Pakistan's bowlers need more support
Pakistan know exactly where their frailties lie. Yet all summer they have been falling over the same hurdles and repeating the same mistakes and Salman Butt must surely be tired of explaining how inept batting and fielding remain Pakistan's weak links. Butt knows only too well that Pakistan will need to work tirelessly on those two fronts to not only avoid losing this series but also to arrest their slide down the Test pecking order.
Look at these numbers: in the four Tests Pakistan have played so far on this England trip (including the two-match series against Australia in July), their batsmen have notched up seven half-centuries. England already have two centurions and four men sharing five fifties. Not a single Pakistani has yet reached three figures. Butt's 92 at Lord's remains the highest so far, but against England Pakistan's best batsman of 2010 has scores of 1, 8, 7 and 0 in the two Tests played.
If Pakistan's specialist batsmen are thinking of relaxing for the next week before the third Test at The Oval they will do well to consider this: only three tourists have managed to get a half-century against England in Nottingham and Trent Bridge. One was a debutant, one was playing his first Test of the series and the other will play no further part. If any further salt needs to be rubbed in the top order's wounds, one of them is a lower-order batsman while the other two are tailenders.
Zulqarnain Haider played the innings of the Edgbaston Test with his resolute 88, and in one innings became Pakistan's leading run-scorer in the series so far. One run behind him is Umar Gul, whose belligerent 65 saved Pakistan from following on at Trent Bridge. In the dire straits in which Pakistan's batting finds itself at the moment Gul's unavailability for at least the next three weeks (torn hamstring) sounds like torture.
The third man to get a fifty was Saeed Ajmal, who replaced Danish Kaneria after Pakistan's most experienced Test player was dropped for lack of form after the Nottingham defeat. Ajmal received several blows to the chest and hurt his right elbow, but boldly faced down the short-pitched barrage from the bamboo-tall pair of Stuart Broad and Steve Finn to cap his maiden five-for with his first half-century.
With the batting in the doldrums, the two Mohammads - Asif and Amir - continue to give their side a chance with their canny, incisive mode of attack. Like a supercomputer the A-pair has a rich vault of bowling intelligence stored in their brains, and this they have utilised efficiently to find different ways of working out England's batsmen. But they are surely on the verge of losing their patience if Pakistan's woeful fielders do not pull their socks up soon and start holding catches.
On the first day of the second Test Pakistan dropped five manageable chances; the next day at least three more sitters were spilled. Today, including some half chances, the drops trickled up to five. It was the same in Nottingham where Kamran Akmal and Imran Farhat, at first slip, were the worst culprits.
"The guys themselves realise that we need 20 wickets to win a Test match and if we drop 14 catches in a Test match, that is more than half the wickets lost," an annoyed Butt said after today's defeat. "Being professional we need to account for the half chances."
Butt argued that no amount of specialist coaching or adoption of preparation methods from more proficient fielding teams would help Pakistan unless individuals took responsibility to attend to their own games in the field. Indeed, traditionally, Pakistan have always enjoyed batting and bowling but have never found an appetite for excellence in the field. That mode of thinking needs to be snuffed out sooner rather than later and Butt would do well give to assert his authority and issue ultimatums.
"We have concerns that I have already commented on and unless they are [addressed] - fielding and top-order batting - it will be hard for us [to win]," Butt insisted.
Butt said Pakistan's strenuous schedule of playing six Tests in seven weeks was already proving cumbersome. After the Trent Bridge loss, Waqar Younis, Pakistan's coach, had feared the workload was bound to add pressure on his fast bowlers and now with Gul ruled out of the remaining Tests, Pakistan's task has become that much harder.
"The itinerary was decided even before I was coming on this tour so I've got to contend with whatever time we have but whatever break we have we will make full use of it," Butt said. Asked if he would think of resting key players, Butt pointed out it wasn't such an easy task. "We will have a chat with the physio and trainer and see who can be rested. It is a break for the media but we will be busy all the days."
Butt, who was handed the captaincy in an abrupt fashion when Shahid Afridi pressed the eject button after the Lord's defeat against Australia last month, has been modest in his confessions about the team's grey areas. Though he has been around for seven years, his own career has not run a steady path and has already included numerous comebacks. But he is willing to see things clearly and work closely with the think tank. Keeping that open stance has helped him to stay positive and he now is expectant that the arrival of Mohammad Yousuf into the squad, despite the pair's past differences, could in fact help Pakistan to regroup and bounce back in the final two Tests of the England series.
"We hope he gets runs for the side. We hope his experience would prove invaluable for the team and I hope the youngsters can learn from him whatever they can," Butt said of his senior. Yousuf is bound to play the two-day practice match against Worcester this weekend and Butt said he is a certainty for the final two Tests of the tour, fitness permitting.
Yet, no amount of Mohammads can save Pakistan from falling apart unless every player is willing to work hard, stay mentally strong and enjoy their cricket.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo