After Pakistan's shock loss to low-ranked West Indies at Sharjah, one of our forum members previews Pakistan's tour of New Zealand and discusses the visitors' chances during the two-Test series.
By Mansoor Khan (9th November, 2016)
After the third and final Test against West Indies, Pakistan have been brought back down to earth with a bang. There was premature talk of a 9-0 clean sweep across all formats against the West Indies after Pakistan’s victory in the second Test in Abu Dhabi. Few expected as much as a fight let alone a West Indian win in Sharjah. In fact, attention had seemingly already switched to the two assignments in the Antipodes this winter and what team combinations would be tried. Some attention had even shifted to the Australia-South Africa series, whereas the Pakistan-West Indies Test was a mere formality, an afterthought. A demoralised touring team, 2-0 down in the series, surely only wanted to catch the first flight home to the islands of the Caribbean?
Wrong. At this level of cricket, you cannot let your guard down and Pakistan should know that better than most given their defeat to Zimbabwe only three years ago. Jason Holder’s men showed grit and determination all the while exposing frailties in the recently ranked No.1 Test team in the world that New Zealand will be analysing.
Firstly, a vulnerability against the short ball was exposed. Shannon Gabriel and Jason Holder are tall pacers who can extract a decent amount of bounce from a good length. With Gabriel’s pace, even on a slow wicket like Sharjah, you can force the batsman on the back foot and the short ball tactic becomes more potent. Sami Aslam and Asad Shafiq both fell to short-pitched deliveries in the second Innings. Whilst Pakistan will be tested more likely by lateral movement in New Zealand, this weakness will not go unnoticed by the Kiwis, who have a pacer in Neil Wagner who has utilised the short ball effectively. Nor will it go unnoticed by the Australian bowlers, on pitches that will offer plenty of pace and bounce, especially at the Gabba in Brisbane where Pakistan will play their first Test on 15 December.
Secondly, Pakistan had a number of alarming lapses of concentration with the bat in this series. In the second innings of the D/N Test in Dubai, one Pakistani batsman after another in attempt to force the pace, ended up gifting their wickets. Whilst the intent was understandable, the execution was so poor that it allowed West Indies a small sniff of victory when the tourists should’ve been batted out of the game. In Sharjah, Pakistan’s batting display smacked of complacency unbefitting a side with ambitions of staying at the summit of Test cricket. Whilst credit must be given to Devendra Bishoo and Shannon Gabriel, especially the latter whose fantastic double strike to remove Azhar and Shafiq early on Day 1 proved vital - four different Pakistani batsmen achieved fifties but nobody converted them into sizeable hundreds. Both Sami Aslam and Misbah-ul-Haq fell to reverse sweeps in the first innings whilst Younis Khan attempted an uncharacteristic slog across the line straight to midwicket. All this on a pitch that was relatively benign.
Thirdly, Mohammad Nawaz’s batting was dismal at #7 throughout the series – prompting questions that Pakistan may need to revert back to the four-bowler strategy to strengthen their batting, with Babar Azam filling in at 6. That being said, one must not overreact as Pakistan have shown themselves to be a resilient Test team capable of grinding out victories and applying themselves with the bat. It was evident in Galle and Pallekele last year vs Sri Lanka, at Lord’s and The Oval this year vs England, and the first two Tests vs West Indies in UAE. Pakistan’s top six batsmen all average above 40 and the critics who claimed Pakistan were incapable of scoring big totals outside Asia were silenced after the England Test series.
However, Pakistan only have a two Test series against New Zealand. One bad innings can cost them victory in what is a winnable series against a Kiwis side recently whitewashed in India. New Zealand have a quality new ball bowler in Trent Boult and they will be back in familiar conditions that are expected to be seamer-friendly, especially given the recent rainy weather in the early New Zealand spring. Despite 24 wickets falling to spin in the recent domestic clash between Canterbury and Central Districts at the Hagley Oval in Christchurch, scene of Pakistan’s first Test against New Zealand, the pitch is expected to be green and the weather overcast. Rain may also affect proceedings given the forecast for the next week.
In England, Pakistan did benefit from a dry summer and pitches generally suited to batting, with no sight of the green-tops that were rolled out the previous year at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge during the Ashes, or the one expected in Christchurch. This will be a tough examination of Pakistan’s technique against lateral movement and the venue has produced results in all but one first-class match in Christchurch since the ground’s refurbishment in 2013.
Nevertheless, Pakistan have history on their side having been undefeated in their last seven Test series in New Zealand in a run stretching back to 1985. Misbah-ul-Haq also led his charges to a 1-0 victory on their previous trip in 2011. Despite only one tour match to acclimatise to conditions only 11 days after the conclusion of the Sharjah Test, Pakistan are no strangers to New Zealand conditions having visited the country three times in the last two years, including the 2015 World Cup. Pakistan’s seam bowling will be more of a threat on friendlier pitches than the flat surfaces they encountered at Edgbaston, Old Trafford, and in the UAE where they were blunted. New Zealand’s batsmen look vulnerable with a lot resting on captain Kane Williamson.
The ability to acclimatise to foreign conditions is key in today’s Test cricket where often sides look like lions at home and kittens abroad. Pakistan’s early arrival in English conditions was a bit of smart planning from the oft-criticised PCB that laid the groundwork for a famous summer. If the boys in green can acclimatise just as well to conditions in New Zealand, providing the perfect confidence boost heading into Australia, then we could be in for a famous winter too.