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Cricket news - Imam continues to flourish under intense scrutiny

Imam ended the South Africa series with 271 runs

The suggestion that bowlers are the drivers of the game when the ball is new might be receding as one-day wickets become more docile than ever. But, no matter how innocuous the conditions get, confronting a pace attack like South Africa's - and doing so in its own backyard - is always a daunting proposition.

Pakistan's batting woes in South Africa, especially the top order's, are well documented. It was clear that if the tourists were going to avoid batting meltdowns and post totals that conformed to modern-day standards, their top order - and particularly the openers - had to click. The presence of Fakhar Zaman might add to their ability to score at a brisk rate, but Pakistan required a de-lacquerer: an opener who could hold an end, rotate the strike, and send the odd delivery to the boundary. More importantly, like any one-day side they longed for an opener who could play deep into the innings while scoring at a decent rate.

That Imam ul Haq could be that batsman was an improbable suggestion for many. After all, he was a 'minnow-beater' and 'a product of nepotism'. He might have a record for the most number of hundreds in the first nine ODIs, but they had come against Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. Before the tour of South Africa got underway, his position in the side was under heavy scrutiny following a poor run against New Zealand, in both Tests and ODIs, in the UAE.

But, that was not the first time his selection was questioned.

Rewind to late 2017 when a 21-year-old Imam received a maiden call-up - from a selection committee which continues to be led by a batting great who is also his uncle - for the Sri Lanka ODIs. There were allegations that Inzamam ul Haq had favoured his nephew over other in-line youngsters. That might be true. But, the bespectacled batsman was quick to mash any ambiguities surrounding his ability with a century on debut, making him only the second Pakistani to achieve the feat.

After the ton Imam, with a smile on his face, tried to explain how it is not his fault that he was born as Inzamam's nephew, adding that he wanted to shut down his detractors with his batting.

Fourteen months later, after scoring a century in South Africa - a much-revered feat for a Pakistan batsman - Imam celebrated by signaling his critics to keep their mouths shut, before the traditional sajda to thank the Almighty. During an interview by the broadcaster after the innings, Imam bumped off any uncertainty about the nature of his message, confirming that it was directed at his critics in the media and elsewhere.

Little did the 21-year-old kid know that the criticism will always be there.

With Zaman faltering on the tour, Imam's role in the side became manifold. And, when Pakistan found themselves in need, the left-handed opener raised his hand. As Pakistan chased 267 in the first one-dayer, Imam batted until the 37th over for his 101-ball 86, pushing back the hosts after a gruesome drubbing in the Test series. The next instance was more emphatic when he scored his fifth ODI ton, at Centurion. Batting first, Pakistan were one down for four runs in the fourth over. Imam stood at the crease till the 43rd over, knitting substantial partnerships for the next two stands.

According to CricViz, Imam has the best dismissal rate for a batsman to have played more than a thousand balls since the 2015 World Cup - he plays approximately 90 balls per dismissal. For a side which is known for its inherent struggles to last out the quota of overs - mostly due to its top order's inability to withstand the new ball - Imam's presence promises to be the panacea for much of their woes. He was the highest run-getter from both sides in the one-day series and his 271 runs was the best a Pakistan batsman has managed in South Africa. Mohammad Yousuf's 286 is the only better tally by a Pakistan batsman in a five-match series anywhere.

Though his innings at Centurion helped Pakistan stage a recovery after an early wicket and provided the platform for the lower-order batsmen to cut loose - a concept of innings construction alien to Pakistan - Imam was picked apart for Pakistan's defeat. Apparently, his strike rate of 87 was on the slower side.

Imam now has the record for being the second fastest to 1,000 ODI runs. But the criticism is perennial - despite the fact he is yet to endure a really rough patch. Imagine the consequences when that bad season comes. There will, perhaps, be labels of nepotism attached to him again. Maybe, it will even hold true decades down the line when he will be enjoying a retired life.

But, the key for Imam is to keep his head down and let his bat do the talking.

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