Former Pakistan coach Waqar Younis believes it’s crucial that skipper Sarfraz Ahmed ‘lifts himself’ and relieves the pressure placed on him in the Australia Test series after a disappointing Asia Cup.
The Asian side face the Baggy Greens in the first Test starting in Dubai on Sunday with Sarfraz aiming to make amends following a torrid tournament, in which he scored just 68 runs in five innings.
The team’s performances and his own poor decisions were questioned after being on the receiving end of two thrashings to India as well as the 37-run loss to Bangladesh that condemned Pakistan to a Super Four stage exit.
Younis, who claimed 373 wickets for his country from 87 Tests, insists Sarfraz must put the Asia Cup firmly behind him and prove during the two Tests why he is still the right man to skipper the national team.
“I think Sarfraz has to lift himself because he looked very out-thought and very down (in the Asia Cup),” Waqar said on the sidelines of the Abu Dhabi T20 tournament.
“It’s so crucial and important that the captain stands up and is strong. He can’t be nervous because from what I saw in the Asia Cup he hasn’t got any strong performances behind him and runs in almost a year. I think he is feeling the pressure for his place in the team. He has to forget about it and try to go out there and perform. That will be the key. Both sides have young captains and I’m really looking forward to this series.”
Sarfraz can be encouraged by the fact the last time Pakistan played a Test series, they recorded a 1-1 draw against Joe Root’s men in England.
Against the Aussies, Waqar believes Pakistan’s familiarity with slow and dry UAE pitches will be to their advantage as Sarfraz prepares to unleash frontline leg-spinner Yasir Shah.
“I always say Pakistan stands a better chance because of Yasir Shah’s difference and I think he is a match-winner,” said Waqar, who served as Pakistan coach between 2010-11 and 2014-16.
“I think leg-spinners are always match-winners. They have to put it right. I wouldn’t say they are favourites but maybe they have a slight edge given they have played a lot of cricket here. They know these pitches well and only lost one Test series here (against Sri Lanka last year).”
One man who does know the pitches fairly well is Mohammad Hafeez, having featured in 15 matches in the Emirates since 2010. The 37-year-old was not part of the original squad but was recalled last week following his impressive form with the bat and ball in the domestic game.
If he does don the white jersey, it would be his first Test since August 2016. While Waqar feels Hafeez would bolster the batting line-up, he wants to see him trouble the batsmen with the ball after he was given the green light by the ICC to bowl in international cricket in May.
“I would like to see him bowl,” he added. “That is very important because he just scored a lot of runs in the domestic game and if someone is in good form, then yes, you should put him in the side.
“It is not a bad move. The only thing is I would like to see him bowl. He’s been cleared and I think he would be a very handy fifth or sixth bowler in the team as you’ll be needing him in this heat.”
Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed backed experienced leg-spinner Yasir Shah to put a depleted Australian team under pressure when the two sides clash in the first of two Tests starting in Dubai from Sunday.
The Baggy Greens lost 2-0 to Pakistan in UAE in 2014, with Yasir taking 12 scalps and left-arm spinner Zulfiqar Babar 14. However this time Yasir is the main spinner in the team. He will most likely by supported by off-spinning all-rounder Bilal Asif, who is set to make his debut, and veteran Mohammad Hafeez who is returning to the team after a gap of two years having also cleared his action.
Australia will have to manage without regular skipper Steve Smith and opener David Warner, along with Cameron Bancroft, who are still banned for their part in the ball-tampering scandal in South Africa in March.
Sarfraz said he won’t give Australia any breathing space in their first Test since the ball-tampering saga.
“When we played Australia in 2014 we played some attacking cricket,” Sarfraz was quoted as saying by AFP.
“Yasir is our main bowler so we will want him to attack and get us wickets to win the series. But similarly we will not put extra pressure on him and will not want him to go in a defensive mode so other bowlers will have to support him.”
The other leg-spinner in the squad – Shadab Khan – is likely to miss the first Test as he has not fully recovered from a groin injury. Recalled Hafeez will therefore be the third spinner.
Sarfraz added Pakistan’s batsmen will face a major challenge against Australia off-spinner Nathan Lyon who took 8-103 in the warm-up match in Dubai this week.
“We attacked him four years ago and at that time we had great batsmen in Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq,” Sarfraz said about Lyon, who managed just three wickets in two Tests in 2014.
“Four years on he is a better bowler so he will be their main bowler and a challenge for us,” he added. Lyon took 41 wickets in six matches in India and Bangladesh last year.
Australian captain Tim Paine had earlier admitted Yasir will be a big threat.
“Yasir is clearly a world-class bowler who’s got a phenomenal record at this ground in Dubai. We’re going to have to take everything we’ve been working on,” said Paine.
“We’ve faced a hell of a lot spin, there’s no doubt about that and Australian touring sides always do.”
Pakistan cricket has hit rock bottom. If not, it is very close to it. A shambolic Asia Cup performance in the UAE drew extensive criticism from Pakistani fans in the country and across the globe, with the dismal efforts of opening batsman Fakhar Zaman, seamer Mohammad Amir and captain Sarfraz Ahmed targeted.
Not only did Pakistan fail to make it to the final, losing comfortably to Bangladesh in their must-win Super Four Clash, they also endured eight and nine-wicket defeats to India in the tournament. It was a shocking effort in a country that basically has been their second home for a decade.
Pakistan made some startling selection decisions, picking six fast bowling options and not having enough spinners when teams like India fielded as many as four. Pressure has therefore mounted on Sarfraz to stop the slide and get some confidence back into the team leading up to the World Cup.
Their next assignment is in red-ball cricket – against Australia in a two-Test series with the first match in Dubai on Sunday. It offers Pakistan an opportunity to again test themselves against quality opposition and see how good or bad they really are.
The Asia Cup debacle started with poor selection choices and the management seems to have rectified it to some extent by adding veteran batsman Mohammad Hafeez to the original squad following the horror run of Fakhar in the Asia Cup.
Pakistan need some solidity in the batting line-up at the top and in the middle and Hafeez, along with experienced opener Azhar Ali, provide some much-needed assurance.
Hafeez hasn’t played Test cricket for two years but is fighting fit. He is fresh off of a double century in Pakistan’s first-class Qaid-e-Azam tournament. Plus, he is bowling again after getting his action cleared recently. The presence of four possible left-handers in the Australian top-order makes his selection a no brainer. Plus, he will give Sarfraz cushion in the lower order.
Ali at the top brings sanity to the proceedings. The opener scored a fifty in Pakistan’s Lord’s Test win in May. His confidence should rub off on others like Imam-ul-Haq and Babar Azam, helping them negotiate a threatening Australian attack that includes Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon.
Ali and Hafeez hit fifties in the Champions Trophy final against India last year. But for some reason they have both been shown the door in limited-overs cricket with the management moving on to younger players. But Pakistan’s Asia Cup results have shown that you need experienced players in the team. At least in the Test series, they can expect these two to help overcome difficult periods and come out victorious.