Here's a question. If you come back as often as Mohammad Hafeez, then were you ever really away in the first place? Think this through. This was Hafeez's first Test in over two years but I'll wager there's a number of us out there who a) didn't realise that he's been out of the Test side that long, b) that he was out of the side at all, or c) that there were other openers actually opening for Pakistan in his place. Without opening Statsguru try and name the guys who have opened for Pakistan in the time since Hafeez last played a Test (apparently since August 2016, but I don't believe it).
Don't hold me to this but today was, by a very rough count, Hafeez's fifth comeback. We'll restrict this to Tests not just because this is a Test but because we didn't invent enough numbers to keep track of his comebacks in all formats combined. There's enough for all of us to have a favourite comeback. The most successful one was when he returned in the Misbah era, to become a lead figure in what was not a team but a collective revenge of the rejected.
My favourite is when he came back at The Oval in 2006 with 95 runs of such promise and purity that it felt like there was no way that would remain his only fifty in 12 Tests in England, New Zealand and South Africa, places where real openers are made. Sure enough, one series in South Africa later, he was pretty much gone for three years. Doodh ka doodh aur paani ka paani, as we say around these parts, or we basically figured out the real Hafeez and his very real limitations.
Three of those comebacks have happened after he's missed more than 15 Tests, which is the kind of homeless fact that can only find a home in a piece about a Pakistani batsman. It will surprise you none that he's not the first Pakistani to accomplish this and neither will the identity of the first: Hasan Raza.
Does it tell us anything? Not much, but you know how it feels like Pakistan are never really anywhere, not firmly in the present era, only tentatively looking towards a new one, and not fully convinced that the older one is done? The sum total of that, to the last decimal point, is Mohammad Hafeez, who's often but never decisively been discarded for being old furniture, who's never been truly appreciated when he's been around, and whose very presence kind of holds you back from looking too far ahead (you go ahead and imagine not picking him for his bowling alone for next year's World Cup).
It's actually kind of cute that Pakistan thought in his dotage they could actually slip a younger, more real opener past Hafeez without him noticing. For two long years they thought they could do this. Sami Aslam, Shan Masood, Ahmed Shehzad (another comebacker), Imam-ul-Haq, Azhar Ali, and toying with Fakhar Zaman too, all of which got them right back here to the easy comforts of the UAE where Hafeez, let's face it, is still king. Pretend all you want that he was a last-minute, emergency call-up to cover for Shadab Khan's injury but come on: this is Hafeez. He's never not going to be around.
And perhaps it's time to embrace that idea of a solution that isn't quite short-term and definitely isn't long-term but just is. How long you embrace it for doesn't matter either just as long as you know that it's difficult to argue he's not a solution here. Go on, try and make a case for newer, younger openers. Try and make a case for bringing back other tried, tested and younger men. Try to make a case for converting batsmen into openers. But do always come back to the following stats, numbers that make a case for Hafeez while simultaneously unmaking the case of stats as an analytical tool altogether.
Since Hafeez's big comeback, in November 2010 at the start of the Misbah era, and including today, Pakistan's openers have put on 13 century stands. It's remarkable because only Australia and England have more. What's more, Pakistani openers have put on a hundred at a rate of 1 every 9.62 innings and only Australia's have done it more frequently. And of course they've done it with the second-highest number of partners.
Opening has been a problem for Pakistan for so long that we've haven't stopped to recognise that actually it's not such a big problem at all. Fine, ten of those stands are in the UAE but that kind of home bounty is utterly in tune with this era. Ultimately, in a time of poor openers, when settled opening pairs are overrated, Pakistan are not as bad as you think.
Do you need me to spell out who's been involved in over half of those 13 century stands? I didn't think so.
It's no point even treading over the quality of his tenth hundred today. Of course it was good to look at, with that preternatural feel he has for strokes, the hands-out drives, the touches through point and midwicket, the studied defence. We all know he can bat and make it look good. We all know he won't be around when Pakistan go to South Africa later this season and if he is, we all know what's going to happen there too.
Don't think too hard about it, or what it means. Appreciate the fact that Sarfraz Ahmed won the toss and allowed Hafeez to bat first on this pitch, setting Pakistan up solidly on the first day of this series. Later on you'll get to watch Hafeez bowl and it's not unlikely he'll chip in with a wicket or two, and if he doesn't you can be sure he'll keep things tight enough for Yasir Shah. Then his action will probably get reported again. Life happens. And he'll be gone for a while, and then he'll be back again, not yesterday's man, or today's, or tomorrow's.