KARACHI: Bounce-back-ability from the mauling in Manchester is the barometer that will gauge the actual stature of Misbahul Haq’s team as the build-up begins for Birmingham’s Edgbaston, a venue where Pakistan are yet to taste Test victory in seven attempts — four defeats, three draws.
Bounce and the relatively pacier nature of the Old Trafford pitch – venue for the second Test – undid Pakistan plans both in their bowling and batting stints.
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Birmingham with its tendency to offer prodigious swing in recent years is anything but a batting paradise and Pakistan need to look no further than their own batting debacle six years ago when they were bundled out for 72 on the opening day — their lowest ever in Tests against England.
Since leaving Manchester, batsmen we hear have put in the hard yards in practice while Azhar Ali with 39 runs in four Test innings scored 81 against Worcestershire — a bowling attack led by Jack Shantry and Charlie Morris — quite lacking the edge and quality of the English Test attack.
Shan Masood whose Test future seems to be under the ‘James Anderson spell’ — six dismissals in six innings — chipped in with 67 runs in the Worcestershire tie as back-up opener Sami Aslam fell for 17.
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Can Pakistan persist with Masood? With Mohammad Hafeez at the other end yet to stamp his authority either, the tourists can ill-afford to open with two low-on-confidence openers.
Hafeez has at least looked in better touch in three out of his four innings only to throw away the starts of 40, 18 and 42 seemingly to lapses in concentration.
Sami has a mere two Test appearances under his belt, even on the current tour he has been confined to net sessions other than the Worcester workout.
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Can Pakistan take a risk with him with the series on a knife-edge or just hope that Masood and Hafeez will learn from the experiences of Lord’s and Old Trafford and dig in deep at Edgbaston is a question staring Misbahul Haq directly in the eyes.
In hindsight, the team management should have retained one among the ‘A’ team trio of Sharjeel Khan, Jahid Ali and Babar Azam for the remainder of the Test series as a back-up to the openers — perhaps chief selector Inzamamul Haq has missed a trick there.
The openers’ conundrum is accentuated by Azhar’s failures at number three. The Lahore-born entered the series as Pakistan’s most experienced top-order batsman in English conditions with six appearances in his debut 2010 tour.
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But the ODI captain has been found wanting against the incoming delivery, falling lbw on three out of his four innings, the fourth dismissal courtesy an involuntary jab back to the bowler.
The back-up batting stocks include Iftikhar Ahmed and Mohammad Rizwan; both scored unbeaten 40s in Worcester but are untested in the longest format.
Misbah has a tendency of sticking out to his plans even in the face of adversity and one feels that his general ‘aversion to risk’ strategy might hamper the thought of tinkering with the batting combination for Birmingham.
Pakistan are also plagued by Younus Khan’s struggles at number four — 87 runs in four innings — which heightens further the troubles of the top-order.
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None of the top-four have managed to post a fifty yet and heading into Birmingham the quartet would need to get their act together if Pakistan are to stay competitive.
The fragility of the top order aside, the much vaunted bowling attack too had a chastening experience at Old Trafford. The linchpin Yasir Shah is likely to find more help from the Edgbaston strip which should come as some relief to Misbah.
But Yasir’s actual test will be the strength of his mind; Old Trafford figures of one for 266 from 63 overs might start praying on his mind especially if he doesn’t get early breakthroughs. The captain and team management have to make him realise that a spell of a few minutes can turn the tide his way and he must stick to his strengths.
Over at Old Trafford, Yasir used the googly scantly; the delivery, a traditional strength of Pakistan leg-spinners, isn’t the most potent Yasir weapon yet. But unleashing a few googlies at the start of a spell can at least cast that seed of doubt in the batters’ minds.
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The less than inspiring returns of the pace battery of Mohammad Amir, Wahab Riaz and Rahat Ali is another cause of concern for Misbah and his men.
Wahab and Rahat were blunted out with consummate ease by the English top order; Alastair Cook and Joe Root feasted on their shoddy lengths and direction. One of them should be benched for Birmingham but do we have the back-up to replace them?
Imran Khan and Sohail Khan bowled 19 overs each in the Worcester tie, their figures – one for 60 and one for 56 respectively – are indicative of a largely drab show.
Sohail with a solitary Test wicket in his kitty is still raw at the international level despite his considerable first-class experience; his lack of penetration in the lead-up games and Worcester inspires little confidence.
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Imran who is yet to taste a defeat in seven Test appearances is more of a defensive option albeit his record on seaming conditions in Pakistan’s domestic long-format competitions is admirable.
With Wahab, Rahat, Imran and Sohail looking equally unimpressive, Pakistan can possibly take a punt and play their lucky charm Imran ahead of Sohail or one of Rahat and Wahab, one never knows his ‘luck’ might rub-off on his teammates.
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