February 14, 2013

Batting is Pakistan's Achilles heel

They've always had the bowlers to take 20 wickets, but not the batsmen to set imposing totals

Where do you go when you are at the limit of your ability, when you have finally exhausted your reservoir of talent and skill? For the last ten days, Pakistan's Test batsmen will have struggled with this question. Johannesburg left them with shattered psyches and a steep mountain to climb. They were defeated and demolished, sliced open with seam and pace. This is not the kind of mess to be sorted out through mere technical adjustments. Something inspirational and heroic is needed.

The theory of correct batting is known to any competent cricketer, and no doubt Pakistan's batsmen have gone over it in their heads at least a few times in the last few days. See the ball early, play it late; keep your head still and your eyes on the ball; move your feet to get into line; know the location of your off stump with precise visuospatial instinct; present a straight blade; play it down and aim for the "V".

Unfortunately for Pakistan, Dale Steyn creates the kind of situation where the theory of correct batting doesn't stand much of a chance. An instrument of ferocity and terror, he is frighteningly accurate, keeps hitting the seam, and swings it late. When he runs in he looks like a leopard leaping across open grasslands. When he celebrates a wicket, something visceral and primeval is unleashed. He doesn't just dismiss, he destroys. And he really lets you know about it.

Facing Steyn places you in the realm of intangibles, where external help and preparation become ineffective. Words of wisdom from a professional coach, key insights from a technical analyst, hours of net practice, an arduous training schedule - they must all ebb away very quickly when you are standing across the pitch from Steyn. It's just you, your ability, and whatever determination you can muster, versus the demonic phenomenon that happens to be your adversary. Even worse, he is hardly alone. As Aakash Chopra detailed on this site, in this South African attack and on these pitches, there is no weak link.

If anything, these desperate circumstances call for a theory of wresting initiative from the bowler, but that is something altogether more complicated. You have to take charge, and you must do it within minutes of reaching the crease. Your body language should exude an air of authority and command, perhaps even a bit of a swagger. You must have enough technical savvy and richness of form to keep making solid contact with the ball. Boundaries must be frequently scored, mainly in front of the wicket, with clean and fluent strokes.

None of this comes naturally to Pakistan's batsmen, who are all shaky starters, are tentative outside the off stump, and possess an instinctive front-foot movement that can be a liability given the variable bounce of South African pitches. To have a serious chance in the remaining Tests, one or more of the Pakistan batsmen will have to show intense determination and guts. It will take more than just a grinding rearguard. This is about resilience and dominance, not defence and survival. You need something vivid and dramatic that demoralises the opposition and takes the game by the scruff of the neck. Javed Miandad's 114 in Georgetown comes to mind, or, more recently, Kevin Pietersen's 186 in Mumbai.

To have a serious chance in the remaining Tests, one or more of the Pakistan batsmen will have to show intense determination and guts. It will take more than just a grinding rearguard. This is about resilience and dominance, not defence and survival

There had been warning signs aplenty leading up to that calamitous first innings at the Wanderers that resulted in an unmentionable total. Pakistan hadn't played outside Asia in a year and a half, and soon after arriving in South Africa, the batting line-up struggled during the warm-up game in East London.

It could even be argued that the warning signs have been around for years, because Pakistan have not witnessed the entry of a truly world-class batsman since Younis Khan made his Test debut in 2000. A few newcomers - Yasir Hameed, Salman Butt, Asim Kamal, Khurram Manzoor and Umar Akmal, among others - showed promise from time to time, but, for a variety of reasons, have more or less been sidelined. At the moment Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq appear the most competent and gifted of the new generation, though they have yet to make a truly significant impact. Hopefully they will one day, but that day is still in the future.

This series was always going to be determined by whether Pakistan's batsmen could raise their game to confront the perils of touring South Africa. In the current line-up, Younis Khan has the experience and ability to suggest he might produce something exceptional. He has a middling record in South Africa and has been in mediocre form of late, but he does have a habit of responding with a vengeance after being stung. South Africa are formidable but not infallible. In the second innings in Johannesburg, Pakistan's batting lasted 100.4 overs against them, including a wicketless session after tea on the third day. Misbah and Asad defied with fifties, as nearly did Nasir Jamshed, who was the most fluent of them all and ultimately fell to an unforced error.

Apart from Younis, Jamshed seems capable of playing a commanding knock against this attack; he lacks experience, but that might be something of an advantage, because it also makes him free of negative baggage. Azhar too played some fluent shots in Johannesburg; he fell cheaply in both innings but hung around for quite a bit, managing nearly three hours in all at the crease. He too has an impressive record, including a match-winning knock outside Asia (The Oval, 2010), and might well compile a big one if he gets his eye in. Mohammad Hafeez is the one who looks the most suspect against South Africa's pace, and he would probably have been dropped from this side but for his offspin. Still, he's a fighter and could yet surprise us.

Even if Pakistan somehow magically defy expectations to bat out of their skins and post competitive totals in the coming matches, the lessons of Johannesburg should not be forgotten. Historically, for all their international success, no one thinks of Pakistan as a nation of batsmen. Indeed, one is almost hard-pressed to select a Pakistani batsman in an all-time Asian XI, let alone a world side. Pakistan may have the third-best win-loss ratio in Test history, but that's largely because they've had bowling with enough teeth to keep taking 20 wickets. Forget fielding, leadership and governance, batting is Pakistan's real Achilles heel. The national cricket set-up should undertake a searching self-examination to trace the mess to its roots, in the hopes of eventually devising a rational and lasting solution.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi

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