Rana reviews Pakistan's disappointing home Test series against New Zealand and amongst the rubble of dissatisfaction, finds a few points to cheer about.
By Rana (6 January 2023)
Pakistan were desperately looking for a change in fortunes, and Babar was looking helpless until the new PCB management stepped in and took control of most things that were solely under the trust of the captain as it seems. The series saw the inclusion of two consistent performers in Pakistan’s domestic circuit (Sarfaraz Ahmed and Mir Hamza), whilst another well-established run scorer (Kamran Ghulam) was waiting on the bench providing extra pressure on the current batsmen.
Catches win matches
‘Catches win matches’ in cricket, but in the case of Pakistan; this phrase has been put to test in the worst way possible considering Pakistan ended their 4-match continuous loss streak at home having missed plenty of catches and chances in the field.
Faulty pitches have a lot to answer for
Considering the overnight change of management, the pitch and squad/team selection was under severe scrutiny. The new management would have liked to kick start their campaign by providing the fans of Pakistan, and cricket in general with better quality and a balance between bat and ball.
The negatives which hurt us badly
Pakistan cannot truly be proud of not winning another home series. The fact that New Zealand were left in a better position to win both Test matches by the end of each game is a sad reflection that Pakistan’s stature in this format is indeed at an all-time low. Considering this series, what are those key factors that have lead Pakistan to this stage?
1. Confusing/unclear plans and strategy by the captain and think tank.
It is probably unfair to continue to blame Babar Azam for everything considering luck has deserted him more often than not, however the baffling strategy on Day 5 of the second Test was really strange. Babar likes to use buzzwords and catchphrases such as ‘out of the box’ (below the belt) after strange declaration in the first Test. However, at no point in the second Test was it clear that Babar is willing to go ‘below the belt’ and go for the win. That too considering a drawn series would not really shore up his credentials as Pakistan’s continuing captain. The indecisiveness in strategy (to win or to draw) has been evident to see and has cost Pakistan what should have been a win at home rather than a tame draw.
2. Persisting with Shan Masood.
The continuous failures of Shan Masood do not need any explanation or reminders. However, one must ask what does the Pakistan thinktank wish to achieve by losing their credibility with such persistence? Unfortunately for many, Shan may yet still be persisted with as nothing can be expected from this PCB management when it comes to making strong decisions for the betterment of the team.
3. Sarfaraz Ahmed’s wicket-keeping
A major cause of concern considering Sarfaraz does not deserve to be dropped with his stellar performances with the bat. Undoubtedly, Sarfaraz’s untidy keeping has cost Pakistan a lot throughout the two matches. However, the reprieve for Sarfaraz for now is that Pakistan escaped both Test matches with a draw and not a loss. However, this luck may not last forever and will come back to bite Pakistan at some point. Major questions need to be answered as to whether Sarfaraz as a batsman can be accommodated whilst Rizwan dons the gloves even with his poor batting results recently.
4. Abdullah Shafique’s newfound struggles at the Test level
A series to forget to him and this is a continuation of some poor form in the 2nd and 3rd Test against England. Shafique will continue to be persisted with but the future Test matches away from home will not be played on such easy tracks (at home), and his current form is not going to give him the confidence playing abroad on much more challenging conditions. A lot of hard work is required going forward, a break will do him good for now.
5. Abrar Ahmed’s workload taking a huge toll on his performance
It is unfortunate to see a talented bowler like Abrar being out bowled by his Kiwi counterpart Ish Sodhi on these tracks. Sodhi lead the wicket takers column with 13 wickets @25 throughout the series, whereas Abrar was second with 11 wickets @43, having bowled approximately 40 overs more than Sodhi. The young spinner has had to learn a lot about bowling in the sub-continent in his 5 matches at home this season, however it is very clear that he is being extremely over bowled by his captain whilst other spinners or medium pacers are being under-used. Salman Agha could have bowled more, and Shan in the past has shown that he can bowl overs like New Zealand’s Darryl Mitchell.
The positives to take us to the future
The one main positive from this series is the fact Pakistan have managed to avoid any further losses at home considering the sheer embarrassment suffered due to the Australia and England losses. Besides avoiding defeat, there were some other positives for Pakistan fans to cherish:
1. The emergence of Saud Shakeel
Whilst he has been heavily criticized for his defensive approach in the second Test (to some extent rightly so), it cannot be denied that Pakistan have found themselves a solid, technically correct left-handed middle order batsman. Saud finishes the series with 234 runs at an average of 117.00 and scored 43 runs less than New Zealand’s middle-order juggernaut Kane Williamson. With time and experience, Saud will have to learn to read game situations better, however a great series for him with the bat.
2. The return of Sarfaraz Ahmed
And what a return it was! Still dividing fans and opinions, Sarfaraz’s excellent form in the Pakistan domestic circuit was converted into an excellent series with the bat for him. The once ‘Kaptaan’ finished the series as the leading run scorer with 335 runs @83.75 which includes 3 fifties and one hundred in four innings played. The performance by the 50 Test veteran keeper/batsman answered the questions of many of his critics, and he certainly replied to those question marks with the resounding answer of ‘Not Finished’ with his confident and commanding approach with the bat. His keeping however left much to be desired.
3. Salman Ali Agha continuing to reward his selection with good performances
Like in the case of Sarfaraz, lots of questions were being raised about Salman pre-England series and whether he truly belongs at this level. It is safe to say that Salman has continued to remove doubts with brave contributions with the bat, having averaged 45.00 throughout the series at a strike rate of 65. Salman seems to have understood his role in the lower order providing Pakistan with much needed depth in their batting, and someone to guide the tail at the back end. He has been underused as a bowler however, and he must improve his shot selection in crunch situations.
4. Naseem Shah’s improved bowling
Naseem has reached a point in his career where he cannot get away with substandard or inconsistent bowling spells considering he has now played 15 Test matches. Naseem’s bowling display against good Kiwi batsmen, especially Kane Williamson was pleasing to the eye, especially considering his performance the last time he played a Test match against New Zealand (in 2020) was one to forget. Taking 4 wickets in the test @28.50 and an economy of 3.08 might actually be the best performance by a Pakistani pace bowler throughout their home season (England and New Zealand), so this most certainly refreshing to see. The question now is, can Naseem continue to remain fit and produce similar performances going forward?
The home Test season that many would like to forget
To summarize, Pakistan can now take a break from this format for some time having played a tough 5 matches at home from December to early January. We do not know what the future holds for Captain Babar Azam, and if the new management will lay emphasis on Test cricket more than it does with its fascination with white-ball cricket and the obsession to beat India in a T20 or two.
Pakistan cricket hasn't quite reached its lowest stage yet considering that their reputation is not marred with allegations of corruption like they have been in the past, but the cricket and the leadership has to improve. There have forever been talks about positive mindset and aggressive decision-making, but when will we ever see it in action? There is talk of change in the air so who knows what the future holds for us but I for one, will not be holding my breath.