After yet another whitewash at the hands of Australia Down Under, an esteemed poster at our forums takes a look at where it all went wrong for the visitors.
By Mansoor Khan (9th January, 2017)
There are few guarantees in life, but Pakistan on the receiving end of a Test series defeat in Australia is a constant in an ever-changing world. The narrative has not changed much - mental fragility under pressure, an ability to self-implode with the bat at inopportune times, bowlers ineffective on truer surfaces and inept fielding. Part of the disappointment stems from the fact many Pakistan fans were quietly confident heading into this tour. Pakistan had reached #1 in the Test rankings a few months ago; they were facing an Australian team under the spotlight after a home defeat to South Africa coming months after a whitewash at the hands of Sri Lanka. If ever there was a time to vanquish the ghosts of the past – this was it. The fact Pakistan came a mere 39 runs short at Brisbane courtesy of stunning fightback from Asad Shafiq and the tail, fuelled such hopes amongst fans. This was a battle hardened and resilient set of players capable to taking the fight to the baggy greens. The first two and a half days of the Melbourne Test confirmed this renewed optimism. Yet, as always in Australia, it went horribly wrong. “Mental disintegration” was the phrase used to describe Steve Waugh’s side’s ruthless targeting of opponents. Pakistan seem to have mental disintegration down to an art form every time they land in Australia. The question is why?
Firstly, it’s time for Pakistan fans to accept their bowling, subject of much hype, romanticisation and cliché, is not as good as they think it is. The numbers paint a grim picture. They have taken 33 out of 60 wickets in this series at an average of 61.63 and an economy of 4.25. This has been Pakistan’s worst ever bowling performance in a three-match series and worst ever bowling display in Australia therefore it’s no surprise the hosts have been able to declare 4 times out of 6 innings. Pakistan have been wasteful with the new Kookaburra, failing to bowl the accurate lines and lengths needed to take early wickets.
No bowler has covered themselves in glory apart from Wahab Riaz (though his tendency to overstep remains frustrating). Mohammad Amir returned last year with much fanfare, yet appears a shadow of his former self. His former coach Waqar Younis and former teammate Mohammad Asif have suggested Amir needs to bowl closer to the stumps to increase his chances of gaining LBWs and bowleds – and bowl more attacking, fuller lengths. Pakistani fielders haven’t helped his cause, but with an average of 41 in his 11 Tests since his comeback, and an eye-watering average of 61 on this tour one wonders whether patience is starting to wear out. Pakistani pacers often struggled in the past in Australia to bowl the right lengths, getting carried away with the bounce by bowling too short and this tour was no exception. Can anyone explain the logic of Imran Khan or Sohail Khan, with their pace often no higher than 135KPH, bowling short to a batsman as strong off the back foot as David Warner? Too often Australian batsmen were given a chance to free their arms thanks to in-disciplined Pakistan bowling. Coach Mickey Arthur’s public utterances do not suggest much faith in his right-arm pace options and this tour has validated those fears.
Another issue is fitness. It’s become a common sight to see Pakistani seamers huffing and puffing during their third and fourth spells despite the fact there’s been so many rain delays on this tour. Once again, this goes back to the issue of a flawed domestic system. In FC cricket, on average 65-70 overs are bowled in a day. Rarely do seamers have a workload of 25+ overs in an innings. This is insufficient preparation for the rigours of an international tour, especially outside Asia, where pacers are expected to have a higher workload. Compounding these problems is Yasir Shah’s form - he has been a gun bowler for Pakistan since his Test debut in October 2014. He is the joint second-fastest to reach 100 wickets in Tests. However, when the leg-spinner is attacked, there does not appear to be a Plan B. Yasir has conceded 672 runs on this tour, the most by any bowler in a three-match series. Yasir's economy rate in the 2nd innings in Sydney was 8.85 - the worst by a bowler delivering 10 or more overs in an innings. Its true Misbah’s leg-side fields have not helped Yasir. But Yasir is not a leggie with a great deal of variety, his strength is attacking the stumps and picking up bowleds and LBWs. Yasir does not possess a sharp turning leg break and his action does not allow him to produce a great deal of side spin - a must on unfriendly pitches outside Asia.
Pakistan’s batsmen have shown more application on this tour than their predecessors. Brisbane (where a world record fourth innings chase was almost pulled off) saw Pakistan cross 400 for the first time in Australia since December 1983. At Melbourne, Pakistan posted 443 in the 1st innings thanks to a superb double hundred from what has been their man of the series in Azhar Ali. The pitches have been flat, but these were not achievements to be scoffed at given Pakistan on their previous tour of Australia could not cross 350 once against an arguably weaker bowling attack. Yet the paradox of the situation is that while Pakistan as a batting unit (with an average of 29.77) have performed better than all of their predecessors since 1983/84, their batting failed when it mattered. The 5th Day debacle at the MCG when a draw was in sight will go down as the worst collapse in a year full of collapses even by Pakistani standards. With that the series was gone.
What’s also been disconcerting is the form of Pakistan’s young batsmen. Australia is one place where any technical flaws are ruthlessly exposed. Babar Azam is one of Pakistan’s brightest prospects yet was dismissed 4 times in 6 innings by Josh Hazlewood. Twice at the SCG he was dismissed lbw in the same manner where Hazlewood went wide of the crease and got the ball to seam in. Twice, Azam looked to work the ball to the leg-side and got out playing around his front pad. Sami Aslam is another bright prospect yet had a torrid time down under. Whilst possessing a solid defence and discipline outside off stump better than most of his predecessors who’ve opened the batting for Pakistan – Aslam has a tendency to get stuck at the crease and goes to risky release shots used to relieve the pressure. Another issue looking back at Pakistan’s batting has been their recklessness against Nathan Lyon who took 15 wickets in the series. Pakistan failed to show him any respect, playing Lyon as if they were in the UAE and lost wickets trying to slog him out of the attack. There were some ill-judged sweeps from the batsmen, not realising that the shot can be risky since a spinner will obtain more bounce from truer surfaces in Australia.
Now to address the elephant in the room that is the issue of skipper Misbah-ul-Haq. The scandal and infighting that have been a fixture of Pakistan cricket have evaporated under Misbah’s dignified leadership. At No.5 Misbah has been a constant, a rock of stability. It was those reasons why PCB were adamant Misbah saw the team through Pakistan’s tour of England last summer. Misbah’s own existence as captain is defined by events that took place on the last tour of England in 2010, therefore the trip became a matter of personal redemption for nearly everyone associated in Pakistan cricket. A military training camp was initiated, the players embarked upon weeks of acclimatisation, even an army of media managers hired to avoid any negative press ahead of the trip. Misbah’s own performance was solid with an average of nearly 40 including a famous hundred at Lord’s. When Pakistan squared the series at The Oval, the Misbah era had reached its zenith. Even his critics were starting to come around. In hindsight, it appears that was the time for Misbah to call it a day having seen his six yearlong efforts reach fruition with his side at the summit of the ICC Test rankings.
However, at the insistence of Chairman Shahryar Khan and a desire to see his side through tough overseas tours in Australia and New Zealand rather than give a younger captain a baptism of fire, Misbah continued on. If England was a personal crusade, the series against West Indies, New Zealand and Australia appeared like a foreman’s final chores to get through before he clocks out. The problem is at 42 years’ young – a ripe old age for any international cricketer, not only does the body begin to slow down but the mind too. Motivation to step out onto the field starts to wane, especially when at 42 - retirement talk is never far away. Misbah has not been at the races since that day in South London. His shot selections have been reckless. Australia is not a kind place for ageing batsmen with slowing reflexes, though Younis Khan somehow keeps defying Father Time. His on-field tactics were poor. Sitting in and waiting is effective in Asia when a captain is afforded two spinners. But outside Asia one has to look for wickets instead of waiting for batsmen to make mistakes - especially when you have three seamers and no fifth bowler. Outside the new ball overs, Pakistan rarely operated with two pacers in tandem.
It is desperately sad that the Misbah era may have ended with a whitewash but sport is an unforgiving arena that does not produce the fairy-tale ending one may desire. Misbah said in his press conference he wants to go home, consult with family and friends, and make a final decision on his career. It is right that Pakistan fans give him the time and space to do so. Pakistan’s Test future is not something that can be decided upon in haste.
However, what is not disputed is that Misbah-ul-Haq joins the ranks of every Pakistan captain since Mushtaq Mohammad, the last Pakistan skipper to draw a series in Australia, who’ve tried to conquer the land down under and have returned unsuccessful. Ultimately, Australia play a harder, aggressive brand of cricket that Pakistan find difficult to live with. They are fitter, their pacers a class above and more aware of the lengths to bowl on these surfaces. Their batting is more dynamic in these conditions. In David Warner, they have a destructive matchwinner and in Steve Smith arguably the best Test batsman in the world. Pakistan now must prepare for the future, fill the void that will soon be left by two veterans in Younis and Misbah, and rebuild a seam attack torn apart Down Under. Another opportunity to vanquish the ghosts of the past awaits in the Caribbean where Pakistan also have never won a series. Meanwhile, another tour, another 3-0.