How will Pakistan fare in the upcoming Test series against Sri Lanka without Misbah and Younis?
Chief selector Inzamamul Haq might have made a mistake by not selecting another middle-order batsman for this series.
The Pakistan cricket team is set to resume international duty, as Sri Lanka’s tour of the UAE begins on September 28th (which will potentially feature a T20 in Lahore). This will be their first bilateral series since May.
The summer of 2017 has been nothing short of unforgettable for Pakistan’s cricket fraternity, as the national team defied popular perception (not to mention the ranking system) by lifting the International Cricket Council (ICC) Champions Trophy in England.
In addition to this phenomenal feat, international cricket returned to Pakistani soil after an extended hiatus, as an ICC assembled World XI, led by South African captain Faf Du Plessis, toured the cricket deprived country to play three T20 fixtures.
To the delight of Pakistan cricket supporters, this momentous event was concluded without incident, with Babar Azam and Ahmed Shehzad inspiring the home team to a 2-1 series victory.
While Mickey Arthur’s stint as head coach has overseen a marked improvement in Pakistan’s limited overs fortunes, a gargantuan rebuilding effort awaits the team in the Test arena. Exactly a year ago, Pakistan cricket saw itself on the topmost echelon of the longer format of the game, as Misbahul Haq’s reign as Test captain reached its peak.
Pakistan, a team which had not played a home Test in over seven years, sat on top of the Test rankings. The euphoria of this magnanimous achievement was short-lived though, as Misbah’s men slumped to six consecutive Test defeats; their worst losing streak in history which saw them plummet to sixth in the ICC rankings.
With this series, Sarfraz Ahmed approaches his first assignment as the skipper of Pakistan across all three formats. Let us look at the three main areas of concern which must be addressed in order to lay the groundwork for a prosperous future in cricket’s most prestigious format – Test cricket.
The top-order conundrum
Pakistan’s quandaries at the top of the order date back to the times when floppy disks were the norm and dial-up internet connections were considered fast. We have three openers in the squad selected for the two match Test series against Sri Lanka; Azhar Ali, Shan Masood and Sami Aslam.
It is highly probably for all three openers to start in the first Test, as Azhar’s preferred position is at number three. However, given the dearth of experience between Shan and Sami, one of them should partner the experienced Azhar, who has revelled in the role of an opener, in what can be considered the most stellar season of his career.
Shan, who made his Test debut nearly four years ago, has failed to cement a place in the starting 11. With a below-par average of 23.10 in 10 Tests, Shan’s only significant innings came against Sri Lanka in 2015, where he scored 125 to secure victory in a record chase. Furthermore, his struggles against the short delivery are comparable to Superman’s struggles against Kryptonite; only Shan is no Superman.
Sami, on the other hand, has shown more promise on a consistent basis, with an average of 33.25 in 11 Tests. What is most encouraging about his young career is the fact that his top score of 91 came in alien conditions in New Zealand, against a bowling attack that featured Trent Boult and Tim Southee. However, Sami has had his issues with fitness, something Mickey’s coaching team has laid extra emphasis on. This is also an area where Shan trumps Sami, by thoroughly maintaining fitness standards expected of Pakistani cricketers.
The team management should give the golden boy Babar an extended run at first drop (across all three formats), who is yet to prove his credibility in the longer format, with a meagre average of 27.25 in 18 innings.
However, given Babar’s breakout performances in limited overs cricket, where he averages above 50 in both ODIs and T20s, it is only sensible to keep faith in the prodigy that is touted to be the future leader of Pakistan’s batting line up.
Whatever combination the team management decides to go with, must be persisted with for an extended period of time. Chopping and changing the opening slots can be detrimental to a team in which several openers have played out their careers, hanging on the fringes.
Life after MisYou
Few players in the history of Pakistan cricket have garnered more respect than Misbah and Younis Khan. Pakistan’s greatest challenge at the moment will be to fill the planet-sized hole in their middle-order, left by the two men responsible for resurrecting a disgraced nation from the ashes, post-2010 spot-fixing scandal.
The most obvious adjustment seems to be the promotion of Asad Shafiq up the order (to number four), a batsman who for the most part has remained in the shadow of Misbah, Younis and Azhar. Asad will have a point to prove in the years to come, that he is just as capable as any world-class middle-order batsman in the Test circuit. Overseas centuries scored at the Newlands, the Oval and the Gabba, go a long way in validating Asad’s claim as a special talent.
The two new faces who have been selected for the inconceivable task of replacing MisYou are Haris Sohail and Usman Salahuddin. Even though Haris has not played first-class cricket since 2014, he has an average of 52.01 from 57 games and can prove to be extremely handy with his all-round ability. His left-arm orthodox spin can help manage the bowling attack’s workload, as Pakistan have largely opted to field four specialist bowlers in the Misbah era.
The other batsman in the spotlight, Usman, who himself boasts an average of 47.29 in 92 first-class games, might not be handed his debut on Thursday, if Shan and Sami are to open. However, considering he is the only other middle-order batsman selected for this tour, he must be given a full opportunity to express himself, without the fear of being dropped.
Chief selector Inzamamul Haq might have missed a trick by not selecting another middle-order batsman for this series. Preferably in the shape of Fawad Alam, who has consistently racked up the numbers in first-class cricket for over a decade, with a freak average of 56.51 in 135 matches.
Bowling attack dilemma
With wicketkeeper-captain Sarfraz occupying the number seven spot, the team management’s greatest selection dilemma will revolve around choosing four specialist bowlers for the first Test in Abu Dhabi, from a list of eight. Mohammad Amir is expected to spearhead the pace attack, in an attempt to replicate his sensational form for Essex in the English County season.
Yasir Shah, who successfully overcame a fitness scare, shall continue his role as Pakistan’s trump card in Asian conditions. He finished his last series in the West Indies with 25 wickets and a Man of the Series award.
The final two spots remain in contention between Wahab Riaz, Hasan Ali, Mohammad Abbas, Mir Hamza, Bilal Asif and Mohammad Asghar. The prospects of fielding three pace bowlers on the flat tracks of UAE are close to impossible, which leaves two bowlers battling it out for the second spinner spot; Bilal and Asghar. The former’s selection is a bit baffling, considering he has an average of 38.00 with the ball in 15 first-class matches. Perhaps Bilal’s ability with the bat swayed the selectors to give him another shot at international cricket.
Asghar, however, was a prominent find in the first edition of the Pakistan Super League (PSL), and has been waiting in the wings of the Test team for his big break. Still 18 years of age, the left- arm finger spinner can prove to be a viable asset in Pakistan’s future endeavours.
The final spot in this four-pronged bowling attack is likely to be contested between Abbas and Hasan. Both bowlers were extremely impressive in the Caribbean, having generated a significant amount of reverse swing with the old ball. Mickey and Sarfraz might lean towards Hasan for the first Test, who is oozing with the confidence of being Pakistan’s main protagonist in the ICC Champions Trophy triumph.
It must be noted that the selectors have picked the right bowlers for this tour, keeping in mind the rigours of modern-day international cricket. Therefore, it is very likely to see Amir’s left-arm pace bowling being replaced with that of Wahab come the second Test. Similarly, Hasan and Abbas might be given a game each, in whatever order. Even though such fierce competition will most likely evade Mir Hamza from getting his Test cap, there is much to learn for the 25-year-old seamer on his first Test tour.
Pakistan is expected to start the series as favourites, as they face an inexperienced Sri Lankan side, which has been an abysmal run of form following a whitewash in their own backyard at the hands of Virat Kohli’s mighty India.
To add to their woes, the Lankan Tigers will be without the services of their most prolific batsman, Angelo Mathews, in the first Test due to an injury. The bulk of Sri Lanka’s hopes will hinge on the experience of veteran left-arm spinner Rangana Herath, and talented young batsman Kusal Mendis.
Cricket is a funny game though, so don’t be surprised if Sri Lanka pounces on this opportunity, taking advantage of a Pakistan team that has lost its backbone; the timeless partnership of Misbah and Younis.