October 31, 2013

Pakistan's first-innings malaise

Over the last few years Pakistan's batting order as a whole has failed to respond to the challenge of batting first in an international match

Of late Pakistan rarely dominate a Test match from the first innings, particularly when they bat first © AFP

Zippergate, ball-tampering, whatever the crime, it doesn't explain 99 all out. Pakistan won the toss. It was a straightforward task to close out the Test series, wasn't it? It's what the coach expected. Dale Steyn struggled to be fit for the match. Imran Tahir had struggled to take any international wickets. Advantage Pakistan? Seemingly so, but that first innings of the match became a disaster; so great a failure that Dav Whatmore expressed his displeasure at the performance of his batsmen in the middle of the Test.

Now Pakistan have crumbled with victory imminent in the first one-day international. The basics of shot selection, playing straight, and managing a simple run chase evaporated into the Sharjah night.

I can't remember a time since the 1970s, when Pakistan were weakened by Kerry Packer, that the batsmen have seemed so vulnerable. It isn't even Pakistan's habitual crime of being unpredictable. A depressing inevitability surrounds the batting performances, so much so that the achievements of the first Test were an utter surprise, albeit a pleasant one. The prime responsibility lies with the top order, we know, where Azhar Ali's loss of form adds to the dilemma of the openers.

But the top-order issue cannot alone explain Pakistan's woes. The middle order lacks depth. The main wicketkeepers are some of the weakest at batting in international cricket. Let's not start on their keeping. A nation of allrounders has exhausted its pipeline. The lower order barely know which end of a bat to hold. Only the captain, Misbah-ul Haq, is able to bat with any consistency. But for Misbah and the skills of the country's bowlers, Pakistan would be at the bottom of every pile.

One particular weakness is batting first in an international match. How often do Pakistan dominate a Test match from the first innings, particularly when they bat first? Batting first in a Test match is an opportunity to seize the initiative. The better teams expect to post big totals and apply pressure. But Pakistan rarely do.

Yes, Pakistan's defeat in Sharjah came from a run chase, but let's take this measure of how a team performs in the first innings of an international match as a proxy for the ability of its batsmen.

To investigate, I looked up a illuminating statistic. Since the damaging England tour of 2010, Pakistan's average score when batting first in a Test match is 261. To put that into perspective, South Africa's average score when batting first during the same period is 382, the best of any Test team. Indeed, Pakistan's record is the worst of all. Even Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are better.

Misbah's response has been to dig in, to fight and grind out a rearguard. But there is only so much one man can do

Pakistan's record in one-day internationals in this period is little better. When batting first since that England series in 2010, Pakistan average 223. South Africa, by contrast, average 268, which is the best, above India with 265. Pakistan do better than Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, but that's it.

Using this statistic as a measure of batting performance, Pakistan have declined sharply since 2010, both in Test matches and one-day internationals, when compared with their own performances before 2010 and against other countries since 2010. What this means is that Pakistan's whole batting order is failing to respond to the challenge of batting first in an international match. When the top order lets the team down, as it usually does, the middle order struggles to take the initiative, and the tailenders do little to defy their opponents. In general, teams that score heavily in the first innings of an international match tend to be more successful.

These failings in the first innings, when batting conditions are traditionally at their best, are destroying the confidence of Pakistan's batsmen, so much so that a hospitable track becomes a minefield, a friendly attack becomes endowed with devilment, and an easy run chase becomes impossible.

The solutions for Pakistan aren't obvious. The alternatives are unready, thanks, as Misbah-ul-Haq rightly points out, to an inadequate domestic circuit. The four young openers across both formats will require time to establish themselves. At No. 3, it's clear that Azhar Ali should be rested from Test cricket, but it's less clear who can replace him. Perhaps Asad Shafiq can step up in both formats? Even if that solves one problem, Pakistan still seek depth in their middle order, wicketkeepers who can bat, a bowling allrounder, and generally more tenacity from their lower-order batsmen. But both Test and one-day squads struggle for opportunities and fixtures to allow replacements to be tested and establish themselves.

Misbah's response has been to dig in, to fight and grind out a rearguard. But there is only so much one man can do. He needs help. Given the failings of domestic cricket, Pakistan should consider bucking the trend in international selection of choosing different squads for different formats. Why not select essentially the same core squad of players for Test and one-day international cricket? An international cricketer of sufficient class will be able to succeed in both formats. "A" tours and T20 cricket can be then used to blood new talent. Selecting different squads for different formats is just a fashion. There is no evidence to support it.

Pakistan, in the current circumstances, don't have the luxury of being fashionable. Pragmatism is required. The deterioration in Pakistan's batting won't be fixed by doing what's being done now and simply trying harder. The chosen few require as much international exposure as is available.

Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here

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