August 12, 2014

Is Pakistan's slow approach now holding them back?

Under Misbah-ul-Haq, Pakistan have had a lot of success when they have batted for time and strangled teams with spin. But they may need a different tactic now

With a more settled middle order, Pakistan can now afford to score quicker to dominate games © AFP

There comes a time when every pioneer is forced to confront the very changes they unleashed turning against them. Historians repeat tales of wise rulers who made much-needed reforms only to see those undermine their own power.

On Sunday evening, after Sri Lanka narrowly beat the rain gods, (they had defeated Pakistan much earlier) the post-mortem of the defeat focused on Pakistan's negative approach in the third innings. While I was among those bemoaning the drip-torture run rate, it is slightly churlish to blame this tactic. After all, batting for time rather than runs, and bowling tight and forcing mistakes, has always been the approach under Misbah-ul-Haq.

When he began, Misbah's strategy was mostly a result of necessity rather than design. The task ahead of him was the toughest faced by a Pakistan captain since Abdul Hafeez Kardar. Misbah's team was already in international exile and had just been rocked by the game's biggest scandal, losing its two best bowlers. His batsmen were young and callow, while his bowling spearhead was an ageing spinner. To take the team from there to the world's No. 3-ranked side in Tests is a remarkable achievement. Most importantly, it came in the face of widespread derision from a country obsessed with playing a certain attacking style. Misbah's defensive approach helped Pakistan rebuild and punch above their weight despite the chaos all around them.

In that context, is it really fair to blame an approach that has brought so much success and stability? In order to answer that question, I used my caveman-level statistics skills to take a closer look at the one metric everyone gets riled about - Pakistan's run rate under Misbah.

I looked at the scoring rate for both Pakistan and their opposition in Tests under Misbah, and divided them by first- and second-innings scores v third- and fourth-innings scores. In the first two innings of the match, Misbah's side scored at 2.91 runs per over and conceded 2.97. In the second turn (i.e. third or fourth innings) the team scored at 2.78 and conceded 2.91. In simple terms, the team was likely to bat a touch slower in the second innings and bowl more economically.

Breaking these down by outcome, the scoring rate for Pakistan increased in matches won from an average of 2.94 runs per over in the first dig to 3.1 in the second. In losses, the scoring rate dropped from an average of 2.7 in the first dig to 2.56 in the second. In drawn matches, Pakistan's run rate dropped from 2.96 in the first turn to 2.71 in the second - a figure closer to the one for losses than that for wins. In terms of bowling, Pakistan under Misbah, on average, decreased the opposition's run rate by 0.15 runs per over in wins, and watched it improve by 0.19 in losses. In draws, though, the average run rate for the opposition in the first or second innings is 3.1, which is the same rate conceded in the third or fourth innings.

One point of interest that emerges here is Pakistan's behaviour in draws. They start batting at a rate similar to that in wins, but their run rate in their second turn slows down to a level closer to that in losses. This is an important distinction, since Pakistan's ability to draw matches has seen a remarkable turnaround over the past two years.

In Misbah's earlier years, the batting side was so inexperienced that survival was often the best that could be hoped for. Misbah made his team bat for time rather than runs and they blunted South Africa in a drawn series where they batted at 2.93 and 2.28 runs per over in their final innings of the two matches. After a series win against Sri Lanka using a similar style, this approach towards batting reached its apogee in 2012, when they twice defeated England with run rates of 2.15 and 2.39 in their last innings. At the end of the series Misbah's record as captain stood at nine wins, five draws and just one defeat.

However, in the last two years, Misbah's record reads three wins, three draws, and seven defeats. Crucially, six of these defeats have come in matches where Pakistan scored at under three runs per over in their final innings, while their only success batting at this rate came against Zimbabwe. In contrast, batting at over three runs per over in the final innings during this time brought two wins, two draws and a defeat. While one of those wins was a facile chase against South Africa, the other was a remarkable chase of a 300-plus target at over five runs per over.

As noted above, Pakistan are no longer drawing matches, and their approach in their final innings is yielding different results. The only significant win in the past two years has come when they batted aggressively, while the only draw has also come when scoring at over three an over. In contrast, scoring at under three an over in their final innings has become disastrous for them. This last change is important, because previously batting cautiously and negatively in the final innings was ensuring draws and even wins.

Misbah should try using Junaid Khan and Saeed Ajmal in a more attacking manner © AFP

So what has caused this change? Perhaps the biggest reason is the stability. The opening slots are still a carousel, but the next four batsmen and the bowling spearheads are largely settled. The astonishing chase in Sharjah also confirmed that the team had the ability to score at a faster rate than they currently do. And most importantly, the disaster in Galle reiterated that the line-up no longer has the ability to bat at deliberately slow rates.

After the match, Misbah said: "I think there was no strategy [to bat negatively]. Our plan was to play normal cricket." The quote suggests that the batsmen slipped into their regular scoring rate under Misbah, which in recent times has only been challenged when chasing a series-tying win. What was once a necessity has now become a burden, and batting slowly in their final innings in a match is getting Pakistan beaten.

But unlike before, they are now good enough to score faster, and have been achieving results when they have batted at a more aggressive rate. Moreover, Waqar Younis' ascension to coach has also seen a more attacking, and therefore more expensive, approach to bowling, specifically with the attack now containing a much-improved Junaid Khan and a Saeed Ajmal who knows he's one of the world's best. But using them more aggressively will contrast with Misbah's preferred style of using a slow-spin strangle.

Consequently, the stability and simplicity that Misbah brought to the side might now be holding it back. He would do well to realise that just like when he started, he again faces a situation where the only choices are to change or perish.

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

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