October 18, 2013

Slow strangle in the UAE

Pakistan's bowlers have developed a style of attacking but attritional cricket that saps the opposition's strengths, like the heat and aridity of the Middle East do

Saeed Ajmal: the first Pakistan spinner to lead their bowling attack © AFP

The graveyard of empires, they should call it. Another No. 1 side left wondering how they came to be pulverised so relentlessly in Pakistan's UAE fortress.

In the run-up to the series, Graeme Smith thought England hadn't prepared well enough in 2012, while Paul Harris thought Pakistan didn't take their chances and didn't respond well to falling behind. One Test match later, it's South Africa's preparations and attitude coming under scrutiny.

But perhaps it is time we focus some attention on the "home" team's achievements. Pakistan seem to have developed a UAE slow-strangle strategy, one that is in many ways at odds with the long-running clichés about the team, but which utilises the local conditions to perfection.

Mohammad Irfan and Junaid Khan are the latest pace bowlers leading the line, and in contrast to several others in the past, both are attacking, adaptive bowlers. Previously the pacers had been used to soften the batsmen until the spinners could be brought in, but the emergence of the fast bowlers in this Test allows Pakistan to consider ending their reliance on a third spinner/fifth bowler, because Junaid and Irfan are able to dry up the runs as well as take wickets. Junaid, in particular, has a knack for picking up the best batsmen in the opposition, here accounting for one of Kallis' worst performances, and getting AB de Villiers right when Waqar Younis in the commentary box was detailing dystopic visions of a fourth-innings chase.

However, while wickets at the top helped, it was Irfan and Junaid's ability to also keep the scoring rate down that segued so well into Pakistan's Emirati slow-strangle tactic, which is based primarily on an attritional, run-squeezing approach. In this way, it is quite contrary to the more mercurial stylings of the past, since it forces batsmen to make mistakes rather than actively seeking to rout them. It's also one that makes perfect use of the conditions in the UAE, where the pitches don't hold the same demons as the listless heat and aridity seem to.

In the context of that general strategy, Zulfiqar Babar arrived as a wonderful replacement for the severely underrated Abdur Rehman, immediately falling into a rhythm with Saeed Ajmal and barely displaying any nerves. His style suited the attritional approach, with consistency taking precedence over mystery and flamboyance.

In an odd testament to Pakistan cricket's fluctuations, only one man has been part of the two bowling attacks that blew out England in 2012 and South Africa now: Ajmal. Then again, as he is the talisman of the bowling side, perhaps that shouldn't be a surprise. He is the bowler Pakistan turn to to knock the opposition over once they have been worn down.

In one sense, Ajmal is an anomaly in Pakistan's cricket history. They have previously had, in Saqlain Mushtaq, a spinner similar to Ajmal in his ability to think like a pace bowler, to create new deliveries and bowl fearlessly at the death. What sets Ajmal apart is that he is the first instance of a spinner as the leader of Pakistan's attack.

He serves the role of the anchor around whom the attack builds, bowling countless, unchanged overs as the pressure piles up imperceptibly yet relentlessly on the opposition, like sand on the ramparts of an abandoned fort. Yet he is also the bowler most capable of diving in for the kill, raising the tempo and morale of those around him, and getting the team to move in unison. In doing so, he allows for the slow-strangle strategy to be effective. With him bowling, Pakistan can play long spells of attritional, defensive cricket while still retaining the ability to move up a gear and start a rampage.

As the leader, Ajmal has plenty of the bravado and blue-aired frustrations of the Wasims and Waqars, yet his appeal and inspiration are built around his impish smile and quick wit. These seeming contradictions are best captured in the way he delivers the ball, resembling a drunken ninja falling off a window who still manages to launch a precise star-shaped dart that nicks the opponent's jugular.

Capturing these different styles and approaches allows Ajmal to achieve something far more important than the awards he has been famously ignored for. More than anyone else, it is Ajmal who has carried forth the soul of Pakistan's cricket across different eras, bringing together the tradition of attack with the contemporary discipline of attrition.

All these elements have come together for Pakistan to create an extremely effective guerilla tactic against the top sides - a slow choke that brings together the power of the elements as well as the complacency that visits to the UAE seem to bring out in tourists.

This tactic also seems to capture the quintessential experience most Pakistani citizens living and working in the UAE seem to have - one of little recognition or respect, built around unstinting hard work and long days in hellish conditions, but one that often realises transformative achievements that sort of sneak under the radar.

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ahmer on October 21, 2013, 7:21 GMT


    I have been compared to Arshad Warsi before, although I would prefer to go with a person who once said that I looked like Sangakarra.

  • abdul on October 18, 2013, 22:00 GMT

    Good article, credit must be given to Pakistani bowlers who r capable to perform on almost any cricket ground in the world. The problem with Pakistan has always been their batsmen not backing their bowlers well and in this match the difference between winning and losing sides of Pakistani teams is just the good show of Pakistani batsmen. Otherwise Pakistani bowlers have always been bowling well and allowing Pakistani cricket to earn some respect from other cricketing nations.

  • Umair on October 18, 2013, 19:57 GMT

    "These seeming contradictions are best captured in the way he delivers the ball, resembling a drunken ninja falling off a window who still manages to launch a precise star-shaped dart that nicks the opponent's jugular."

    I love it!

  • Rizwan on October 18, 2013, 19:26 GMT

    The ESPN-cricinfo ranking system is quite controversial as was published in cricinfo article couple of months ago. Rankings are totally based on win-lose ratio. Up till now, no method has been devised to induce home/away conditions in the ranking system. Pak have quite better ranking if you consider win-lose ratio in UAE. Despite losing to Pak by 3-0, England is still at #2. If Eng play against pak in UAE again, Pak is still favorite despite at #6. Same applies to SA. I am not surprised if Pak have beaten SA in UAE. For me it is not HUGE UPSET, as I was expecting pak to play competitive cricket in UAE.

  • Dummy4 on October 18, 2013, 19:02 GMT

    A great, enjoyable piece.

    It has irked me somewhat that most people are talking about why South Africa lost and not how Pakistan won the match. Credit should totally go to the Pakistan team as almost every player contributed in the win. It was a mighty effort to defeat the best Test team currently within four days!

  • Jo on October 18, 2013, 18:55 GMT

    Well narrated and compiled piece of work. It feel good to read such a quality write-up in the midst of mindless scattered articles being published here in large numbers. Keep it up bro.

  • Dummy4 on October 18, 2013, 18:18 GMT

    superb write up brother ! mashaAllah

  • Dummy4 on October 18, 2013, 17:59 GMT

    Credit must go to all Pakistan bowlers. It is their performance in SA first innings which set the tone for Pak victory, on a pitch which was supposed to be good for batting first. You could see misery on Pakistan captains face after losing toss , he could hardly speak.Having SA out for a meager score some how it is their fast bowlers that lost the bean and did not bowl as well as they can, which gave the new Pak openers chance to score easily and pile up runs which made it easier for others to play with some freedom otherwise, as we know, with early loss of openers Pak. batsmen are always defending their wicket than scoring runs. Much will depend how Pak. openers perform in next match, again that will depend how SA bowlers perfom. I dont think they will be as bad as in their first innings. Pakistan has always done well if they get a good opening stand, other countries know that as well and will always focus on Pak. openers.

  • Owais on October 18, 2013, 16:47 GMT

    The last paragraph is so touching, I almost cried !!!

  • Dummy4 on October 18, 2013, 16:09 GMT

    Ahmer's writing is sheer poetry. No one can make a cricket piece so lyrical and entertaining.

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