If you have been an opener in Test cricket in recent years, your worst nightmare has been opening against James Anderson and Stuart Broad in England. From Murali Vijay to Shikhar Dhawan and David Warner, England in recent summers has been the place where Test averages wither like flowers in the sun.
Since 2016, overseas Test openers average only 24 here – the lowest of any country in the world bar South Africa. Nowhere do batsmen play more false shots in the first 10 overs.
The multifarious challenges England brings – swing and especially seam, and the relentless challenge posed by Anderson and Broad – has overwhelmed players with far more Test pedigree than Shan Masood. But few have been exposed quite so brutally as Masood. In four Tests against England in 2015-16, spread between the United Arab Emirates and England, Masood faced 57 deliveries from Anderson. He was dismissed six times, averaging 2.5 for each dismissal. Masood’s technique was prised open with the precision of a surgeon.
So, Masood recognised that his game needed surgery. And quickly: a few weeks after being dropped to spare him from Anderson in 2016, Masood turned 27. “Realistically, looking at my game, I just thought that, as an international cricket, I had a lot of flaws,” Masood told the Red Inker podcast recently.
After Pakistan’s tour, Masood stayed in England, where he has a family home, handily near Lord’s – he studied at Durham University – for another month. Masood contacted Gary Palmer, the freelance cricket coach who has worked with Alastair Cook and Dom Sibley.
Palmer’s diagnosis was that Masood was getting his head too far outside off stump, causing him to lose his balance and judgment of which balls he could leave safely alone. “We worked extensively on his technique, his alignment, his balance and playing straight, and leaving the ball outside off stump,” Palmer recalls.
For the next month, Palmer and Masood had around 10 sessions. Many of Palmer’s clients prefer two-hour sessions; Masood insisted on three-hour sessions, during which he faced in the region of 100 overs of deliveries from Palmer and bowling machines each time.
“It was the first step in improving myself,” Masood has said. “I’m the sort of person who welcomes anything from anyone.”
In pursuit of self-improvement over the following years, Masood emailed Jarrod Kimber, a cricket writer turned analyst, for advice on his Test game. He also asked Hassan Cheema, the general manager for Islamabad United in the Pakistan Super League, for advice on how to develop his Twenty20 batting.
“There’s no half-measures with Shan Masood – he does things properly, he doesn’t leave any stone unturned. He just wants to get better,” Palmer said. “He’s like a sponge.” After their month working together in 2016, Palmer has continued working with Masood whenever he has returned to England, observing how Masood has regained his place in the Pakistan team and showed how his judgment against pace has developed on solid tours of South Africa and Australia.
Part of the brutality of Test cricket is how it demands that players return to where their limitations have previously been brutally exposed. And when Masood took guard at a gloomy Emirates Old Trafford, he did so against a pace attack perhaps even more formidable than the bowlers who had almost ruined his Test career four years ago.
But the Masood who took guard was a very different player to the one snared by Anderson in four consecutive innings in 2015.
The greatest difference was how Masood’s technical tinkering, opening up his front leg, brought better balance and, with it, more sagacious judgment outside off stump. In 2016, he left only three per cent of balls from seamers to him in the channel – the 20cm outside off stump. This time, Masood left 22 per cent.
Masood was unperturbed by a funereal strike rate, knowing that every ball left would subtly make batting easier. After taking 156 balls over his 50, Masood took only 155 over his next 100 runs, scampering between the wickets in alliance with Shadab Khan and then showed off the improvements in his Twenty20 game against Bess, slog-sweeping a six and charging down the pitch to launch another six two balls later.
Here was an innings of magnificent adhesiveness and range, elevating Masood to rare company. No Pakistani opener had scored a century in England since Saeed Anwar in 1996; only three visiting openers in England had hit centuries in the past five seasons.
But, most satisfying of all, was how Masood handled his nemesis from four years ago. Masood withstood Anderson for 56 deliveries – one fewer than Anderson had previously needed to dismiss him six times – playing him much later than in 2016 to adjust to late seam movement.
So it was apt that it was against Anderson that Masood produced the efficient clip that brought up his fourth Test century. Masood had displayed the singular trait that is perhaps most important in Test cricket: to learn and grow. And as Masood scampered back for his second run and lifted his helmet to reveal a broad grin, his zest for self-improvement had brought catharsis.