Pakistan have played 5 Tests in Asia this year, winning just one in some unconvincing displays.
If there were five stages of being a Pakistan cricket fan, hope might just be the first one. There is always hope. If Pakistan are skittled out early, maybe the bowlers will return the favor. If the other team scores 400, there’s hope Pakistan will make 500. If there’s a mountain to climb in the form of a record-breaking chase, there’s the hope of setting a new world record. You just never know.
Anger is appropriate for the second stage after the hopes are dashed early on. Collapsing to 85/7 after limiting Sri Lanka to what seemed like a mediocre first-innings total of 222 would do that. Or mustering a total of 231 in response to 378 on a placid track.
The third stage might just be delight, continuing the theme of one minute down, next minute up. It might be in the form of a stunning 10th-wicket 70-run partnership to drag Pakistan to first-innings parity in a Test after being 85/7. Or after reducing the hosts to 117/5 in the aftermath of conceding a massive first-innings lead, rekindling hopes. Or at 176/2 with the bat on Day 5 in anticipation of a draw and series win.
Delight to despair can be very sudden, like a Karachiite’s sentiments when it starts raining. In cricketing terms, conceding the first hundred partnership of the series from 117/5 against the last batting pair, ballooning the lead of 264 to nearly 400 will do it. Or when 176/2 quickly becomes 205/7 and 261 all out.
Acceptance – the last stage – doesn’t come easily, however. Instead, we tend to go through the five stages of grief. But the sooner it is accepted that Pakistan are a struggling mid-table side in Test cricket with a lot of work to do, the better.
Unfortunately, much of the discourse since the loss of the second Test and indeed the failures against Australia has been in the form of finger-pointing and confirmation bias. If someone already thought Babar Azam is a terrible captain, he gets the blame. If someone already thought he is a great captain, nothing against his captaincy can be uttered. And it goes on.
On closer inspection, Pakistan’s problems in Tests are much deeper and more varied. Several factors come into play; some are strategic, while others are structural and will take a long time to overcome. What is certainly not part of the equation is one magic solution that will fix everything and make Pakistan a world-class Test side.
Let’s start with strategy. Most Test sides have a template they follow, particularly for home Tests. If you play in India, you know that spin and reverse swing usually play major roles, and how an away side handles the spinners, in particular, can define the outcome. Touring Australia or South Africa, pace and bounce typically come into the equation. In England, it’s often seam-bowling that rules the roost.
For Pakistan, it may be easier to plan for away Tests than home Tests for the time being. And that’s understandable – it’s only been a couple of years since Test cricket well and truly returned to the homeland. The muddle can be best summarized by looking at the three recent Tests hosted in Karachi. The 2019 Test against Sri Lanka saw a pitch that seamers were able to extract help from, with Pakistan’s pacers picking up 16 of the 20 wickets. The 2021 Test versus South Africa was the opposite, with Yasir Shah and Nauman Ali snaring 7 wickets apiece. Then, the 2022 Test against Australia saw a docile track where Pakistan put up a heroic effort and batted 170 overs in the fourth innings to save the Test. Only 28 wickets fell in the match, including 10 during a customary Pakistan first-innings collapse.
It can be said that in the first two instances, the conditions were perfect – designed to help Pakistan overcome Sri Lanka with pace and South Africa with spin. But the issue remains that Pakistan as a Test team is still striving to find its identity, which perhaps resulted in a confused approach against Australia. It doesn’t help that Pakistan’s traditional Test venues lack a proper identity and tend to be overused, which makes it difficult to prepare them properly. They might just have to fall back on their historical strength – pace bowling.
One thing that the Pakistani cricket fanbase specializes in is selection strategies. Every Pakistani cricket follower has a selector hidden somewhere within. Everyone thinks they have the solution. Thus, “replace X player with Y player” has always been the most common discussion point among fans. The grass is always greener on the other side, or in this case, the player on the bench is always being unjustly dealt with and deserves to be ahead of someone in the playing XI. But player vs. player arguments are heavily dependent on hindsight. Looking at the collective strategy employed when selecting playing elevens may be more fruitful.
Observing Pakistan’s team selection strategies has been quite interesting in recent times. From the New Zealand Tests in late 2020 for one year, Pakistan persisted with the same formula: 5 specialist batsmen, Mohammad Rizwan, Faheem Ashraf, and 4 bowlers (2 or 3 pacers as required). This was the case in Bangladesh as well.
However, the last three Tests that Pakistan have played have seen the formula turned upside down. In the third Test against Australia, Faheem was discarded in favor of another specialist bowler, meaning that Pakistan played a Test match with essentially a tailender (no disrespect to Sajid Khan or Nauman Ali) at number 7 for the first time in years. Another one-off occasion where they did this was the second Test against Zimbabwe in 2021, but there have been no other notable instances where Pakistan utilized this strategy recently.
The two Tests against Sri Lanka saw further upheaval. The five specialist bowlers strategy was shelved, with Mohammad Nawaz coming in at #7. However, Rizwan was promoted to number 5, with Salman Ali Agha coming in at number 6, replacing Fawad Alam. In the next Test, Pakistan went even more radical, disrupting the whole batting lineup by replacing Azhar Ali with Fawad and moving Babar and Rizwan up another spot each.
The key to a strong Test side is clarity of roles and stability, which is beginning to look like a thing of the past. If one thing highlights it the most, it’s that Mohammad Rizwan has batted at numbers 6, 5, and 4 in his last 3 Tests. No wicket-keeper batsman has had sustained success as a specialist number 4 batsman in Test history. Alec Stewart is the only one with 500+ runs in this role, averaging 30.
Pakistan have played 21 away Tests in the last 5 years. In these Tests, they have surpassed 400 on two occasions, and both were in the Test series against Zimbabwe in 2021. Pace pandemic notwithstanding, Pakistan struggle to go big, as was seen in the second Galle Test. Comments made during and after the Test from the likes of Babar Azam and Mohammad Nawaz alluded to how Pakistan rued the missed opportunity to go big in the first innings when the conditions were in their favor. The elephant in the room might just be Pakistan’s batting.
Pakistan’s Test batting lineup is, overall, fairly good. It still remains prone to a collapse every now and then, without which it can’t be a truly Pakistani batting lineup.
When their backs are to the wall, Pakistan’s batters have a tendency to dig deep and take them out of trouble, something that the likes of Babar, Fawad, Rizwan, and Faheem did on many occasions in 2021. However, the batting lineup as a whole sometimes lacks the ruthless edge to make bigger scores against stronger opposition, even when the conditions demand such a total. The second Test against Sri Lanka was one such occasion, and a slew of poor dismissals saw Pakistan’s batsmen wilt in the first innings when they were required to post a large score.
Recent selection strategies make this all the more challenging. Ideally, the top 5 of a Test side should always consist of batters capable of making big hundreds when set. While Rizwan is a very good batsman, expecting him to keep for 100 overs and then show the application to hit a big hundred against a top-class Test bowling attack may be a bit too much.
With Pakistan’s qualification for the 2023 World Test Championship final now in serious doubt – unless they can win 4/5 of 5 home Tests against England and New Zealand, a highly unlikely outcome – it may be time for some tough decisions.
Azhar Ali and Fawad Alam are both around 37 years old. Does the team management think that these two impeccable servants of Pakistan cricket can carry on beyond this WTC cycle? Do they have faith that they can turn around their respective forms and make an impact in the remaining 5 Tests that might take Pakistan to the final? If the answer to either of these questions is no, then it may be time to move on to their successors in the batting lineup. If Pakistan were to end this WTC without reaching the final and then embark on overseas tours next year with a new-look batting lineup, a hard job would become even harder.
Where to start with Pakistan’s spin-bowling? As it stands, Pakistan will face considerable difficulty relying on their spinners to bowl them to victory on a traditionally spin-friendly track. It is patently obvious that Babar and the think tank don’t (rightfully, perhaps) have a lot of faith in any of the frontline spinners.
Yasir Shah bowled well at times in the two Tests against Sri Lanka but still looks a shade of the bowler he was a few years ago, while his style of bowling is suited to certain types of tracks. Nauman Ali is able to hold up an end at times but tends to lose his control if batsmen go on the attack, alongside lacking incisiveness in favorable conditions. Sajid Khan lacks the control expected of a finger spinner, while it has been stated that his action is being worked on. Mohammad Nawaz was statistically the most effective of the bunch against Sri Lanka, but while he has the ability to extract turn and beat the bat, his control is exactly what you’d expect of someone who has bowled only around 500 overs in 21 First Class games over the last 5 years. Salman Ali Agha is very much a part-timer.
Pakistan’s spinners were comprehensively outbowled by Sri Lanka’s Prabath Jayasuriya and Ramesh Mendis, who combined have 13 Test caps, including 4 from this series. Going further back to the Australia series, they were unable to make any impact on flat tracks as well, with Nathan Lyon ending up bowling more penetrative spells.
Combined with the lack of effectiveness and wicket-taking threat is how the captain uses them, and Babar’s usage and selection betrays his (lack of) faith in the spinners. Pakistan played the second Galle Test with all of Yasir, Nauman, Nawaz, and Agha, and even then, Babar found time to bowl an over himself when the match was very much there for the taking. For spinners, quantity is no substitute for quality, and too many options can be problematic rather than helpful. Spinners usually like bowling long spells to get into the groove and make an impact, but Babar rarely allowed any of them to bowl for extended periods and often made defensive fielding changes at the first sign of adversity.
There is no quick fix for the spin problem. It stems from years of neglect in domestic cricket. In the now defunct 16-team (or 18, or 20, etc.) domestic cricket system, spinners were often reduced to bystanders and used in rare circumstances, with green tracks allowing pacers to make hay. In fact, teams would often prefer to play a batsman who could bowl part-time spin rather than a specialist spinner simply because specialists weren’t high up the priority list. In the new system, there has been an improvement with spinners playing a bigger role, but pitches have often been far too flat. Grounds that actually assist spinners regularly can probably be counted on one hand. How, then, will spinners know how to take advantage of such conditions when presented with them in international cricket?
Bowling spin is an art and requires immense precision, and in Asia, spinners ideally need to form important components of the team attack. If the think tank doesn’t have trust in the spinners, particularly ones who are likely to be past their best, perhaps it’s time to invest in other, more youthful options who can get better with time and succeed in the future.
Babar Azam has captained in 13 Tests so far and won 8. He is the face of the Pakistan cricket team and the one whom Pakistan teams will be built around for the next few years. He inspires his players, particularly the batsmen, to achieve heroic feats, and he has shown signs of being inspired with the bat himself as captain. He may lack some of the desirable tactical nous on the field or with selection, and for that, the support staff is important, plus he will learn from experience. He could also do with a tactically astute voice in the dressing room who is willing to critique and discuss his choices. But his captaincy should certainly not be under a cloud, particularly with no viable replacements that would conceivably guarantee positive results. Captains are always easy scapegoats, but replacing them rarely solves underlying problems.
Pakistan have been winning Tests in recent times and will continue to do so, especially with two world-class all-format cricketers – something that few cricketing nations can boast of. In the likes of Babar Azam, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Abdullah Shafique, Mohammad Rizwan, Naseem Shah, etc., Pakistan have many of the ingredients required to be a strong Test side in all conditions in the coming years. However, they need to plug the gaps with players who can form a robust support cast and, most importantly, work well as a unit, whether it be batting/fast-bowling/spin-bowling. With good teamwork and less reliance on individuals producing historical feats, Pakistan will perhaps be able to challenge the world’s best Test sides more often.