How long can you go on? At what point in your thirties do you begin to consider that the dream you’ve had since you were a twelve-year-old, and the passion you turned into a profession when you were eighteen is no longer a part of your future? The question of when to call it quits has stumped sportsmen for decades. For Pakistani cricketers, with no alternative beyond being a raging talking head to fall back on, the question hits harder than most. For Mohammad Hafeez, it’s a question that’s repeatedly popped up – with each sanctioning of his bowling action, and each failure against a quality bowling attack, the questions grew louder.
For Pakistan too Hafeez’s whole career has been difficult to grasp. It’s easy to judge an elite player, someone who averages north of 45 consistently; it’s equally easy to judge someone who fails to translate their domestic dominance to the highest level – but what of someone who is neither, who exists in a middling ground, never good enough to pin your hopes on but also never bad enough to be left out. What if that player also happens to be your only hope at balancing your XI, does that give them more leeway to fail? For the best part of fifteen years Pakistan waited for one of Hafeez and Shoaib Malik to reach their “potential”, to graduate from being supporting acts to leading men, and for fifteen years Pakistan only had their hopes raised for them to be dashed. In the aftermath of the 2015 World Cup, Malik has found that space and become the senior in Pakistan’s white ball line ups. And as has been the case with the two batting all-rounders, as one goes up the other comes down, or at least so it appeared with Hafeez.
Three years ago, it had seemed like Hafeez too had finally reached his potential. Over the course of 2014 and 2015 he scored nearly 1200 Test runs at an average of 59.90. He capped off that run with perhaps his best international innings – a knock of 151 in a match where no one else crossed 80, to win the series for Pakistan against England. It was perhaps the finest innings any Pakistani played outside of London in their seven series long unbeaten run to the Test mace. A week later he scored a ton against the same opponents to win an ODI chase for Pakistan – it was his first 2nd innings hundred against any team except Zimbabwe or Sri Lanka. Having been banned from bowling a year earlier, Hafeez’s transformation into a pure batsman appeared to be reaching a conclusion. And then everything fell off.
Thirty-five months after his last international hundred, a month after it had looked like he required one international comeback too many, Hafeez was in Pakistan colours playing like he had never been gone. Pakistan, reeling from a disappointing Asia Cup needed someone to take charge, and the senior-most player in their XI did. The expectations that had been placed on Hafeez in the post MisYou era – the failure to reach, which had been his downfall – were finally being met. And suddenly all was right with his world.
It’s fair to say that innings was unexpected. From that hundred against England until the start of this season, Hafeez had played 35 First Class innings and scored just 680 runs at an average under 20. Furthermore, for all his reputation as a dominator in the UAE, his record in Dubai, in particular, was subpar: a Test average of 37.7, an ODI average of 27.7 and T20I average of 13.5 don’t exactly scream someone who enjoys the conditions here. Unlike the rest of his generation, which has always preferred the graft of the Dubai pitch, Hafeez has always been a bigger fan of the truer nature of the Sharjah pitch. But coming off only the second First Class double century of his career even Dubai felt like Sharjah to him. All the high risk, aesthetically pleasing strokes that define him were there. By the time Mitchell Starc was hooping the old ball around to elicit multiple edges, Hafeez had done enough for Australia to have a bare slip cordon. He had created his own luck. As he has done over the past month to earn his way back in the team.
For the Pakistan team management that has been at loggerheads with him since at least the New Zealand series at the start of this year, his innings might have seemed bittersweet. But for Hafeez, who had been told that his international career was over, no innings might have tasted sweeter.