Pakistan’s Test series against Sri Lanka was meant to herald the dawn of a new era for the country in the longest format of cricket.
Sarfraz Ahmed would take charge of the Test team for the first time since taking the reins of the squad in the limited-overs formats. In front of him lay an opposition who had just been completely swept aside 9-0 in all formats on home soil by the high-flying Indians.
Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan, two icons and legends of the game in the country, had hung up their boots and for the first time in years, Pakistan would line up in the whites without the two veterans.
For long those two had been the rocks through which Pakistan cricket had revived and reinvented itself after the scours of spot-fixing and an international boycott of cricket in the country following the terrorist attacks on the Sri Lankan team bus in 2009.
The team has since then been forced into playing its home matches in the Middle East with the UAE becoming its temporary home.
While playing in the UAE was a reminder of lack of international cricket back at home, Pakistan thrived in the desert state having never lost a Test series there ever since moving to their new base in 2009.
After the surprise triumph in the ICC Champions Trophy in England earlier this summer, Sarfraz Ahmed and his band of merry men had been destined to create new hallmarks in the Test format.
While the loss of the two greats was a huge void to fill, the team was littered with talented players coming into their prime. Mohammad Amir and Hasan Ali are formidable pacers while Yasir Shah provided the edge in the spin department.
Azhar Ali, Babar Azam, Asad Shafiq and Sarfraz Ahmed have the potential to form a solid batting line-up for sometime in the foreseeable future.
The ingredients for a solid spine were all present and it was only a matter of giving the vessel a solid direction to start the new Test era.
However, two Tests later, it has all come crashing down for Sarfraz and him men.
When Wahab Riaz was dismissed by Rangana Herath on the final day of the Dubai Test, Pakistan relinquished its proud record in the UAE with its first ever Test series defeat.
It was the worst possible start for Sarfraz against an opponent which was given no chance by one and all before the start of the series.
The islanders have been the victims of failing to fill the void left by their Test stalwarts like Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Muttiah Muralitharan.
— Saj Sadiq (@Saj_PakPassion) October 10, 2017
The side has struggled with transitional issues for the greater part of two years with a humiliating ODI series defeat at the hands of Zimbabwe signifying their decline.
However, it seems Pakistan have only to look at the recent plight of the islanders to understand what they face. Replacing over 15,000 Tests runs and just under 200 matches of experience in a short span is easier said than done as Sri Lanka have just realised.
It has taken the islanders’ humiliating thrashings and losses before they turned a page in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Pakistan need not go through the same ordeals but the principals remain the same.
Experience is built over time and Rome wasn’t built in a day. Sarfraz Ahmed and co have a momentous task ahead in rebuilding the team but patience will be the basic necessity.
He has the ingredients at his disposal, nurturing them into the final product will come with time, and the odd shocker in between.
A 146-run partnership from Sarfraz Ahmed and Asad Shafiq has given Pakistan a glimmer of hope of avoiding a first Test series defeat in the UAE although Sri Lanka are still in the driving seat going into the final day in Dubai.
With the team reeling at 52-5 in their second innings chase of 317, the Pakistani pair came together and both scored half-centuries to reach stumps on 198-5 and frustrate the Sri Lankans on the fourth day of the second Test on Monday.
More of the same will be needed of Sarfraz and Shafiq, who are unbeaten on 57 and 86 respectively, as well as the rest of the tail-enders if they want to get the required 119 runs needed to pull off an unlikely victory and preserve their unbeaten series record in their adopted country.
If Sri Lanka, who won the first Test in Abu Dhabi, do prevail, they will become the first side to beat Pakistan in a Test ‘home’ series in the UAE since 2010, having won the opener in Abu Dhabi.
For Pakistan head coach Mickey Arthur, he’s pleased to see his side are still in the game having seen his top-order struggled.
“It’s with a lot of relief that we are seeing a partnership developing,” he said. “They both played very well. We were talking about it at tea time. When we chased against Australia and Asad Shafiq scored 137 at the Gabba, it got us quite close. It sort of had the same feel. I’m so pleased for Asad Shafiq because he worked so hard and we know he’s a quality player and showed the skill. I just hope he can go all the way.
“I didn’t think I’d be actually sitting here thinking that we could win this at 6pm but it’s fantastic. It’s going to be a fantastic day. If these two guys double their partnership, we win the game.”
Before a ball was bowled on day four, Pakistan were already up against it but Wahab Riaz (4-41) and Haris Sohail (1-3) made quick work of dismissing Sri Lanka for just 96 after they resumed, struggling on 34-5.
In their chase, Pakistan fans hoped there would be no repeat of a batting debacle that saw them all out for 136 in their chase in Abu Dhabi last Monday.
But there were signs of frailty early on.
Shan Masood survived a scare in the first over after an lbw appeal, only for the DRS to save him.
Sami Aslam suffered the same fate when caught by Kusal Mendis but was given a lifeline when Lahiru Gamage overstepped for a no-ball. But he just faced another two deliveries before Gamage got his revenge when caught by Mendis for 1.
Pakistan needed another big knock from Azhar Ali (17) who scored 59 in the first innings. But having initially frustrated the tourists, Nuwan Pradeep got the key man with the batsman’s thick edge, presenting a simple catch for Kusal Silva at short square.
Loitering at 36-2, Pakistan found themselves in bigger trouble, losing another further three wickets before dinner.
However, Dilruwan Perera showed it isn’t just Rangana Herath who can take wickets with spin. After Sohail (10) was caught behind by Niroshan Dickwella, Perera removed Masood (21) and Babar Azam (0) in the same over to leave Pakistan 52-5.
It seemed it was only a matter of time before more wickets would fall but Sarfraz and Shafiq revived the innings, batting the whole of the last session to give a Pakistan a fighting chance.
Earlier, Pakistan needed just one hour of the first session to bowl out Sri Lanka for 96 – their ninth lowest Test score. Riaz got his fourth wicket and first over the day when Dickwella was caught superbly by Sarfraz. Yasir Shah finished 2-47 when removed Perera (0), before Sohail wrapped up the innings with three scalps in his only over.
Mohammad Amir aborted his bowling innings after hurling down three overs in Dubai on Saturday. Wahab Riaz took a little over seven and a half minutes to bowl the 111th over of the Sri Lankan innings after pulling out of his run up five times. Later on in the second session, Riaz was warned for running onto the danger area.
The listless efforts of two premier left-arm pacers summed up Pakistan’s fortunes not only in the Dubai Test but the two-match series.
A combination of fitness issues, low bowling resources and a charged-up Sri Lankan team have brought Pakistan to the brink of their first Test series defeat in UAE ever since they moved base to the country after the terrorist strike on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore in 2009.
Left-arm pacer Amir walked off the field right before stumps on Friday after what was revealed to be discomfort in his shin. But the team management didn’t opt for a scan. They kept him under observation overnight and paid a price for their decision on the second day when Amir walked off the field in the first session.
He underwent an MRI scan but we will never know whether those three extra overs made things worse for him.
Wahab has looked considerably less incisive than Hasan Ali, who got injured after the first Test in Abu Dhabi, and his ridiculously long 19th over was about the only highlight for him in Dubai apart from Dimuth Karunaratne’s dismissal’.
With no other frontline spinner in the side, leg-spinner Yasir Shah has been forced to the bulk of the bowling. His tally so far in the series is 84 overs in Abu Dhabi and 55.5 already in Dubai.
The moment Sri Lanka went after him, starting from Sadeera Samarawickrama on the opening day, Pakistan simply had nothing to fall back upon.
Pakistan management has been regularly asked about the logic behind fielding just one spinner and then relying on the part-time spin of Haris Sohail and Asad Shafiq. But no satisfactory answer has been provided.
All these individual pieces have combined to form a nightmare for Pakistan where the fast bowlers look far from effective, one spinner bowls 50 overs or more and part-timers bowl far too many overs.
And just as things have started to fall apart for Pakistan, Sri Lanka have picked their game up. This is the same Sri Lankan side that lost 9-0 to India across formats but Dinesh Chandimal, in his first Test series as full-time captain, has whipped the team into shape.
According to reports, discipline has been top priority for the islanders and one member of the current side has already been warned of possible suspension if he breaks team rules.
All that effort seems to be paying off. The tourists have put themselves in a great position to pull off an unprecedented series win. And if they do manage that, the perfect storm created in Pakistan’s dressing room would have played a major role in it.