A 3-0 whitewash at the hands of South Africa in the Test series has once again laid bare Pakistan’s shortcomings in red-ball cricket as question marks continue to hover over Sarfraz Ahmed’s captaincy.
The comprehensive defeat against the Proteas comes on the back of an unexpected ‘home’ loss to New Zealand in the UAE with the team still struggling to fill the boots vacated by the retirements of Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq.
While Sarfraz’s own form with the bat has come under the scanner, the team’s other senior batsmen too have failed to stand up when it counts. There have been some positives in the batting department with Babar Azam continuing to blossom into a fine red-ball batsman while Shan Masood emerged as the top run-scorer for the side on his return to the Pakistan squad.
In the bowling department, the pace battery did reasonably well in the Test series but was still some way short of the standards historically associated with Pakistan’s fast-bowling attack.
After being humiliatingly whitewashed by Sri Lanka in the UAE last year, the Test outfit had looked to be back on the right track with a good showing in the summer tours of Ireland and England. However, the recent losses against the Kiwis and South Africa has shown that there is a long way to way for No7 ranked Pakistan to establish themselves as a formidable Test team.
As head coach Mickey Arthur rightly pointed out after the series loss, there exists many chinks in the Pakistan red-ball armoury and they will have to be fixed before the inaugural ICC Test Championship gets under way this year.
Luckily for Arthur and his men, they now have a fair few months to fix their red-ball woes given their next Test series will come against Sri Lanka in September. For now, the Men in Green need to turn their attention towards limited-overs cricket exclusively in the coming months ahead of the 2019 ICC World Cup in England.
While doubts have been raised over Sarfraz’s leadership in the Test format, the same cannot be said about his captaincy in limited-overs cricket where Pakistan have been flourishing over the past two years or so.
Sarfraz’s men have been on a roll in the T20 format where they have won 11 series on the bounce and are the undisputed No1 team. They have not shown the same remarkable consistency in the ODI format but as they proved with their ICC Champions Trophy triumph in England in 2017, they remain capable of raising their game on the biggest of stages.
In truth, 2018 wasn’t the best of years for Pakistan in the 50-over format with series defeats in New Zealand as well as a dismal performance in the Asia Cup in the UAE.
As such, the preparations for Pakistan’s World Cup campaign should start in earnest now, beginning with the upcoming limited-overs clashes against South Africa. As their T20 performances and Champions Trophy win have shown, Pakistan have all the makings of an excellent ODI outfit.
However, there remains a fair amount of work for the team management to do to translate that success into the 50-over format on a regular basis. Pakistan are slated to play five ODIs and three T20s in their South African tour before they welcome Australia to the UAE for five 50-over clashes.
Another five ODIs and a sole T20 in England will provide Pakistan a final chance to sharpen their tools before all systems go in the World Cup.
Generating some winning momentum in these clashes should be Pakistan’s biggest target in the coming months and a win against the formidable Proteas in their own backward can send the right signals. The Champions Trophy title in England was one of the most memorable chapters in Pakistan’s cricket history but the prospect of attaining a second World Cup crown at the same venue should entice them no end.
India were dealt a huge blow in their ongoing Test battle against Australia with opener Prithvi Shaw being ruled out of the remainder of the series but the visitors were handed some good news in the form of Hardik Pandya’s return to the squad.
The all-rounder has been out of action since September when he sustained a lower back injury in the Asia Cup. But his return for the final two Tests of the series could bring a much needed boost for the tourists.
The lack of an all-round option in the pace department has been felt dearly by India in the Test series, especially in the ongoing Test at Perth. Tempted by the pace and bounce on offer in the pitch, skipper Virat Kohli opted to field a bowling unit comprising entirely of fast bowlers.
With Ravichandran Ashwin being ruled out of the Test due to an injury, Kohli resisted the temptation of having another spinner with Umesh Yadav being given his first game on the tour. Heading into the final day of the Test, the Indian captain will be ruing his decision with Australia’s star off-spinner Nathan Lyon showing his worth on a fast-crumbling pitch.
Despite the assistance for pacers on the pitch, it has been the Aussie off-spinner who has been the pick of all bowlers with a five-wicket haul in the first innings and a further two already in the second.
Had Pandya been available, Kohli could very well have fielded a four-man pace attack with Ravindra Jadeja or Kuldeep Yadav also in the bowling attack.
As such, Pandya’s return to the side is a welcome sign for the visitors given the balance it provides. With the pitches in Sydney and Melbourne traditionally being the most spin-friendly tracks in Australia, India will definitely need to field a slower bowler and Pandya’s return could be crucial in that regard.
Pandya’s ability to chip in with handy runs lower down the order will give Kohli a reason to smile. India’s lower-order has failed with the bat so far in the series and Pandya could fill a gaping hole in that aspect.
Pandya showed his all-round worth in his only competitive game so far since his injury return in the Ranji Trophy clash between Baroda and Mumbai. The 25-year-old picked up seven wickets in total including a five-wicket haul while scoring 73 runs with the bat.
However, despite Pandya’s return to the squad, India will need to be wary as to how they handle his fitness. A back injury to a fast-bowler is always a tricky one to manage as India learnt the hard way with Bhuvneshwar Kumar during their summer tour of England.
Rushing Bhuvneshwar back from injury in the ODI series proved costly for Kohli’s men in the end with the seamer being ruled out of the entire Test series.
Pandya has only played one first-class game since returning to full fitness and India will want to ensure they don’t rush him back in haste with the World Cup to come in the summer next year.
Kohli and Co will certainly need to walk a tightrope with Pandya in the next two Tests.
A defeat looms large for India in the Perth Test as we head into the final day with the visitors’ hopes hanging by a thread with Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant and a length tail remaining.
The tourists require a monumental effort from a tail which has been considerably weakened by the absence of Ravichandran Ashwin due to injury.
Having overlooked Ravindra Jadeja as a like-for-like replacement for Ashwin, India skipper Virat Kohli has denied his team an extra batting option on a pitch that deteriorated at an alarming rate on day four.
In the first innings, India’s four specialist bowlers were able to contribute just nine runs with the bat. In contrast, Australia’s four bowlers aggregated 34 runs in the first innings and added a further 36 in the second.
India’s problem with the tail is twofold. Their bowlers have struggled to dismiss the tailenders quickly after getting the top order back in pavilion cheaply. At the other end, India’s own tail has failed to pack a punch with the bat in hand and that has hurt them on previous tours of England and South Africa.
This problem was clear to see in the opening Test at Adelaide where India’s 31-run win failed to hide their ‘tail woes’. There, despite reducing the hosts to 127-6 in the first innings, India allowed the Aussie to rack up a 235-run total. of those, 49 were scored by the hosts’ tailenders.
With Ashwin chipping in with 25, India’s tail did manage to score 35 runs in the first innings but could only muster five in the second. Australia’s tail, on the other hand, nearly pulled off an improbable victory for the hosts with a 107-run contribution including 38 from Nathan Lyon as India’s bowlers were made to sweat for the win.
India’s failure to take the sting out of the tail hindered them during the England tour where Sam Curran and the hosts’ long list of bowling all-rounders turned up with match-winning batting contributions.
For all the accolades India’s pace unit has received, they have had their struggles in finishing the job and it is that failure which has left the tourists with a mountain to climb on Tuesday.
On day four at Perth, India would have fancied their chances with Australia at 198-8 in their second innings. However, like Adelaide, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood once again proved to be a thorn in the flesh as the hosts scored 243.
Those 40-odd runs leaked in the end could be the difference between victory and defeat on the final day of the second Test and India only have themselves to blame.
Apart from Ishant Sharma, not one among Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah inspire any confidence with the bat and all of India’s hopes rest on Vihari and Pant.
If India are to become consistent winners overseas, they will have to sort out their tail woes. Or else, it could quickly become three overseas series defeats on the bounce.