It is not easy being Pakistan Test captain at the moment. Pakistan have lost two ‘home’ series in the past season – against Sri Lanka and New Zealand – and there is a general air of despondency when it comes to their red-ball cricket.
However, against all odds, Pakistan were in the driver’s seat against South Africa in the Boxing Day Test in Centurion, well-placed to set a big target in the second innings at 101-1. Then Duanne Olivier ran through the side to dismiss the visitors for 190 and Proteas were set a target of 149, instead of 249. With that, all hopes of a resurgence in Pakistan’s Test cricket and Sarfraz Ahmed’s captaincy were extinguished.
Harsh words were spoken by coach Mickey Arthur in the dressing room to seniors like Sarfraz, Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq. The most experienced red-ball players had fallen well short of expectations.
It was crunch time in the New Year’s Test at Newlands as South Africa had the devastating Vernon Philander fit again. Pakistan were buoyed by the return of seamer Mohammad Abbas but batting – especially against the unrelenting short stuff from Olivier, Kagiso Rabada and Dale Steyn – remained the biggest concern.
It didn’t surprise many when Pakistan were brushed aside on the opening day of the New Year’s Test by Olivier and Co for just 177. The total would have been lower but for an attacking fifty from Sarfraz and another confident knock from late replacement Shan Masood.
It was all about limiting the first innings damage and hope for a better second inning effort with the bat for Pakistan. But the one aspect of Pakistan’s game that had remained solid during a difficult last season – bowling – fell apart at Newlands.
Sarfraz went in with four recognised bowlers with leg-spinner Yasir Shah as the slow bowling option. On paper, it looked like a decent call as quality spin does come into play in the second innings in South Africa. Unfortunately for Pakistan, it might not go that far with their tactics in the first innings allowing South Africa to take complete control of the Test and the series after gaining a lead of 200 by Friday.
61% of Mohammad Amir's deliveries in this match so far have been between 120 and 132 kph. This is currently highest proportion of deliveries he's recorded in that range in a Test in his career. #SAvPAK— The Cricket Prof. (@CricProf) January 4, 2019
Shah bowled fewer overs than pacers Mohammad Amir, Hasan Ali and Shaheen Afridi in the first Test, which was understandable given the wicket at Centurion had enough juice and Pakistan kept the Proteas batsmen in check.
But in the second Test, the scenario changed. Abbas and Amir were nowhere close to the pace of Rabada, Olivier and Steyn and Pakistan needed a different tactic. Since they couldn’t blow the Proteas away, the visitors needed to at least keep the hosts in a holding pattern so that they didn’t move ahead too quickly.
That didn’t happen. Shah once again bowled less than all seamers – 21 compared to 26 or more from Abbas, Amir and Afridi. When the going gets tough, quality spinners are expected to at least hold one end up so that the quicks can operate with greater intensity from the other end. But almost every South African batsman managed to bat with freedom, scoring at more than three an over for more than 100 overs.
The visitors have a quality seam bowling all-rounder in Faheem Ashraf in the squad, who would have been a better option going by the first innings’ efforts as Shah might not get an opportunity in the second innings at all.
Pakistan’s batsmen failing against one of the most devastating pace attacks in contemporary cricket on a quick surface is understandable. Their bowling failing to keep the opposition in check the very next day is almost inexcusable.
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