Salman Ali Agha Typifies Pakistan’s Struggle
Salman Ali Agha should not be here. There is no way his technique holds up against the best fast-bowling attack in the world on their home turf. There is no universe where his bowling actually adds value to a bowling attack, barring that one over before the new ball. Test matches are cricket in its most reductive form. Someone who adds a bit here and there might be useful for certain roles in limited-overs cricket, but Tests require specialists.
No one would have expected Agha to do well in Australia. And to say he has done well is being a bit too generous. He has 80-odd runs at an average of 29 and one wicket at an average of 160+. But what Agha has done is not embarrass himself and fight it out. That, in a nutshell, is what his team has done as a whole, unlike Pakistan teams of yesteryear in Australia. On paper, it is 2-0, with one of them being a 360-run loss, but they have not looked like the headless chickens of 2019, and that is what they will take home: the “we were not as bad as you thought we would be” prize.
There is still time for Pakistan and Agha to embarrass themselves, but you get the feeling they will not. You have no logical reason to feel this way except for the earnestness of each team member’s performance, even when they are messing up. This is a team up against an opposition vastly more skilled than them; they need luck to go their way, and they need to take their chances when they come.
Split seconds cannot be controlled. Agha knows he should not have wafted at that ball outside off stump in the first innings. Abdullah knows he should not have done his best impression of a crocodile while attempting slip catches. What you can control is your selection and your preparation. Pakistan requested an extra warm-up match before the second Test; it was thanks to that they decided to play their best batsman of the Test match. Agha has a slightly different batting setup this series than in the Tests he has played prior to this, seemingly keeping his hands closer to himself to avoid the instinctive off-side push and play closer to his body.
Pakistan picked the best fast bowlers they could find in First Class cricket. In a happy coincidence (because this could not possibly be on purpose as that implies the coordination of the past seventy PCB admins), the best fast bowlers had learned how to bowl dry on non-assistive wickets while knowing what to do when the surface offers a hint of movement.
Agha has been picked in this team because he can bowl a bit. Otherwise, he would be competing with other chart-topping QeAT batsmen. But he still might have won a call-up on his batting alone if Saud did not exist. In a three-season sample size of 2020 to 2022, Agha had nearly matched Saud’s average while batting at an SR of 70+. Sure, the fact that he bowls secures his place in the team further, but Agha is definitely among the top six Test batters available in Pakistan. He is the best Pakistan can do; it is not much, but it’s honest work.
Pakistan have tried the play-a-batter-who-can-bowl strategy before in Australia. Since 2000, Shahid Afridi, Shoaib Malik, Iftikhar Ahmed, and Haris Sohail have all rolled their arms over. Malik possesses the best-looking numbers thanks to some declaration batting that handed him 2/16 in 3.4 overs. Haris Sohail has 2 wickets, too, going at near 4 runs per over. Only Agha has managed to successfully execute what was expected of him; he has bowled 51 valuable overs, lessening the load on an all-pace attack. No captain would have bowled these other batters who can bowl for 51 overs because the opposition would be feasting. Meanwhile, Agha kept the batters in check and so gained his captain’s confidence. In fact, he has delivered the best economy (3.13) for any Pakistani spinner to have toured Australia since 2000.
Agha should not be here. If Pakistan was planning this out properly, then perhaps they should have given Mubasir Khan some exposure in Australian conditions because God knows he is not going to get it on A tours. But Agha is here, and now that he is here, he is, like Pakistan, going to scrounge out every last bit of himself and offer it on a platter to the team. He will change his batting setup, take one-handed slip catches, and bowl tight overs. And he will be the only middle-order batsman in the team to hit a half-century (so far). Anything to assist Pakistan in not embarrassing themselves in Australia.
But after all that, the true tragedy of his career and Pakistan touring Australia will remain. It will never be enough. People will forget if there is no glory at the end of the tunnel, and for a player of his skill set and a team of Pakistan’s standing, there is never glory in Australia.