The one-day series between India and Pakistan is approaching the business end. Two matches remain but Pakistan are 2-1 down and, in Gwalior on Thursday, they play with the series at stake. There is added pressure on them given that they haven't won much of late; they were runners-up in the World Twenty20 but then lost both the home Test and ODI series to South Africa.
Their captain, Shoaib Malik, has flopped on this tour, with scores of 2, 25 and 12 so far. He has been given a vote of confidence by the Pakistan board, which extended his tenure by another year, but he will be aware of the repercussions of going into the Tests having lost the one-day series.
And yet you would bet on Malik finding his form sooner rather than later, simply because he isn't used to failing against India. Two of his five ODI hundreds and eight of his 23 half-centuries have come against them. Before the series began, Malik averaged 47.22 against India, and 55.75 in the 13 matches that Pakistan won. When India last toured Pakistan in 2005-06, Malik began the series with two nineties and a century which extended his run-scoring spree against them to six fifties out of seven innings.
That form, however, has deserted him. In Guwahati, Malik pulled a loose full toss from Sachin Tendulkar straight to deep midwicket when Pakistan needed him to raise the tempo in the final ten overs. His 25 in Mohali came off only 28 balls and Pakistan's margin of victory could have been larger had Malik not fallen at a crucial juncture of a tight run-chase. In Kanpur, he struggled to keep abreast with the asking-rate, scoring 12 off 32 balls before getting trapped leg-before by Yuvraj Singh's part-time spin. It's premature to pin the failures on the added pressures of captaincy for Malik was in reasonable form against South Africa, scoring 18, 56, 42, 45 and 23 in five innings.
Malik will desperately want to avoid a third series defeat under his tenure and one of the best ways to do it may be for him to walk out, bat in hand, during the early overs
The majority of Malik's significant innings against India, however, have come when he's batted higher up the order - at No. 3 or No. 4. In fact, he's scored a century and six fifties out of 12 innings at No. 3 and averages 86.50 after two innings at No. 4, two spots which have been occupied by Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf during the current series. Both players had one good innings - Younis scored the match-winning hundred at Mohali, and Yousuf made 82 in Guwahati - but this has meant that Malik has had fewer overs to bat and under high-pressure circumstances.
When Pakistan last toured India in 2004-05, they recovered from a 0-2 deficit to win the series 4-2. Malik scored 75, 65, 41 and 72 in the last four ODIs, batting at No. 3 and 4, while Yousuf and Younis came lower down the order. In this series, Pakistan's tinkering with the batting order has been restricted to changing the opening combination and giving Shahid Afridi the odd promotion.
If they were to bat Malik higher up, his presence could infuse energy into the innings during the middle overs. His agility between the wickets could create more ones and twos; he's nimble on his feet against spin; and once he's set, Malik can raise the tempo with either deft touches or the use of the long handle, something Yousuf and Younis struggled to do in Guwahati. It's a move worth making for, if Malik bats long, the chances are he'll score at up to or more than a run a ball and, should he fail, Pakistan have the experience of Younis and Yousuf, and the hitting powers of Misbah-ul-Haq and Shahid Afridi to fall back on.
There are no second chances left for Pakistan in this one-day series. Malik will desperately want to avoid a third series defeat under his tenure and one of the best ways to do it may be for him to walk out, bat in hand, during the early overs.