The speed at which Pakistan cricket’s fortunes can swing from agony to ecstasy and vice-versa is remarkable. After a memorable 2-2 draw over the summer against England led to the ascent of Pakistan’s Test team to the summit of the ICC Test rankings, some pundits were comparing Misbah-ul-Haq’s men to the great side built by Imran Khan in the 1980s. However, after two disappointing defeats in New Zealand, major flaws have been opened up in a Pakistan team at the most inopportune time when they seek to end 21 years of misery in Australia.
Whilst there has been much criticism about Pakistan’s seamers lacking control and fitness – when a team fails to cross 300 in their last six Test innings, it’s clear where the responsibility for this recent slump primarily lies. The batting has been repeatedly undone by either lateral movement and bounce. One issue that has not been emphasised enough in the post-mortems of the New Zealand whitewash is how Pakistan’s batsmen deal with short-pitched bowling. Pakistan have had some impressive individual players of short-pitched bowling over the years such as Ijaz Ahmed and Javed Miandad. However, recently Pakistan’s technical deficiencies against short-pitched bowling have been exposed and must be rectified before the Australia series begins.
Pakistan’s batsmen just don’t seem in control of their pull and hook shots. There are numerous recent examples of this. In Christchurch, Misbah-ul-Haq top-edges a hook shot off the bowling of Tim Southee straight to long-leg. In the same innings, Asad Shafiq pulls a shot to deep midwicket. In Hamilton, Mohammad Rizwan pulls the first ever ball he faces in Test cricket, a ball that could have been avoided, to Matt Henry at square leg. The bounce that left-arm pacer Neil Wagner was able to extract troubled Pakistan on a number of occasions. In the 2nd innings in Christchurch, Wagner took three wickets from dismissing Babar Azam, Younis Khan and Asad Shafiq, all from short-pitched bowling. In Sharjah, not exactly a venue renowned for WACA-esque bounce, Pakistan had no answer to a spell of hostile bowling from West Indies’ Jason Holder who took his best FC figures of 5-30.
So, what is the solution to Pakistan’s short-ball worries? The current Indian Test captain, and one of the premier batsmen in world cricket, Virat Kohli said during India’s own tour of New Zealand in 2014, “I think even to leave the ball on a bouncer, it is very important to want to hit the ball. If you are looking to leave the ball, your weight is already on the back foot and then you are in no position to leave or hit the ball. If you are looking to hit the ball, you take your body forwards and then you can be balanced enough to duck under it.” Without proper balance and positioning, one cannot play short-pitched bowling with any control. Pakistan must judge the length and commit early – either play the ball or leave it. These half-hearted attempts at pulling and hooking will only lead them to trouble. Brisbane is the scene of the first Test and its pitches are known for its bounce that has so often terrorised visiting batsmen over the years, giving the venue the moniker of the “Gabbatoir” so Mickey Arthur must get Pakistan to deal with their short-pitched demons.
What’s also been jarring for Pakistani fans are that the habitual batting collapses, that were thought to have been minimised by the sturdy and calming leadership of Misbah-ul-Haq, have returned. This year has seen five particularly spectacular collapses by Pakistani standards at Edgbaston, Dubai, Sharjah, Hamilton and Christchurch. Shot selection in these performances have either been reckless, or simply non-existent as Pakistan withdrew into a shell after the loss of wickets causing further pressure and loss of wickets with very little change in the scoring. The Chris Tavare tribute act that was Azhar Ali’s 31 off 173 balls at Hagley Oval was a prime example and contributed to the loss of batsmen around him who looked to up the tempo. This is not a good sign heading into this series. The facts are blunt – Pakistan have the worst performing Asian batting unit in Australia compared to their counterparts India and Sri Lanka. Since January 1st 1990, Pakistan have the lowest batting average of 24.68 in Australia and the slowest RPO of 2.87. Pakistan must buck this historical trend and put up competitive totals of 300+ minimum if they are to have a chance of winning or drawing this series plus avoiding the horrendous collapses when in positions of strength that marred their last two tours of Australia in 2004/05 and 2009/10 (Sydney anyone?).
Underpinning these batting concerns are fresh worries about Pakistan’s bowling attack. There have even been calls for Pakistan cricket’s perennial bad boy Mohammad Asif to return. The seamers have not shown the consistent discipline in line and length that is required. In their defence, they haven’t been given runs on the board to work with. However, their fitness especially has been disconcerting. Seeing Sohail Khan huff and puff in 2nd innings of Test matches has become a regular sight. Mohammad Amir, although in his first year of Test cricket after a five-year suspension, has noticeably tired in his later spells. Given Pakistan are likely to adopt a four-man bowling attack in Australia, the intense schedule as of late, plus the heat expected in the Australian summer – one fears this issue of fitness will be returned to.
All that being said, Pakistan’s opponents are too experiencing a crisis. Australia have suffered two dismal series defeats with serious weaknesses against swing, seam, and quality spin exposed. A raft of debutants have been brought in and the Chief Selector has resigned. Australia will be reliant on the quartet of David Warner, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood. Whilst Pakistan do not have the strength of South Africa’s fast bowling, the template is there to beat Australia who are far from the invincible side of the 1990s and early 2000s. Often, bowlers can get carried away with the bounce offered in Australia and will bowl too short – but if Pakistan get their lengths right and restrict the run-scoring of Australia’s naturally impetuous batmen for long enough, then wicket-taking opportunities will occur. Australia have recently failed to show the discipline and application needed with the bat, especially when conditions are more sporting. However, the injection of young blood – Matt Renshaw, Peter Handscomb and Nic Maddinson – unscarred by recent results could provide the impetus Australia need.
Make no mistake, Australia do not lose to Asian teams on their home turf very often. Pakistan will go into this tour as the underdogs despite the recent travails of the home side, but are carrying a much better team than the previous two trips Down Under. These are two flawed teams and two flawed teams battling it out often makes for intriguing cricketing contests. This series may also transpire to be captain Misbah-ul-Haq’s final series adding another layer to the narrative. He’ll be determined to go out on a high. His opposite number is feeling the strain and is equally determined to turn the fortunes of Australian Test cricket around. And despite Mickey Arthur’s protestations to the contrary, he would love to put one over his former employers. 15th December – mark the date down.