakhar’s approach to when he was on the brink of 200 – a milestone in Pakistan cricket history – to when Babar Azam usually bats when he’s approaching a fifty, regardless of the match situation.
Of course, both Fakhar and Babar are indubitable future stars for Pakistan cricket. But it’s the former that is righting the wrongs for Pakistan in limited-overs cricket.
And with the Asia Cup and bilateral series against the likes of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and England preceding next year’s ODI World Cup, the coming 12 months would provide countless opportunities to further substantiate that claim.
The writer is a Lahore-based journalist.