Pakistan cricket is in a rough spot at the moment. Captain Sarfraz Ahmed is under fire from all corners after a poor Asia Cup campaign that saw the men in green fail to make it to the final and suffer two heavy defeats against India.
During the Asia Cup, opener Fakhar Zaman and pace ace Mohammad Amir bombed while Sarfraz himself struggled for runs. They had gone in with six fast bowling options while all other teams relied heavily on spinners, with India fielding as many as four.
In the aftermath of the poor campaign on ‘home’ soil, Amir was shown the door while veteran batsman and off-spinner Mohammad Hafeez was called in to offer some solidity to the batting line-up.
Pakistan have been playing in the UAE for a decade but the landscape has changed dramatically since the retirements of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan in May last year.
The absence of their assured batting has exposed the next generation of Pakistan batsmen to the unforgiving nature of Test cricket. They failed in their first challenge at home in the post ‘Mis-You’ era as they succumbed to a 2-0 Test defeat against Sri Lanka.
Pakistan recovered nicely to post Test wins against Ireland and then in England at Lord’s. But their shortcomings were out in the open in the second Test in England as they succumbed to an innings defeat. Even the win in Ireland’s inaugural Test – in Dublin in May by five wickets – came after a lot of back and forth.
Now it’s Australia. The Aussies are still recovering from the shockwaves of the ball-tampering scandal in South Africa earlier in the year. They are without captain Steve Smith, veteran opener David Warner, batsman Cameron Bancroft – all banned for their role in the incident. Coach Darren Lehmann also resigned.
Also, pace spearheads Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood have failed to recover in time for the Pakistan series, meaning the workload on Mitchell Starc will be heavy.
But the Aussies still have off-spinner Nathan Lyon, their biggest weapon in Asian conditions. Lyon has improved dramatically since he last toured the UAE in 2014 when he managed just three wickets from two Tests against icons Misbah and Younis. In the last two series in India and Bangladesh, Lyon snared 41 wickets in six Tests and is arguably the best finger spinner in the format.
Moreover, they have in-form all-rounder Mitchell and veteran white-ball specialist Finch who should be able to assert themselves against a diffident Pakistan attack.
It might all boil down to how leg-spinner Yasir Shah performs for Pakistan. Sarfraz was let down by Amir in the Asia Cup with proven performer Shadab Khan also picking up an injury. If Shah doesn’t fire, Pakistan will be severely handicapped.
Both teams enter the two-match series with their plates full. Key personnel are missing in both dressing rooms and captains Sarfraz and Paine have a point or two to prove about the quality of their team to detractors back home.
However, Sarfraz will be under greater pressure as questions are being asked about his workload and viability in all three formats.
It’s game on in Dubai.
Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) announced that batsman Ahmed Shehzad has been banned for four months over a failed drug test. The board stated Shehzad had pleaded guilty to violating anti-doping rules.
The PCB handed out the punishment after the 26-year-old tested positive for a “prohibited substance” during the domestic Pakistan Cup earlier this year.
“Shehzad has been banned for four months effective from 10th July 2018… for violating the board’s anti-doping rules,” the PCB said in a statement.
“He accepts that he has violated PCB’s rules, but had no intention to cheat or enhance his performance,” the statement added.
The board did not identify the substance which resulted in Shehzad’s failed dope test.
“I inadvertently consumed a medicine which as an experienced cricketer I should have refrained from,” Shehzad said on Twitter after the decision was announced.
“This is a lesson for me… and I hope to make a strong comeback from here.”
The right-handed opener had been suspended in July over the failed test and will now have to deliver anti-doping lectures “as a part of his rehabilitation process”, the PCB said.
Shehzad has played 13 Tests, 81 ODIs and 57 T20s for Pakistan but has faded into the background. His last appearance for Pakistan was in a T20 against Scotland in June.
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.”