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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • taher on November 1, 2013, 19:33 GMT

    i think its hightime that PCB shud revive and rehaul its domestic cricket as pakistan has suffered alot due to lack of first-class cricket.organising domestic leagues,trophies,tournaments,etc throughout the year as it boosts local talent and help nurture them.pakistan need to give their domestic cricket top most priority.

  • Faisal on November 1, 2013, 12:52 GMT

    A good article. I am, myself, in favor of having basically similar squads for Tests and ODI's, with only minor adjustments. Younus must be brought back. With him around, at least Misbah will have someone to shoulder the responsibility. And please don't talk about strike rates. What good is Afridi's strike rate to the team? We just need batsmen who can stick around and (a) either post reasonable totals batting first that our strong bowling can defend (b) or be able to chase down modest totals, which, thanks to our bowlers again, the team is usually offered, but fails to achieve.

    And vicmultani, where exactly are we going to find that "firebrand" leader of men who will suddenly turn this bunch of mediocre batsmen into world beaters??? Be thankful for Misbah. As rightly said by Kamran: "But for Misbah and the skills of the country's bowlers, Pakistan would be at the bottom of every pile."

  • Azim on November 1, 2013, 3:31 GMT

    People who say that jamshed shouldn't be given a chance r ones who doesn't understand cricket properly.he's someone whose got the potential in him.he's got the technique,shots n temperament for the big stage.when low profile batsmen like hafeez n azhar Ali r given such a lot of chance why not jamahed with talent.when u find a potential player it's in the hands of the administration to groom them.jamshed obviously is going through a bad patch like any other player.if the administration had the brain they should have taken him to the Zimbabwe tour to let him regain the form

  • Dummy4 on November 1, 2013, 2:00 GMT

    The major issue is selection. There are enough players with 50+ average in first class like Fawad Alam, Shoaib Maqsood, Zain Abbas to name a few but who gets the chance to be in the team: Umer Amin. This guy has an average of 38 in first class.

    I also don't think that the current batting order is proper for the type of batting line up we have. With a fragile batting line up, we can't afford two inconsistent all rounders (Afridi and Hafeez). If one of them was as consistent as Jacque Kallis or Shane Watson (being all rounders), it would have been different.

    1) Shahzad 2) Jamshed 3) Umer Akmal 4) Misbah 5) Asad Shafiq 6) Shoaib Maqsood 7) Afridi 8) Tanvir 9) Ajmal 10) Junaid 11) Irfan

    Shoaib Maqsood can do also bowl - he is a good leg spinner. Shoaib and Afridi can strike big at 6 and 7 if everything clicks upfront. If our top order struggles then Misbah and Shafiq can handle it.

  • Mannan on November 1, 2013, 1:57 GMT


    I am baffled by your criticism of Asad Shafiq.

    Regarding his average in ODIs, I would advise you to look at how badly he has been used rather his ODi career has been intentionally damaged by playing him just one or two matches in a series and has been dropped even after performing well. In his short ODi career he has played at almost all the top order numbers.

    He is the most technically gifted player in current setup and if you go by averages half of your team does not deserve to be in the playing XI

    Please do constructive criticism and leave bias out while analyzing players performances

  • Dummy4 on October 31, 2013, 20:10 GMT

    Asad Shafiq in both formats ?? Are you serioes ? He has an average of 27 and strike rate less than 70 in ODI. He is trusted with in the Test matches an that is where he should bat He is really lucky to get a chance in this current SA series since he did not perform in the Zin series and I am happy that team management and selectors stuck in with him but he is batting at a very safe number where most teams are batting either an allrounder or the keeper. I think he should only stick to Tests and bat higher up to be tested. Wicketkeeper in ODI is thankfully not a problem anymore but I do believe that Pakistan should try out Mohammad Rizwan too but Umar Akaml should be in the team in any case as he is the only world class batsman in this side with an average of almost 40 and strike rate of 85.

  • Steve on October 31, 2013, 17:55 GMT

    As far as the ODI goes, I put the blame on Afridi more than anyone else. With less than 15 runs to get and million overs left, all he needed was to push the ball around and Pak would have been home comfortable. What did he instead? I think Azhar Ali should be discarded, for he is so slow to get off the blocks in any situation, that the opposition gets on top straight away. It is also time to look beyond Younis Khan. I was a fan of him for years, but I think he is very inconsistent these days to go along with very poor strike rate. And, please give a rest to Nasir Jamshed. He has been a consistent failure of late.

  • Arijit_in_TO on October 31, 2013, 17:20 GMT

    I like Amit_13's idea about going 'all in' on the bowling. It would take some skillful captaincy --someone like a Mark Taylor, Mike Brearley or Imran Khan-- to pull it off but in a nutshell I don't believe that batsmen could withstand 6 world class Pakistani bowlers going full tilt (with appropriate field placements, of course) at them during a test match. The current crop of batsmen have not shown the application to play test cricket. FWIW, I think the criticism of Misbah ul Haq is pretty harsh but I say that from the perspective of a bystander.

  • Amit on October 31, 2013, 16:16 GMT

    Given their alienation by the international cricket community, playing more A team tours with better teams or playing the Associate nations would be an option. It hurts me to say this but Pakistan should consider stepping down to preserve their batting and to get more games in. They are sadly not a hard draw anymore. And given the conditions back home, no team will go there for a long long time. Misbah, for all his herculean efforts, is 40 and fit... but he is as disposable as the cricket administration in the country. If he goes, they might have to go the other way and start picking 6 bowlers or more to give the batsmen a chance. That might be another interesting prospect... atleast for test cricket. I have never known a Pak bowling attack the opposition have taken lightly. In world cricket, they are the only country who could boast a world class 4 pack of pace bowlers and an equally competent spin twins.

  • vic on October 31, 2013, 16:12 GMT

    As it happens, most people miss the very obvious that is in the front of their eyes. The problem with pakistani cricket team is that it lacks leadership. Misbah---though a great batsman---is a terrible leader. He does not have the fire in him to lead a team of men as a captain. He has no personality. He is calm under all circumstances---whereas you need someone who has FIRE in him to come out aswinging---to rip the players another a'hole---. Pakistan teams leads an alpha male to lead its players. The job of a leader / captain is to get his players to do their chosen tasks as individuals and as a team at the same time. Misbah has a SOB STORY for every failure---it is about time that pakistan keep Misbah in the batting line up and find a fire brand to take charge. In pakistan's case---Misbah is doing his job in batting---rest of the 5 batsmen are failing---so I would rather have a captain who might fail at batting but lead 5 of his batsmen to perform---.