In the aftermath of one of the worst series overall for Pakistan in recent times, a valued member of our forums takes an in-depth look at what exactly went wrong for the tourists at a venue where they have generally performed well in the past.
By Waqas Ahmed (1st December, 2016)
On 29th November 2016, Pakistan lost its first bilateral Test series against New Zealand in over three decades; the defeat further marked an end to an unbeaten streak that duly lasted over 24 months and literally sucker-punched the euphoria of Pakistan reaching the summit of the Test rankings in August. They now rank at number four in the world with 102 rating points tying with South Africa who have surged a massive revival in their red ball game by beating the Aussies 2-1 in another recently concluded series Down under.
For Pakistan, life is hardly simple or straightforward, and the plight of Hagley Oval and Seddon Park might display an emphatically fragile team composition; but to process this score line rationally, one can argue that this is the same team, albeit a few changes, that effectively reached the peak of Test cricket just a few months earlier.
The adulation of drawing a four match series in England was hailed by some as a pinnacle of Pakistani Test cricket, so! What exactly happened that from being a top ranked Test team, Misbah-XI, find themselves to be fighting for a spot at the mid table?
To begin with, it can be fundamentally argued that scheduling was a decisive factor in this series defeat. It is a known fact that during the early parts of the summer down under, New Zealand and Australia do receive high volumes of precipitation and rainfall.
This practically ordained that in order to acclimatise better, the Pakistan team, who for the last half a decade have played nearly all their matches in Asia, needed to be soaking such conditions at least two weeks from the start of the first ball being bowled. Yet exactly fourteen days before the start of play, the men in green were wrapping up a bizarre batting collapse against the West Indies in Sharjah.
A shortened schedule meant that Pakistan would only get a single warm up game before stepping onto the field. With that being washed out, followed by a life-threatening earthquake (Yes! That happened), it was on 17th November that Misbah-XI actually faced their first competitive delivery of the series.
This severe under-cooking saw a batting collapse which might have been reminiscent of Pakistan cricket in the pre-Misbah age. The top order was whizzed out by swing and seam at the dibbly-dobbly pace of Colin de Grandhomme who, took a career best 6-fer and broke a standing BlackCaps record for best debut bowling stats since their admission to Test cricket.
It should also be noted that Colin de Grandhomme eventually took 9 wickets in the entire series for the BlackCaps (second best cumulative figures for the tour), but funnily enough, he was selected on the back of a brilliant 144 in a first-class game very recently, which helped Auckland chase a mammoth 373 to win the game eventually. Prior to his 9 wickets here, it took de Grandhomme eight months and 11 innings in total to actually amass the same tally domestically.
Although batting has been Pakistan’s Achilles heel historically, it was rather disappointing that the bowlers, who are traditionally known as Pakistan’s saviours, couldn’t replicate the success that their counterparts were thoroughly enjoying.
Furthermore, the conditions in which the bowlers were bowling all throughout the series can be identified as near ideal for swing and seam, while historically the same conditions would’ve seen their predecessors blow away top orders for fun – it was rather disappointing to witness the lack of penetration during all of New Zealand’s innings.
At first glance, we can categorically identify that in addition to having better averages and strike rates, the New Zealand bowlers all have better economy rates as well, when compared to any Pakistani bowler.
The highest economy for any New Zealand bowler in the top 10 bowlers for the entire series, was for Mitchell Santner (3.10) who had the similar statistics to Imran Khan, the Pakistani pacer having the best cumulative numbers on tour for his team.
Wahab Riaz, if we talk only about economy rates, was the only bowler on show from the Pakistani group of bowlers who conceded less than 3.0 runs per over (2.97 to be exact). However, him only picking up two wickets at 55.0 a piece clearly meant that the visitors were a strike bowler short all throughout the four innings.
Given how Pakistani bowling line-ups depends on their penetration when the chips are down, it was disappointing to see no use of yorkers or any other inspired pace bowling, that we often associate with them, at any point in time.
To put it simply, it was an outing that Wahab would want to quickly forget as what awaits come the next fifteen days could be an even stiffer challenge for him and the team, while for what it’s worth, Pakistan would dearly want an in-form Wahab to pose any sort of threat on an Aussie line-up that clearly is looking to make up lost ground after the series loss at home.
The batting was also sub-par in both Tests as well; during the first game at Hagley Oval, Sami Aslam, Babar Azam, Younis Khan, Asad Shafiq and Sarfraz Ahmed all at one point or another fell prey to the dangling carrot known as fifth stump line. The worst part was that apart from Wagner’s short pitched barrage in the third innings of the match, every dismissal caught in the slip and gully region was basically a culmination of impatience and amateurish lack of discipline to see off good deliveries and score off anything loose.
Having said that, we can safely say that if the latter batsmen showed impatience, Azhar Ali went to the other extreme and redefined the cricketing term of ‘going into a shell.’ It can be argued that the entire team batted along similar lines, for some reason still unknown, but from the looks of it, Azhar Ali was the fulcrum of this peculiar approach from the get go.
At one point in time, Azhar’s strike rate in a given partnership was 7. This was when Pakistanis were slightly ahead and the deficit was just below fifteen runs. Babar Azam, a guy playing his second Test was at the other end striking at almost forty-four runs per hundred balls, while Azhar being the ‘senior pro’ among the two was blocking, leaving and defending as if he was meant to be the second coming of the late, great Hanif Muhammad.
The absurdity of the matter doesn’t come to the fore front even in the slightest with all these statistics as it does with the fact that when Sohail Khan, a guy who just recently announced his aspirations of holding the bat correctly, turned up and outscored a line-up with six 40+ averaging batsmen and a guy who is considered a modern Test great – alarmingly worrying to say the least.
If we thought this was bad enough, Pakistan managed to one up the madness at Hamilton. Chasing 360 odd runs on the final day, the openers score at 1.6-1.8 runs per overs for nearly two sessions and with the run rate soaring well above 6 and the rationale screaming to bat out a draw, the team in all their glory and triumph tried gunning down 211 runs in the last 34 overs – basically a suicide mission. What followed was a sensational collapse resulting in Pakistan losing 8 wickets for 49 runs with the last four coming in the space of 12 deliveries and 1 run.
Amidst such batting meltdowns, there were some slight positives for Pakistan nonetheless - the emergence of Babar Azam at number 3 with a score of 90 not out and averaging 47.xx in the series meant that Pakistan had found a genuine 1 down top order batsman after Azhar Ali occupied the opening slot and even with all the criticisms of Azhar playing rather slowly, the last innings with Sami Aslam at Hamilton reinforced the notion that the openers and the current number three all had the intrinsic ability of putting a price on their wicket and seeing off a turbulent session with minimal damage – a trait that is worth gold in the longer form of the game.
However, that does not necessarily mean that a run rate of fewer than 2.5 should ever be acceptable in modern day cricket. In three out of four innings, we managed to score over 3 runs per over only once and that came essentially when Babar, who himself is a natural stroke maker, batted throughout while holding up one end. If we numerically break down the numbers we are left with the following:
The above runs per over, if we look at historical data for the last fifteen years in all games played Down Under, can never result in a team winning a Test match. Additionally, after the first game the New Zealand batters essentially gave up a perfect road map on how to pace an innings on such tracks.
Why our statisticians and analysts couldn’t point out the obvious will always remain a mystery to us but even so as a professional cricketer, one much have enough acumen to realise that attritional cricket is not the way to go about it on these fast paced and seam conducive wickets.
Consequently, if we are to genuinely read a more positive score line in the coming Australian summer then I guess the tourists must take a leaf out of the 16th century English scholar, Robert Burton’s book who once famously wrote “When they are at Rome, they do as they see done….’
Conclusively, shedding light on the Pakistani fielding effort is categorically similar to beating a dead horse over and over again. In the crucial decider of the Hamilton Test, the team and Sami Aslam in particular dropped four top order catches – a very substandard effort to say the least.
Jeet Raval got reprieved twice, once on a duck and then again on 41 which arguably took up massive precedence during New Zealand first innings score, his final tally being 55 runs off 112 balls in a total of 271. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Williamson, the New Zealand skipper was given a let off on zero himself but lucky that lapse in the field only cost an additional thirteen runs to the overall tally.
The worst drop was that of Tom Latham by Sami Aslam when the said batsman was on 39*. Latham then went on to score 80 for the innings, setting up two decisive partnerships: one with Kane Williamson in which they scored 28 runs from 40 deliveries at 4.375 per over and then then with Ross Taylor adding 52 in 80 deliveries. These relatively rapid partnerships meant that Ross Taylor, who hadn’t hit a knock of 50 or above in the past year, went on to bring up his 16th Test Hundred.
In the end, it can be argued that Pakistan clearly did not play to the best of their potential. More than having flawed application, the approach, strategy and mindset with which they went on about their business clearly did not suggest that they were the number two ranked Test team in the world.
Mickey Arthur, the team management and Misbah-XI have to make remarkable adjustments to the above traits if they are to succeed during the Australian tour which is set to start in just around two weeks.