Can Shadab Khan and Faheem Ashraf give Pakistan the flexibility they need?
On December 1, 2006, Abdul Razzaq winkled out the last two wickets of a game with the kind of deliveries that had begun to be taken for granted because they came so easily to him. Angling in with his action, they would slide off a pitch sometimes as if it were ice, and then slip away from batsmen - which was a problem because he might just as often bring them into the right-hander as well.
This was Karachi and the batsmen West Indian tailenders. Pakistan won the Test comfortably and the wickets - his 99th and 100th - helped put some gloss on a ho-hum match for Razzaq. He had taken one wicket in the first innings and showcased the weird and wonderful spectrum of his batting: 7 off 50 balls in the first, 10 off ten in the second. Minimal impact, maximum bewilderment, as opposed to the good days when his game was simple and brutal.
It was his last act as a Test player. Nobody said it was his last but it did feel like an act of mercy when he didn't play in Pakistan's next Test, or any after that. At the start of the year he had given his finest all-round performance (taking seven wickets and making scores of 45 and 90), also in Karachi, against India. But if asked to make a list of their memories of that game, most people would have Razzaq at third, maybe even fourth, behind Kamran Akmal, Mohammad Asif, and Irfan Pathan's hat-trick.
That performance was an outlier, though, as it was getting easier and easier to drop Razzaq given his dip in form. Easier, and mainly because Pakistan had no idea how long it would be before they came across another allrounder like him, and were looking to go for specialists.
Let's be completely unrealistic for a moment and whittle down to just the two main ailments of Pakistan's Test game over the last decade and a half. Cast aside bigger systemic issues and stick with just on-field manifestations: the captaincy, yes; openers, of course; fielding, no doubt.
But here are two more, every bit as critical, if not more so, than the aforementioned. Since Razzaq's last Test, Pakistan's lower order (from No. 7 down) collectively averages 16.79.Only Zimbabwe are lower. And whereas nearly all Test sides have improved that average in the 12-odd years before Razzaq played his last Test, Pakistan's lower order now averages 2.35 runs fewer than it used to. (South Africa average 2.33 runs fewer too, though do remind yourselves of the unparalleled lower order they used to have in the mid-'90s.)
|Team||2007-to present||1994-2006||% increase in average|
The other is the composition of their bowling attack. The last time Pakistan played a four-man pace attack and a spinner was in Kandy in 2006, Razzaq's sixth-last Test. Since then they have mostly fielded variations of a four-man attack - three fast bowlers plus a spinner or, in the UAE, two of each. This combination has worked in the UAE because they have been able to call upon Mohammad Hafeez as a very good fifth bowler.
But quantify the toll a four-man attack has taken on some of Pakistan's main bowlers - their fifth and sixth bowlers have bowled the second-lowest percentage of overs (in innings of 120-overs plus) since Razzaq left - just 13.44% of the total number of overs. India are the only team below them (13.23%).
|Team||Innings||%age of overs|
*Qual: innings in which they have bowled 120-plus overs
So Danish Kaneria was bowled into the ground long before he was banned from the game. Saeed Ajmal bowled and bowled until his action fell apart. And it's a minor miracle Yasir Shah hasn't missed more Tests than the recent England series, given how much he bowls.
Meanwhile, Junaid Khan's knees went in carrying this load. Mohammad Amir is not looking especially robust these days. Pakistan's attack has never looked thinner than it did in Australia at the end of 2016, where there was nowhere for Misbah to go beyond the three fast bowlers and a spinner. One got injured, the others weren't fit enough for Tests, and hey, it was Pakistan's worst series ever as a bowling side.
Usually an allrounder eases these problems, but Pakistan haven't had one. Post-Razzaq the only player who has taken at least 20 wickets and scored over 1000 Test runs is Hafeez. And in Tests Hafeez hasn't so much been two players in one as he has been half a real allrounder. The only place he could be called an allrounder is in the UAE.
Throw in performances from the one Test Shahid Afridi played in that time, the three featuring Yasir Arafat, the couple that Bilawal Bhatti turned up for, a bit of Shoaib Malik, make believe that Hammad Azam and Anwar Ali played Tests and that Sohail Tanvir was an allrounder, add them all together and you still end up with less than one genuine allrounder.
Which is why, with 294 runs and three fifties between them across three Tests at Nos. 7 and 8, 12 wickets and 147 overs as the fourth and fifth bowlers, not to mention two game-changing partnerships, Shadab Khan and Faheem Ashraf could well be the most important players in Pakistan's Test line-up in the near future.
Hyperbole? Agreed, especially since they haven't yet played ten Tests between them. But how can you not be as excited as coach Mickey Arthur is by that potential? They change the very nature of the line-up Pakistan have got used to, which, in case you've not logged it, hasn't really been built to work outside the UAE.
Now think ahead to Pakistan's potential XI against Australia and South Africa later this year in the UAE. With Shadab and Ashraf they bat down to eight - and Ashraf in the UAE will be, for now, a bigger threat than he was at Headingley with the bat. The attack will likely have two fast bowlers, plus Ashraf as the third seamer, andYasir Shah and Shadab, whose Test bowling is developing rapidly: at Headingley to Dawid Malan, and briefly to Jos Buttler, he bowled probably his smartest and best Test spells.
Three fast bowlers are what Arthur really wants, and he can now get them without sacrificing the Misbah Rule of always playing two spinners. Remember that Ashraf the bowler now and Ashraf the bowler from last year's Champions Trophy are two entirely different human beings. Important wickets aside, at Headingley he was Pakistan's best bowler, the difference between a four-man attack letting England get to 450 and a five-man attack restricting them to 363.
Imagine the relief he will bring to the main pacemen, and Shadab to Yasir. In South Africa, Ashraf can play as the fourth seamer while Shadab snaps away at Yasir's heels as the precocious, irrepressible understudy. How can you not get all giddy over this?
Both have developed beyond expectation this first year. A bump will come, as it always does. More than being given the space and time to get over it, they will need utmost clarity over their roles. When Razzaq first arrived, all stiff and expressionless but so gifted, he could do anything. He opened in a Test, hit a hundred at one-down, and batted everywhere from Nos. 5 to 9; he opened the bowling, took a five-for as first change, and could bowl reverse well enough to take a Test hat-trick.
But to be that gifted was to be cursed. If he could do everything, what was he at his core? After a while Pakistan stopped trying to figure it out, both parties happy to let the question drift into inconsequence. That didn't cost them Razzaq alone. Once he was on the scene, they couldn't satisfactorily figure out how to fit him and Azhar Mahmood into the Test side - the pair played only four Tests together though they made debuts just a couple of years apart (in ODIs it was simpler and, for a period, an extremely fruitful partnership).
Shadab and Ashraf are more different from each other than Razzaq and Mahmood were, but right about now is the time to be really clear about what each is. Shadab is the more talented and so the more complicated one. He calls himself a bowling allrounder and, glib as such aspirations can be, considers Steven Smith a model of sorts. And he's so confident about his batting that he bet Arthur before this tour that if he could hit three fifties in three Tests, the coach would have to take the team out to dinner. Last known, Arthur was figuring out where to take them.
Ashraf is primarily a third or fourth seamer. Before this tour he worked hard with coaches tightening his defences so that, with some fortune, we were able to see, at Malahide and Lord's, two innings borne from good sense and skills. The tapiya (he's a tape-ball legend) in him has not gone, which is exciting but can also be limiting. His runs came in partnership with Shadab, which is why to keep calm is to be a buzzkill.
The two have shown Pakistan a future they didn't even know they were avoiding. Pakistan were shaky, and conditions were challenging, and the pair went at 4.05 runs an over in a century stand at Malahide, and then at 4.69 in a 72-run stand at Lord's. This kind of bounty is unknown to Pakistani cricket.
Of course so many things could yet go wrong. It's not as if Pakistan are an assembly line of fully realised, fully functional talents emerging from a healthy, nurturing environment. But just imagine - really imagine - if things go even a little right.
Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo